"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 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."
It is difficult to put into words how much I loved this book.
Set in the dystopian world of Huaxia, girls are sold by their families as concubine pilots to boys who power giant robotic Crysalises with their inner spirit, or "qi". The girls are killed as their qi is overtaken by the boys' in battle. Enter protagonist, Zetian Wu, on a mission to avenge her sister's death at the hand of the second most powerful pilot.
Firstly, the world building in this story is captivating. I believe the mark of an excellent writer is their ability to get their point across in as few words as possible. Zhao does this by jumping into a battle/concubine death scene. This immediately illuminates the brutal system that the people of Huaxia live by. Zhao's descriptions of the frontier landscapes and pastoral lifestyle is juxtaposed by the brutality of Zetian's home life and the choices she is forced to make.
Despite her own fear, Zetian refuses to be the meek girl that the patriarchy has designed. She is constantly set up to fail and must think quick in order to survive. Even her own assumptions are challenged when she is paired with Li Shimin. He is not the bloodthirsty monster she has heard stories about. The relationship that grows between Zetian, Shimin and Yizhi, is an example of love centring on the fact that beliefs can be softened and changed once presented with alternate evidence.
The descriptions of Zetian's disability and the manner in which the commanders of the army force her to stand or walk is a masterful plot device to reveal just how vulnerable they expect her to be - how easily manipulated and how easily they can torture her. She grits her teeth and bares the pain, only feeling relief when she is piloting a Chrysalis.
The last hundred pages were an action-packed surprise. Revelations about the pilot system, the structure of Huaxia itself and the way in which Zetian conquerors her freedom give the narrative a surprising upturn. Which is why the last page is an absolutely devastating blow. I admit that my high from reading Zetian's success took a complete dive to despair. Once finished, I immediately looked online for the second book in the series, only to be disappointed: it isn't written yet. The utter heartbreak I felt for Zetian and Li and Yizhi is a testament to how good this book is. The magnitude of so many deaths, the system that kept girls/women in their place, and the fearlessness of the main characters, only to be shocked by such an outcome left me with a book hangover for days.