Iron Widow, by a new Canadian-Chinese author, Xiran Jay Zhao, is one of the nominees for the 2022 Lodestar Award for the best young adult science fiction novel. But there is nothing childish about this book. It burns with the anger of a generation born knowing that women have always been shamed and punished for the desires of men, and finding out that powerful men are still standing in the way of change.
The novel takes place in a far future China that benefits from advanced technology while still insisting that proper Chinese women must have bound feet and be subservient to their fathers and husbands. Wu Zetian, who becomes the iron widow, is an ordinary peasant girl whose family has tried to shame her into obedience. The “strong woman protagonist” of prior decades would have to discover that she has nothing to be ashamed of. The Iron Widow knows this already, and the novel begins with her rage at the injustice.
Most of China has taken refuge from a centuries-old alien invasion behind something resembling the Great Wall. There is an ongoing battle with alien machines called “Hundun,” fought by human pilots wearing battle machines made from stolen alien technology. But the battle machines are powered by spiritual energy (Chi), and supposedly require both male (yang) and female (yin) Chi to operate. The men who pilot these machines are hailed as heroes, but the women who go into battle with them usually die. One of those women was Zetian’s sister.
Zetian is a confident, strong woman, who can barely walk on her bound feet. Denied agency and opportunity, she enlists in the army, hoping only to get revenge on the pilot who killed her sister. She is a terrific protagonist; resourceful, courageous, bitter, able to endure physical and emotional trauma, and almost too angry to be rational. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s good to know that female protagonists are now allowed to be violently angry and still be heroes.