There are few books out there that can compare itself to so many things that make my eyes go very big, but when someone tells me a new YA is like Pacific Rim, Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Hunger Games, and every webtoon novel out there, I immediately figure out how to get my hands on that book. Iron Widow does all this and more, re-writing Chinese historical figures as leading men and women in a drama that reaches far past its historical scope.
This book is a very slight reimagining of Empress Wu; an oft-demonized figure in Chinese history who became the nation’s only legitimate female sovereign. And when I say slight, I mean it: there are markers of Chinese politics, landscapes, and even other characters from history, but if you’re hoping for a more direct retelling of Wu’s life, Iron Widow is not that book.
This, however, does not lessen the impact of the book or author Xiran Jay Zhao’s vision. Zhao is doing something deliberate here, using a classical Chinese literary method to tell her story. As Zhao points out in her foreword, there’s a long tradition of using historical characters in fantasy novels, giving these history book men and women mythic status. She cites Investiture of the Gods, Journey to the West, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms as classic books that do exactly what she’s doing—picking out historical characters and throwing them into wild and wonderful situations just for the thrill of telling a good story. A modern Japanese example of this tradition of historical fantasy is Onmyōji, a series of books which helped inspire the much-more recognizable franchise…Pokémon.
All this is to say that if you go into Iron Widow expecting a political thriller lining up wi
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