Hard Reboot – by Django Wexler (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; May 25, 2021

160 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Warning: May contain minor spoilers

When Scholar Zychtykas “Kas” Three comes to Old Earth, all she expects to find is an irradiated trash heap overrun by militant malware and practically unlivable. After all, Old Earth is part monument, mausoleum, and trash heap. Of course, Kas had just risked everything to come here, to study the remnants of old tech, to find something that will make her career.

What she finds instead is Zhi Zero, who quickly suckers her into a bet on a warbot fight. A bet fronted by the credit of the Sentinel Scholarium, based on money that Kas doesn’t have. But Zhi doesn’t know that—or care, really—after all, every offworlder is loaded, so a lost bet will just be another inconvenience to the scholar. To Zhi however, it’ll be a lifeline. All she has to do is win.

Something she fails to do. Now, indebted and hunted, Zhi goes underground to the remnants of her greatest secret—a 3rd Empire warbot, one that she’s worked for years to restore with little success. This is where Kas finds her—desperate herself to get out of the obligation of their bet. But Zhi doesn’t have the money, and only has the most desperate of plans to come up with it. Fortunately for her, Kas is already in too deep—and desperate enough to dig herself deeper in order to escape. This new plan involves cunning, coding, the 3rd Empire warbot, and a whole bunch more money neither woman has.

Featuring gundam battles, cyberpunk enhancements, and a dystopian future, Hard Reboot is exactly the kinda read I’m into. I really enjoyed the starting descriptions of Old Earth from an Offworlder, one whose world was prosperous and advanced—it reminded me of Cowboy Bebop where Earth is a decaying ruin: broken, flooded, and constantly bombarded by meteorites. Indeed, the irradiated Earth seems quite like this: a relic that no one quite knows what to do with, so they steer clear of it except to visit on vacations, once, and never come again.

The story doesn’t take much to get into either. It’s quite a simple setup, really: an offworlder is scammed out of her life savings by an equally desperate misfit and they have to team up to win the day. But while it works initially, the plot frays a bit when the two are thrown together. It keeps going from there, down the predictable linear path to a predictable conclusion. While there are a few twists and turns along the way, none of it seemed terribly inventive. As such, while the Kas-Zhi pairing started out well, after we cross the halfway point their interactions get a bit forced—which is my exact description of the romance. In addition to feeling like an afterthought, t’s like the “I’m a woman that’s into women and you’re a woman that’s into women, so we should be into each other” is any different from any heterosexual relationship that hasn’t started just because two random people are forced to spend time together. Compatibility and attraction aside, I’m not saying it’s an impossible love. It just seems a bit like a “first love” that gets hot and heavy but spirals out of control quickly …while also involving giant robots. I’d definitely read that sequel, if Wexler ever gets around to it.

TL;DR

Hard Reboot is the story of battling gundams, ragtag romantics, and gritty cyberpunk thrills that you’ve always wanted—only in a sample size too small to fully enjoy. Set on an irradiated, dystopian Earth, it tells the story of two star-crossed lovers brought together by scams, sex, and giant fighting robots. The setting is a delight and something that I very much hope the author revisits later. The text hits the ground running, as we barely get out of the gate before the story takes off. But while it starts off quite well, the latter half is bogged down by an overly simplistic plot and an afterthought romance. While the story was entertaining, the ending was just okay. So… I’m a bit torn. I liked Hard Reboot, and I’d probably recommend it, but I’m not sure we’ll ever get the gundam-fight-breakup sequel that I’m convinced takes place after this book ends. Which is just a shame.

PS- If you don’t know what “gundams” are, please watch more anime. Thank you!

Iron Widow – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Iron Widow #1

YA, Fantasy, Scifi

Penguin Teen; September 21, 2021

399 pages (ebook)

Goodreads • Author Website

4.8 / 5 ✪

I did not pay for this book. I was very kindly granted an advance copy of it in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Penguin and Netgalley for the ARC! Hopefully the author will forgive me—especially after I post said review to Goodreads and/or Amazon with a rating;)

Iron Widow is the debut by author Xiran Jay Zhao. And if you don’t know how to pronounce that, don’t worry I’ve got you covered.

Here’s a crash course if you’re new to pinyin:

• ZH is pronounced like the ‘dg’ in “fudge”
• Z is pronounced like the ‘dz’ in “Adz”
• Q is pronounced like the ‘ch’ in “China”, only toward the front of the mouth
• X is pronounced like the ‘sh’ in “Shiny”, only toward the front of the mouth
• C is pronounced like the ‘ts’ in “cats”

Honestly, I could’ve just kept going, but these are the basics—let’s not go overboard. So now let’s butcher her name. If you guessed: something like “She-ran Jay Jow”—you’re on the right track. If you said it perfectly first time: nice! If you guessed: anything else—keep trying!

Right, the book. Iron Widow is a retelling of the Empress Wu Zhao who served as consort for the Tang dynasty and later seized control of the throne leading to the Zhou dynasty, during which she ruled unopposed. The book is the beginning of a retelling of her life.

Only with giant pilotable gundam-like chrysalises. And aliens.

Huaxia sits on the edge of extinction. The Hunduns—sentient mechanical aliens that have overrun the lands north of the Great Wall—have pushed humanity to the brink.

