Friday, July 29, 2022

Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1), by Xiran Jay Zhao

Penguin Teen, ISBN 9780735269934, September 2021

Huaxia is trapped in a brutal war against the invading Hundun' They fight the Hunduns' powerful machines, called husks, with Huaxia's own Chrysalises, which are more powerful and more flexible--but which can be made only from captured Hundun husks.

The Chrysalises are piloted by two-person teams, a boy and a girl, using their spirit force. It takes two, but the girls rarely survive a battle, and it's the boys who become celebrated war heroes. The boys are pilots; the girls are concubine-pilots, mostly anonymous. They're genuinely young, in their teens and early twenties, with even the most successful pilots not lasting past 25.

Zetian, 18 years old, a frontier village girl, is finally ready to stop fighting her family, and enlist to become a concubine-pilot. Her motive isn't patriotism or glory, though. Her older sister enlisted before her--and was murdered by her pilot, Yang Guang. Her goal is to avenge her sister's death, and kill Yang Guang.

It's not a spoiler to say she succeeds, very early, and in a most unexpected way. She survives their first battle, and kills him through the psychic link between pilots. This makes her an Iron Widow, a female pilot who is a major problem for the army and the government, and their official doctrine of how the Chrysalises and the pilot system works. They decide the solution is to pair her up with Li Shimin, the best, most powerful, but also the most hated of Huaxia's pilots, with his own deeply reviled history.

Surely he'll be powerful enough to take all her spirit force, or at worst, they'll kill each other.

But maybe teaming up the two outcasts who hate the system rather than feeling loyalty to it isn't the clever move the military thinks it is.

They battle each other through their first battle with the Hunduns, and survive. They unwillingly go through their subsequent training together--and even more unwillingly get to know each other. 

Gradually, they realize they have the same hatred for the pilot system, and discover something very strange and disturbing about how it works.

There's political intrigue, conflict with the other pilots, their complicated relationship with each other, and a far bigger and more dangerous secret than why the pilot system works the way it does.

I haven't even mentioned Zetian's friend Yizhi, fifth son of a wealthy and powerful media family, whom she's certainly not supposed to know. Yizhi is pretty important, in himself, and in the relationships among Zetian, Li Shimin, and Yizhi. None of the three love their families, and they have solid values rather than a respect  for the rules. What they do is a fascinating, exciting, enjoyable story, with both a satisfying resolution, and a startling surprise at the end.

Highly recommended.

I received this book as part of the 2022 Hugo Finalists Packet, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

No comments:

Post a Comment