Empress in the FRANXX: a Review of Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow

The pitch for the regular person on the street is that this is “a Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale reimagining of the rise of the only female emperor in Chinese history”. And even though that spoke to me, what spoke to me louder was the alternate pitch the author put out: it is more like the anime DARLING in the FRANXX but with a story based in the gongdou genre (Chinese palatial harem tales like the hit C-drama Story of Yanxi Palace), both of which I am more familiar with than I care to admit.

I hate the way I’ve contorted myself into what people think a girl should be, ready to please, ready to serve. Yet I love the power it’s given me, a power that lies in being underestimated, in wearing assumptions as a disguise.

Iron Widow is the first eARC I have ever requested. I actually opened a NetGalley account for it and I did it precisely because I felt the same as the author. I believe there is a lot of potential to the boy-girl pilot system introduced in DARLING in the FRANXX which can be used as an interesting device to explore concepts of gender and sexuality—a potential that I felt the show did not live up to and I was absolutely not a fan of how the female pilots are basically oriented on all fours in front of the male pilot, who is seated and would “steer” the woman by the hips (yes, like that). I am also a total sucker for magical world-building which ties intimately to the themes of the story, like Steven Universe‘s Fusion which fuses two or more characters and the resulting individual is a representation of their relationship and the combination of their strengths (a concept which is itself a reworking of gattai or 合体 from Dragonball).

But, if we are to step away from all the pop culture that Iron Widow draws generously from, I’ll describe it as a story about giant qi-powered transforming robots called Chrysalises which are controlled by the power of heterosexual spooning, and humanity uses these machines to defend themselves in a war against the invasion of a sentient species of wonton (okay, it’s the other way around—wontons are actually possibly named after the alien Hunduns). Human society in this world is a patriarchal hellhole for women and if The Handmaid’s Tale is the Judeo-Christian version of that, Iron Widow is the Chinese cultural edition. There are so many misogynistic things said about women in this book that is still being said to Chinese girls and women today! I am a Chinese dude, but I’ve heard them within earshot often enough and I have no doubt that Ms Zhao is absolutely drawing from personal experience here.

Full wraparound cover illustration for Iron Widow by Ashley Mckenzie (2021)

Wu Zetian is a teenage girl who is being sold to the army as a “concubine-pilot” and is one of the countless girls who will pilot a Chrysalis along with one of the celebrity male pilots (who accrue fame as battles are livestreamed across the nation). She is being paired with Yang Guang, who she believes murdered her older sister who enlisted before her. The thing is, female pilots are often sacrificed in the piloting process for power and girls rarely survive the ordeal so the female sex is literally grist for the war mill, aside from basically serving as sex slaves for male pilots in their private harems. Zetian had specifically wanted to join up so she could avenge her sister, hopefully before she can be used up in a fight.

It may not be to everyone’s taste but I find Zetian to be a very compelling main character who displays plenty of agency in her thoughts and actions. You can’t rightly call her a good person either as she commits some pretty morally questionable acts throughout the book. It is, however, incredibly exhilarating to read how she handles everything the world throws at her, standing up against impossible challenges as she does everything she can to survive. Everything she learns about the system becomes her ammunition to subvert or destroy it. She reminds me very much of the protagonist of another book I read recently: Baru Cormorant from Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. They are both involved in socially unacceptable romantic relationships. They are both trying to dismantle a massive bureaucratic power structure from within. They are both forced to commit atrocities in service of their own ends.

I absolutely love the way that the author incorporates so much Chinese historical and mythic references in Iron Widow. The qi-based magic system is drawn directly from Five Phases (五行) which consists of the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, and the Chrysalises are based on Chinese mythological creatures like the the Nine-Tailed Fox and the Headless Warrior (it’s wild—look up “Xingtian” who was beheaded but continues to fight using his nipples as eyes and his navel as a mouth), and the four Auspicious Beasts such as the Vermilion Bird, the White Tiger, the Black Tortoise, and the Yellow Dragon. Practically all the characters have names taken from historical figures and reads like a who’s who of Chinese history, though they only share a passing thematic resemblance to their namesakes. One of them, a club bouncer called Yuchi Jingde, made me laugh because he shares a name with a Tang dynasty general who is worshiped today as a door god.

There are also multiple allusions to Chinese cultural/historical practices which are familiar to me through years of soaking them up in Chinese and Hong Kong period dramas like the idea of nine familial exterminations (株连九族) where one’s immediate and extended family is executed for serious crimes like treason. There is also the ancient practice of drowning adulterous couples in pig-cages which functions as a sort of informal method of honour killing in Iron Widow for disgraced women. These are not modern pig-cages mind you, but a sort of tiny restrictive bamboo basket that is only big enough to hold one pig or a pair of adulterers. I grew up eating pig biscuits during Mid-Autumn Festival which usually come in their own little individual pig-cages made of bamboo or plastic. Ms Zhao also mentioned “fried dough sticks” or Chinese crullers in Iron Widow but they didn’t mention their cultural significance—these crullers are also called “oil-fried devils” in Cantonese because they are suppose to represent a traitorous historical couple and we’ve been symbolically deep frying them in hot oil for hundreds of years now. Yeah, we Chinese have some pretty hardcore snacks.

