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.
5 “totally unexepected” stars
“I drop Yang Guang in front of me and set a tiny lotus foot on his corpse. (…) I lift my head, an unhinged grin on my face.(…) I know that my eyes and the qi meridian in my face must be blazing silver-white. “You’ve been living a drem long enough. Welcome to your Nightmare.””
I wanted to begin my review with that “word” wow because that’s what that book did to me: it wowed me, amazed me!
I began this book with no expectations at all, prepared to be mildly entertained at best as I got it in a book box and it does not always work for me, the book chosen in a book box I mean.
I began reading that story about a girl set on a revenge path, ready to die for her revenge and …I devoured the book as fast as I could.
When reading, I had these strange flashbacks of my youth, a loong time ago, when I watched TV and the first “anime” with Goldorak, a huge robot coming from another planet and piloted by the heroic, alien and handsome “Pince Actarus”.
Because that’s what pilots and by extension, concubines, did in this book: pilot huge “Chrysalises”, big robots that can morph into other forms, higher phorms, depending on the qi pressure level of their pilots!
That alone sounded already pretty cool!
But what surprised me was the blend of futuristic elements (see above) with past ones as we are in a society reminding me of traditional Chinese society where the true worth of a family resided in its sons and girls are just bargaining chips to get more power at best or be rid of at worst.
Zetian’s life with her family in a small village at the frontier has been abuse all along. With a drunk grandfather, a yelling father who can beat his wife if need be and everyone worshipping the only son of the family while Zetian and her big sister are only meant to be sacrificed to help pilots win the war…and bring more money to the family.
It’s uncanny how well Xiran Jay Zhao talked about the daily manipulation of abusive men on women. I could not help wondering if the author had lived such life, been the victim or witnessing such abuse!
““Countless times, I watched my father turn my mother into a nervous wreck by simply transforming himself into a dark cloud of a presence. He wouldn’t use any curses or shouts, but he’d set his bowl down a little too loudly, or slam doors a little too harshly. She’d step cautiously around him as if he were a bomb, worrying about her every move for fear of setting him off. Without uttering a single word, he’d teach her to twist herself into knots to prioritize his needs and wants, in some strangling hope of quelling the pressure in the house and returning things to normal.”
The whole society is truly built on making women feel inconsequential, with a duty to always sacrifice for the well being of the family and of the men.
““How do you take the fight out of half the population and render them willing slaves? You tell them they’re meant to do nothing but serve from the minute they’re born. You tell them they’re weak. You tell them they’re prey. You tell them over and over, until it’s the only truth they’re capable of living.”
The author did a splendid job making me understand and…becoming enraged as much as Zetian!
Also, the crushing of bones in the little girls feet to make them look like tiny lotus and all the years of suffering and infection had me outraged!
When Zetian, wanting to get revenge for the death of her sister while helping a pilot in a battle, will enroll as concubine, she will set in motion a set of events that will end on creating big cracks in the system and revealing some dark secrets to the public!
I won’t go into specifics here as I don’t want to spoil your fun so let’s just talk about the main characters!
Zetian was a formidable heroine!
She has a rage, a will, a drive like few heroines have. Maybe Aelin from Throne of Glass? She is inspiring because never did she doubt her self-worth, despite all what men said to her throughout her life.
She was indomitable and unstoppable.
She will be beaten, shot at and many other things but she’ll always come victorious.
Yizhi is her best friend and silent crush for years.
Son of one of the richest people in their world, he’ll meet with Zetian once a month for years. He was …soft. All smooth and pale skin compared to the more rugged and somber skin of Zetian’s peasant life.
Well bred, well mannered and erudite.
You could say that he had more traditional female traits than Zetian. But he will prove to have a will of iron too and a heroic streak when the time will come!
Shimin was..a blend of Zetian and Yizhi.
He was tall, heavily muscled and didn’t hesitate to enter and win fights. He had killed his whole family and was only allowed out of his jail because of his immense qi pressure. That sounds very traditional “male” traits right?
But underneath he was a big softie and without revealing too much, had lots in common with Yizhi!
A perfect blend I told you.
These three characters will interact with each other in very surprising ways. The will all end being key in moving the plot and Zetian’s agenda froward. Their relationship will take a path that I am usually hating but that Xitran Jay Zhao made me love to my utmost bafflement!!!
So let’s sum this up:
-amazing futuristic world building set in a deeply traditional and patriarchal society;
-a fight for the human race survival against alien Hundun;
-a strong willed heroine forced to cooperate with a criminal pilot and longing after her best friend;
But I didn’t tell you all!
The best are the plot twists!!!!!!!
Not one but many plot twists with the biggest of all at the end!
And now, I need the sequel!
This is a debut novel that doesn’t feel like a debut novel at all but rather like a masterpiece!
If you haven’t read it already, just do it!
Thanks for reading