Author Xiran Jay Zhao makes their debut with Iron Widow, the tale of a teenage girl who overcomes a patriarchal society—one that also involves giant robots fighting mecha aliens—to avenge her sister’s death and eventually become China’s first female emperor. io9 has an exclusive look at the first chapter, which also involves the nuanced (and painful!) art of eyebrow grooming.
What? Yes! There are a lot of intriguing elements packed into Iron Widow, as this brief synopsis further suggests: “Iron Widow is a YA Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history. The duology will follow an 18-year-old re-imagining of her as she avenges her sister’s murder by an intensely patriarchal military system that pairs boys and girls up to pilot giant magical mecha based on creatures from East Asian myth (Nine-Tailed Fox, Moon Rabbit, etc.), but in which boy pilots are treated like celebrities, while girl pilots must serve as their concubines.”
Here’s a look at the full cover; the artwork is by Ashley Mackenzie and the design is by Terri Nimmo from Penguin Random House Canada.
Here’s a first look at the opening chapter of Iron Widow!
Chapter One: A Butterfly That Better Not Be My Dead Sister
For eighteen years, my unibrow has saved me from being sold into a painful, terrifying death.
Today is the day I’m releasing it from its gracious service.
Well, I’m not doing it. Yizhi is the one manning the tweezers my sister left behind. Kneeling on the bamboo mat spread beneath us over the damp forest soil, he lifts my chin while ripping out bristle after bristle. My skin burns as if it’s slowly incinerating. The ink-black rivulets of his half-up hair swish over his pale silk robes as he plucks. My own hair, way more matted and parched than his, sits in a messy bun under a tattered rag. Though the rag smells like grease, it keeps the stray strands out of my face.
I’ve been trying to act nonchalant. But I make the mistake of gazing at Yizhi’s gentle, focused features for too long, wanting to inscribe them in my mind so I’ll have something to hold on to in the last days of my life. My stomach twists, and hot pressure surges into my eyes. Attempting to squint the tears back only breaks them free down the sides of my nose—seriously, that never works.
Of course, Yizhi notices. Stops everything to check what’s wrong, even though he has no reason to believe it’s anything more than a reaction to the assault on my pores.
Even though he has no idea this is the last time we’ll see each other.
“You all right, Zetian?” he whispers, tweezing hand suspended in a gossamer swirl of humidity from the waterfall not far from our hiding place. The rushing creek beside the low-growing trees we’re huddling under drowns his voice from anyone who might discover us.
“I sure won’t be if you keep taking breaks.” I roll my swollen eyes. “Come on. Just let me power through.”
“Right. Okay.” His frown twitches into a smile that almost breaks me. He dries my eyes with his fancy silk robe sleeves, then gathers them back near his elbows. They’re rich-people sleeves, too long and floppy to be practical. I make fun of them every time he visits. Though, to be fair, it’s not his fault his father doesn’t let him and his twenty-seven siblings leave their estate in anything not luxury-branded.
Lucid sunlight, freshly broken after days of rain, streams down in shafts through our secret world of damp heat and swaying leaves. A patchwork of light and shadow dapples his pale forearms. The bursting green scent of springtime presses against us, rich enough to taste. His knees—he even sits in a prim and proper kneel—keep a tiny yet insurmountable distance from my carelessly folded legs. His designer silk robes contrast absurdly with the weathered roughness of my home-spun tunic and trousers. Until I met him, I had no idea fabric could be that white or smooth.
He plucks faster. It really does hurt, like my brow is a living creature being frayed bit by bit into two, so if I tear up again, it shouldn’t be suspicious.
I wish I didn’t have to involve him in this, but I know that, past a certain point, it would be too painful to face my reflection and do it myself. All I would see is my big sister, Ruyi. Without the overgrown hairs that have kept my market value low, I’ll look so much like she did.
Plus, I don’t trust myself to landscape two matching brows out of the entity I’ve got. And how am I supposed to sign up for my death if my eyebrows are uneven?
I distract myself from the scalding ache by scrolling on the luminous tablet in Yizhi’s lap, reading the notes he’s taken in school since he visited me last month. Each tap feels more scan- dalous than being alone with him on a frontier mountain, shrouded by greenery and spring heat, breathing the same thick eddies of earthy, intoxicating air. My village elders say girls shouldn’t touch these heavenly devices, because we would desecrate them with, I don’t know, our wicked femaleness or something. Only thanks to the gods in the sky was technology like these tablets reconstructed after humanity’s lost age of cowering from the Hunduns. But I don’t care how indebted I am to the elders or the gods. If they don’t respect me just because I’m from the “wrong” half of the population, I’m not respecting them back.
The screen glows like the moon against Yizhi’s leaf-shadowed robes, enticing me with knowledge I’m not supposed to have, knowledge from beyond my measly mountain village. Arts. Sciences. Hunduns. Chrysalises. My fingers itch to bring the tablet closer, though neither it nor I can move—a cone of neon light is spilling from an indent on the device, projecting the mathematically ideal brows for me onto my face. Yizhi and his dazzling city gadgets never disappoint. He whipped this up mere minutes after I lied about my family giving me a “final warning” regarding the unibrow.
I wonder how much he’ll hate me after he finds out what he’s really helping me do.
A droplet shivers out of the branches over our heads. It skims his cheek. He’s so engrossed he doesn’t notice. With a curled knuckle, I brush away the wet dash on his face.
His eyes startle wide. Color blooms into his pampered, almost translucent skin.
I can’t help but grin. Turning my hand to touch him with the pads of my fingers instead, I wink. “Oh, my. Are my new eyebrows already irresistible?”
Yizhi breaks into a louder than usual laugh, then smacks his fingers over his mouth and glances around, even though we’re decently hidden.
“Stop it,” he says, quieter, laughter turning feather-light. He ducks away from my gaze. “Let me work.”
The rising, undeniable heat in his cheeks singes me with a flash of guilt.
Tell him, my mind pleads.
Excerpted from Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. Text Copyright © 2021 Xiran Zhao. Published by Penguin Teen, an imprint of Random House Canada Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow is out September 21, and you can pre-order a copy here.
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