Wu Zetian decides to join the army as a concubine pilot, the female partner of a Chrysalis pilot, so she can avenge her sister’s murder. She knows this means certain death for her and her entire family, but Zetian’s one regret is that she has to leave Yizhi behind, her only friend. She manages to kill the man responsible, Yang Guang, on her very first day, surviving her first battle against the hunduns, aliens creatures that invaded earth centuries ago. Her punishment is a slow death as the concubine pilot of the most powerful pilot in recent memory, Li Shimin. She survives that fight too.
Over the next few weeks, Zetian and Shimin train together while growing closer, all in preparation for a huge battle to win back territory lost to the hunduns 200 years earlier. They’re both outcasts because of their terrible crimes, Shimin murdered his entire family. During their training, Zetian notices the power disparity between matched pairs, all of the women are stronger than their male partners. Yizhi has joined the army to be with Zetian and they grow closer as well, eventually, the three become a throuple.
Zetian and Shimin learn the truth about concubine pilots, the women have their qi drained, while their strength is suppressed. They plot to expose this revelation to the public after their huge battle, but they are separated, Shimin is nearly killed. Zetian finds the resting place of Qin Zheng, the most powerful pilot to ever exist, and awakens him, convincing him to help her win the battle. He agrees and they defeat the hunduns easily. Enraged by Shimin’s supposed death, Zetian flys to the capital to wreak havoc and take control of the government. She succeeds, and then learns a startling truth: humans are the alien invaders.
I absolutely loved this book! What starts as a simple revenge plot morphs into a tale of self-discovery, unconditional love, and political intrigue. The revenge is still there too, that doesn’t change.
The main draw for me was the heroine’s name, Wu Zetian. The real Wu Zetian was the first and only woman to rule China as emperor and a true badass. She came from a wealthy family and was chosen to serve as a concubine to the emperor. She eventually goes on to marry the new emperor, later ruling in as regent and then in her own right after his death. Most of the major characters in this book are also based on an important figure in Chinese history.
Zetian is a character that many readers can relate to. She’s lived a hard life: foot binding, poverty, grief, and loss. She’s also a woman born into a society that doesn’t value women, a sentiment that, unfortunately, mirrors our world too. But, in true badass feminist fashion, Zetian turns what is seen as her greatest fault, being a woman, into her superpower. She’s smart, strong-willed, and unbelievably resilient, but the tyrannical men of the army are always underestimating her, which, in hindsight, is an astonishingly stupid move on their part since they know the true depths of her power.
Something that really set this book apart for me was the romance. I’m not the biggest fan of the genre itself, but I do like an element of romance in the books I read. This book proudly features a polygamous relationship. This was a first for me, though I’m sure there are hundreds of novels with this same romance type.
Polygamy gets a bad rap in America, though, in other cultures across the world, it was once a common practice, totally normal. The practice isn’t common anymore, but some still practice it today. I personally wouldn’t, but that’s just me, I’m just selfish that way I guess.
I kinda liked reading about Zetian’s relationship with Li Shimin and Yizhi. The hallmark of every sci-fi and fantasy book is a love triangle, and I usually find myself frustrated when the MC doesn’t end up with my favorite. I was pleasantly surprised, and dare I say proud, when Zetian got to have both of the guys in her life. Get it Queen.
The magic system in the book was executed beautifully. Their magic worked in tandem with the Chrysalises, the giant mechanized robots created from the husks of dead Hunduns. The Chrysalises, Hunduns, and people all have at least one of the five types of qi, a special life force, either wood, water, fire, metal, or earth. The pilots sit in seats designs to tap into their qi, the man seated behind the woman on a raised seat. A human, who bonds with a Chrysalis can harness their qi freely as long as they wear armor.
It was an interesting choice to make qi only accessible through connection with a Chrysalis or armor. This created a distinct magical hierarchy, since everyone has inherent magic, but only a select few are powerful enough to learn to harness it.
Zetian joined the army just for revenge, when she unexpectedly achieved her goal on the first night she expected to die. After she was allowed to live and after surviving her punishment, she had a new goal: save the other girls.
Most concubine pilots died during battle, all their life force drained by their male partner. Zetian learns to wield her power, motivated by the fact that her wins during battle could save countless lives. Eventually, she notices that in most matched pairs, hers included, the woman was more powerful than her male counterpart. When she finally learns the truth, that the concubines’ seat is designed to drain the woman’s energy while suppressing her strength, Zetian makes a plan.
I loved her so much for this! The selflessness. The courage, determination. She was strong enough to survive the most powerful pilot in recent memory, death wasn’t an issue for her. But she chose to help everyone else. Women supporting women is a mood.
The aliens, oh my God the aliens! Best plot twist ever. I didn’t see this plot twist coming, but I knew there was something shady going on. The story about losing Zhou province centuries earlier was too simplistic, not enough information. I’m excited to see how Zetian handles this revelation and I’m eager to learn more about the quote-unquote gods.
I also have my suspicions about Qin Zheng. He was the undisputed ruler 200 years ago, I doubt he’ll want to be anything less now that’s he’s been awakened. As the most powerful pilot ever, he’s a distinct threat to Zetian, especially since he’s a man.
I can’t wait to read the next book, but I know I’ll have to wait. Lame. Xiran Jay Zhao is such a great writer and I’m excited to see what other stories sprout from her glorious mind.
I received an ARC from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.