A choice Ms Zhao made that I like very much is in highlighting the horrendous outmoded Chinese practice of foot binding where girls’ feet are deliberately broken and bound into deformed “lotus feet” as a sign of status and beauty, but often leave the women suffering lifelong disability. Even though the practice did not exist in the real Wu Zetian’s time, the teenage Wu Zetian of this book underwent this process and the descriptions of her feet in the book is not pretty: three of her toes had fallen off and they exude a festering odour hidden by her bindings and perfumed shoes. The book absolutely does not shy away from showing how it hobbled her, and causes her constant pain much like what the original Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid experiences with her newfound feet, which was described as feeling like “walking on sharp knives”. In response to criticism of unrealistic hyperbole, Margaret Atwood often remarked that every horrendous thing that happened to women in The Handmaid’s Tale have already happened before or are happening now, and Ms Zhao can absolutely make the same boast with Iron Widow. It may be hard to believe, but Chinese women really went through all this shit (except dying to power up giant mechas, maybe).

In hindsight, I was such a fool to have assumed Qieluo would stand by me just because she’s also female. It was my grandmother who crushed my feet in half.
It was my mother who encouraged me and Big Sister to offer ourselves up as concubines so our brother could afford a future bride.
It was always the village aunties who’d sit around gossiping about which girl hadn’t been married off yet, despite complaining nonstop about their own husbands. And then they’d congratulate new mothers for being “blessed” to have a boy, despite being female themselves.
How do you take the fight out of half the population and render them willing slaves? You tell them they’re meant to do nothing but serve from the minute they’re born. You tell them they’re weak. You tell them they’re prey.
You tell them over and over, until it’s the only truth they’re capable of living.

Now the author is pretty upfront about this so this isn’t a spoiler: I am all for how Ms Zhao deals with the perennial YA love triangle trope. Wu Zetian is placed in a position to choose between two hot boys and she simply remarks “a triangle is the strongest shape” and bangs both of them like a boss. Maybe some YA fans are into the push and pull of triangular romances but I am just glad this did not become a source of angst and drama that drags on over multiple books. I like how vividly the author imagines most of the action sequences as well, and if they ever adapt this book into a visual medium (like an anime), I’ll watch the hell out of it.

Iron Widow is an absolutely fun read which I completed in just two days, and it is an impressive work for a debut. I was reading the last 3rd deep into the night because I simply could not put it down. That being said, I think there is a tendency for Ms Zhao to tell rather than show, and to overload certain parts with exposition. I can see that it comes from a barely restrained eagerness to show off their world and their research—which I actually enjoy but they sometimes mess with the pacing. The middle part feels a little flabby but final bits absolutely made up for that. While I understand the idea of social and media engagement is a huge theme in YA fiction (and in Chinese culture) today, its inclusion in Iron Widow isn’t saying anything new that The Hunger Games didn’t already say more than a decade ago. And I think Ms Zhao did a great job setting up every twist and revelation ahead of time, but sometimes they did too good a job of it that I feel a bit impatient waiting for the text to catch up to what I already worked out myself. Other than Wu Zetian, Li Shimin and Yizhi, there isn’t a lot of depth to all the other characters so I find it a little hard to feel anything about their actions (even the two lover boys feel a little too perfect sometimes). As a very, very minor nitpick, I also feel like Iron Widow could have differentiated itself from its source of inspiration more. It is a little on the nose to have the Chrysalises have bestial Standard forms which would ascend to their humanoid Heroic forms, much like the FRANXX mechas, while also making allusions to the one-eyed, one-winged jian (鶼) as a metaphor for pair bonding.

Iron Widow is a power fantasy in the best way possible. It is an absolute cry of frustration at how our society is organised and how echoes of its strictures in the name of tradition still reverberates in this modern day and age, and it is written with the sincere wish that one girl who is strong and determined enough, who is placed in the right place at the right time, can claw her way to the top and set it all on fire. If Zetian shares anything with her historical namesake, it’s in her utter defiance of the odds. I am hooked and I look forward to the sequel which I hope won’t be too long a wait. I want to see if the author would explore the piloting system outside of heterosexual and cisgender paradigms. I want to learn more about what the gods are really about behind the scene. I want to know when the Azure Dragon is going to show up because its absence in this book is conspicuous ay eff. But most of all, I want to see what Wu Zetian is going to fuck up next because she is one bad bitch and every morning she wakes up, she chooses violence.

P.S. The book comes out on 21st September 2021.

Rating: 4/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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