The remnants of the Han survive only through the grace of the great Chrysalises—huge husks made of spirit metal capable of transforming into fighting machines. When the two pilots—one a boy (nanhaizi 男孩子), one a girl (nühaizi 怒孩子)—combine their qi within the Chrysalis they are able to force it into metamorphosis, resulting in a huge fighting robot. Though this grants the pilots the power to repel the Hunduns from their land, it usually results in the death of the girls. This is seen as a sacrifice worth taking, in order to assure the survival of the human race. Plus, they’re only girls.

Wu Zetian is born upon the frontier, near the Great Wall itself. Should the Chrysalises fail, her family would be one of the first to fall. And she was born (and ultimately kept) in order to die.

As her sister did before her.

And so Zetian follows her elder sister (jiejie 姐姐) into the army, joining the ranks of Yang Guang’s concubines—who wait on his every whim, offer themselves to him freely, and are taken into battle with him, most often to their deaths. Again, as Zetian’s 姐姐 did before her.

But unlike her sister, Zetian isn’t here to make some sacrifice, noble or otherwise. Instead she has her heart set on vengeance—for her murdered sister, for thousands of dead girls before her, and ultimately for herself. For even should she live long enough to kill Yang Guang—what then? She’ll still only exist in a world set against her, one where she’ll carve a place for herself—in blood.

You are here to provide comfort and companionship to one of the greatest heroes of our time. From this day onward, you exist to please him, so that he may be in peak physical and mental condition to battle the Hunduns that threaten our borders. His well-being should be the most prominent subject of your thoughts. You will bring him meals when he is hungry, pour him water when he is thirsty, and partake in his hobbies with him with lively enthusiasm. When he speaks, you will give him your full attention, without interrupting or arguing. You will not be moody, pessimistic, or indifferent, and—most importantly—you will not react negatively to his touch.

This book is steeped in both sexism and racism. The misogyny of the classical world has been well documented of course, but here’s another crash course on China (zhongguo 中國), which take things a bit further. Being born a boy was a huge responsibility. You were the hope of your family, your bloodline. You were supposed to succeed in the exams, in life, marry into a good family and produce a (male) heir. You would then take care of your parents and manage their estates. If you were born a girl, you had to hope your parents didn’t kill you because they wanted a boy. If they let you live, you basically did whatever they wanted to ensure that you fetched a good dowry, which would be used to help your brother pay his way into a good family. Then you were someone else’s problem, but should never forget your parents/family should you somehow make it big. You were subservient to your father, then your brothers, then your husband, then your sons. At no point were you ever in charge of your own destiny. Maybe don’t google this.

“I’m so tired of being a girl.”
“Yeah, if you were a boy, you’d be ruling the world by now.”

Likewise, if you were Han, then you had a natural step up on the competition. If you were anything other than Han, you were a barbarian. Often even subhuman. If you were half-blooded or quarter-blooded non-ethnic Han you were often seen as inferior. Han nationalism is generally on par with white nationalism in terms of exclusionism. Of course, this is the only instance of racism ever in history, and therefore is quite notable. Seriously, DO NOT GOOGLE THIS—you won’t find anything remotely heartwarming.

The overwhelming sexism here takes center stage, while the racism is kinda glossed over. I hope that we get to it more later in the series, though. Xiran Jay Zhao doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture for female life back in the annuls of history, but it’s probably pretty realistic. There’s a reason there’s a huge gender imbalance even nowadays—as the number of men heavily outweighs the number of women.

In terms of a fantasy book, Iron Widow is a damn good one. I mean, it’s a whirlwind of blood, tears and chaos, but one hell of a ride all the same. Zetian quite the character. I legitimately believe she’d bathe in the blood of her enemies. She’s got a bit of a demon in her; willing to do anything in order to achieve her ends. She also has a warm, sensitive side (though it’s a little overshadowed by the whole “demon” bit)—which she shows in touching scenes with Yizhi and Li Shimin. I’m honestly not sure what kind of a romantic she is. All in all, Zetian is complicated. She’s entirely human, but also a vengeful goddess born of pure chaos. As I said, quite the character.

The romance is a thing—leaving me undecided whether I bought into it or not. Despite her assertions that “the triangle is the strongest form of geometry”, I’m still not sure what it was that Zetian really wanted. It seemed to me that both male leads were head-over-heels, willing to die for her, while she was more “well, I like them but… meh”. Again, I hope that this is something that gets cleared up in Book #2.

The gundams—or chrysalises—are more like zoids than mobile suits. Or… a bit of a cross between the two. I envisioned them as gigantic seed-pods that could digivolve into mechanical fighting robots based on the qi of their pilots. Maybe more like a “Big O” kinda thing.

TL;DR

From gundams to aliens to emperors, there’s A LOT going on in this story. And while I didn’t love every minute of it, I loved way more than enough to recommend it. Wu Zetian is a monumental task of a retelling, but Xiran Jay Zhao has a winner here. For while it’s not all accurate, it’s certainly a perspective with a twist; a story that finds the future Empress as a poor farm girl with a taste for vengeance, blood, love, and ambition. An amazing coming-of-age tale that devolves into pure chaos and is somehow better for it.

Note: If you want a soundtrack while you read this book, the author suggests that you just go listen to the Pacific Rim soundtrack on a loop. An excellent idea:)