The heavy political connotations of the word “dystopia” always evoke a strong sense of the warm-and-fuzzies in me. So when I was in middle school, I headily discovered the YA bookshelves’ offerings for the first time. Amidst the slew of paranormal romances and John Green tear-jerkers, Dystopia emerged as the cool kid on the block. Author Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut novel Iron Widow immediately took me back to the genuine excitement of binge-reading YA Dystopia in a dramatic way.
When lunchtimes were spent in the library, and bus rides home from school, and quiet moments stolen in the corners of family dinner parties introduced me, among thousands of other tween and teen readers, to the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent, The Maze Runner and Matched, Uglies and The Selection. The offerings were endless!
Studios couldn’t option film rights fast enough! Librarians rejoiced at having something that felt readily marketable to kids and only seemed to go from strength to strength. True, some of these books certainly aged more poorly than others, whether in quality or content. And the Dystopian genre has become the basis of most memes and woefully under-researched misunderstandings of the current YA trends. With outside critics’ jokes about “teen girls too distracted by love triangles to focus on the Revolution,” reducing this formative phase in many readers’ middle-and-high-school lives to a joke.
True, there has always been plenty to dislike about the more famous works of YA dystopia. With its penchant for centring straight, white, able-bodied teenagers in stories. Even in hypothetical revolutions against systems that have detrimental effects on marginalized communities in the real world. But the adrenaline-pumping adventures where teens take on the world? They have always represented some of the fondest memories of discovering YA for the first time.
Iron Widow is a retelling of the life of Wu Zeitan, China’s first female emperor. Set in the futuristic world of Huaxia in which pairs of boys and girls co-pilot gigantic robots. All to fight the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. The novel takes on issues of gender, misogyny and empire with blistering force. In the world of the novel, becoming a female copilot is almost certainly a death sentence. With girls being expected to risk their lives for the success of their male counterparts.
So when 18-year-old Zeitan volunteers as a pilot to avenge her sister’s death, no one expects her to overpower her male co-pilot through the psychic link they share, killing him. Instead, she is labelled an Iron Widow, paired off with the most feared pilot there is, Li Shimin. What is instantly engaging about Iron Widow is the rage that propels Zeitain — it is palpable and powerful. There is a powerful catharsis in reading a book that allows its exploration of marginalized identity to center the anger of marginalized people and lets them wield it in their battle for liberation.
The most consistent weakness of the white-centric dystopia that dominated the YA landscape for years was perhaps its misunderstanding of how systems of oppression work. Even more so, how overturning and healing from the results. Iron Widow, meanwhile, is unapologetic in its exploration of corruption, propaganda, and bigotry. How they intersect to construct these systems and how even among those exploited, some benefit from the oppression of others. Zeitan isn’t a nice girl. She isn’t built to be aspirational or inspirational in how she plays the hand she is dealt.
Instead, she is fully aware of the injustice of her circumstance, she is angry about it, and she does not shy away from her goal of bringing the system that wronged her to its knees. And even then, the reveal at the end of the novel is a sobering yet scalding reminder of just how profound the lies and corruption that keep these kinds of systems in power run and how easily they can manipulate us. Zeitan isn’t the kind of YA lead the early dystopias made us used to. Instead, she’s an unflinching portrait of the types of people the dystopias of real-life oppress. Her rage and determination to destroy the system that sought to destroy her are every bit as gripping and breathless an adrenaline rush as the epic sci-fi battles of robots and aliens that makes Iron Widow so utterly unputdownable.