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Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Do you want a retelling of the story of Empress Wu as a teenage mecha pilot? because that’s what this is. It is a retelling of the story of Empress Wu as a teenage mecha pilot.

Do you need more information than that? Okay but WHY though. SIGH. FINE. It is an utterly ferocious flail against institutional sexism, “a triangle is the strongest shape” comes up in context, the Four Symbols get mecha forms, and there are aliens for the mecha to fight in dramatic battles. But really: Empress Wu as teenage mecha pilot, that’s the sort of pitch that sorts out the people who want it from the people who don’t pretty fast.

(I am a people who do.)

It makes me sad and angry that Zhao needed an author’s note saying that the institutional sexism examples in this book were Chinese because that’s the culture they were drawing on in this case not because Wow Those Sexist Chinese Good Thing No One Else Has Institutional Sexism. They were absolutely right that they did need that author’s note, because people absolutely would make that inference, and by “people” I mean “a certain subset of racist white people unfortunately too large to ignore.” I wanted to stand whitely next to them and make mean faces at anyone who did make that inference. Institutional sexism: it’s not just for one culture! It should be for no cultures, but here we are! In any case: if you can’t cope with portrayals of institutional sexism at the moment, put this aside until you can, but if you want to watch Wu Zetian absolutely trouncing the sexists, with help from lovely people of various genders, on with the show, here’s Iron Widow.

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