Book Birthday and Author Interview: IRON WIDOW by Xiran Jay Zhao

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid''s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn''t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it''s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister''s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

About the Author

Xiran Jay Zhao is a meme-loving weeb and a first-gen immigrant to Canada from small town China (which, for China, means a town of 4 million people).

They wrote sci-fi and fantasy books while they probably should’ve been studying more biochemical pathways. You can find them on Twitter for daily shitposts and Instagram for cosplays and very Extra outfits.

Twitter: @xiranjayzhao

Interview by Anuradha Rajukar

Iron Widow is a genre-bending sci-fi inspired by Chinese history that seamlessly explores some difficult societal issues. Can you talk about how themes of violence against women, patriarchy, and strict gender roles evolved during the course of the writing of this novel?

From the first idea I had about Iron Widow, it was conceptualized as something that would explore misogyny and gender roles using the dual-person, heteronormative pilot system as a metaphorical device. Then all the rigid gender roles and cultural violence against women came out of personal experiences. Inspiration came very easily to me. I basically channeled every gender-based fear and nightmare that I’ve had into the world. I actually had to tone down the horror from the book’s first draft.

Iron Widow features a polyamorous relationship between two men and a woman in a way that is so groundbreaking—I so appreciated the positive and empowering elements of this relationship. What are the challenges and joys of writing stories that disrupt traditional expectations and viewpoints, especially with regards to the historically sensitive topic of sexuality?

The poly power trio was actually so fun to write, you have no idea. You have not only two, but three (!!) people each making independent decisions with no guarantee to how it would resolve. All the rules go up in the air, so I found that there was way more romantic tension than previous books where I wrote traditional two-person relationships. Society has a lot of restrictive and arbitrary rules about who’s allowed to love whom, and casting that all away was very refreshing.

Wu Zetian is an unforgettable character, possessing the kinds of attributes I love in a protagonist. She’s fierce, strong, and deeply motivated to fight the misogyny and violence so omnipresent in her world. What was it like to write a character so unapologetic in her quest for justice? How close do you feel to her personally?

The most amazing experience about writing Zetian is that the moment I decided to make her a character inspired by the historical Empress Regnant Wu, it’s like she gained a life of her own. My original idea of the first chapter being her getting drafted against her will into the military turned into her willingly enlisting in seek of revenge. She refuses to be passive. In every single chapter, she’s thinking about how to take more control of her life and body. It honestly feels like she’s the one guiding the story, not me, the author. I sure wish I had her audacity and total disregard for the judgment of others 😂

What do you hope readers take away from reading Iron Widow?

Most of all, I hope Zetian’s inner strength inspires them. She sets her own agenda, does what SHE thinks is right, and will not let herself be bound by the guilt tripping and arbitrary notion of “honor” so often imposed on women.

Pick up a copy of IRON WIDOW at your favorite indie bookstore

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Anuradha D. Rajurkar was born and raised in the Chicago area and holds two degrees from Northwestern University. Her debut has been honored with the nationwide Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Emerging Voices Award. She lives in Milwaukee with her family. AMERICAN BETIYA is her first novel. ​ Website: Twitter: @ADRajurkar1 Instagram: @anuradhadrajurkar