Book Reviews · Science Fiction · Teen

Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

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.

Thank you to NetGalley and Oneworld Publications for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Unlike anything I’ve ever read before, Iron Widow is vivid, fun, and full of feminist power. I loved it! I was first drawn to it by the cover, and then I read the blurb and thought it sounded fantastic. Closer to the time I was going to pick it up I saw a few reviews by fellow bloggers, and one of them talked about how much it felt like anime, and went into detail about that. Now, I have nothing against anime but I don’t watch it, really, so I started to get worried that this book would go over my head. That I’d miss what it was trying to do, so when I did start reading it was with some hesitance. I needn’t have worried, as you might have guessed by my opening line! I can see exactly what that review meant, especially as I could visualise it all so well, and I think it’s perfectly adaptable to a visual medium – I’d love to see a film or series of Iron Widow. But reading it was just as exhilarating. The first 30% or so, I will admit, went a little slowly, with the author setting up the character of Zetian and the world she lives in – a futuristic China or China-adjacent society plagued by giant mechanical aliens called hunduns, where young men with high qi are valued as pilots of Chrysalises, battling robots made out of the husks of hunduns and attuned to one of the five elements: fire, earth, metal, water, or wood. Women, on the other hand, are valued only as a source of qi, there for the man to drain her of all she has to offer, a worthy sacrifice in this never-ending war.

Zetian lives on the frontier, near the Great Wall, and knows the only thing her family value her for is sacrifice: either as an obedient wife to another cruel man, or as a concubine to a pilot, as her big sister became. And she is ready to take up the role of concubine, because she has finally found a reason to throw away her life as everyone has been pushing her to: she will avenge her sister, who died not by the hands of her pilot, the second strongest in current existence. Zetian is a difficult narrator sometimes, because she has not had a very happy life, and she is angry and full of hurt, but I was one hundred percent behind her and while I did not enjoy her pain I revelled in her journey to power and loved the strong message the author put forth through her.

‘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.’

Once I understood the setting, the character, and the stakes, I was fully in, and I found it hard to put the book down. It’s fast, and I loved the action, but I also loved the moments in between when Zetian is coming to terms with her situation and the time she spends getting to know the two boys she finds herself with – yes, dear reader, this does sound like the beginning of a love triangle, and I was apprehensive, but without spoilers let me just say I was delighted by this situation. And I was delighted by the two boys as well; Yizhi is the rich scholar who has known Zetian for three years, visiting her in the forest near her home in secret, showing her the notes from his studies, and giving her an escape. Li Shimin is the highest ranking pilot, but he’s also a convicted murderer who killed his entire family and is only alive because of his qi level – as it turns out, though, he’s more than he appears on the surface and when his and Zetian’s wounded souls collide they might just find a way to survive a world that wants to silence them both. I loved both Yizhi and Shimin, and the way they both support Zetian on her revenge rampage. Top notch.

At first, I let the character driven aspects take focus for me, and the world and the tech system became background, but as the story progressed and I understood it more it became one more fascinating thing for me to discover; the fashion aesthetics, the mystery of the hundun and the way their bodies become the very weapon humanity uses to fight them, the mysterious gods who occasionally provide blessing and technological advances in exchange for metals, the legend of the great Emperor, most powerful pilot in history, who is believed to have frozen himself in the heart of a volcano, awaiting the cure to his illness. This and other little details all pulled together to create an intriguing setting, and led to a fantastic and shocking finale, with a final twist that almost made me scream. I don’t want to give too much away, but the final page and the reveal it brings elevated the entire book to an even higher level, and I am now dying to read what comes next!

It’s hard to place this book into a single genre, and I think that’s part of its strength: it can fit into teen because of its young protagonist, it’s got a lot of sci-fi elements, leaning especially towards dystopia, but it also has the feel of a fantasy in some ways, with the mechs and the qi-flow blurring the line between technology and magic. Also, as mentioned before it will definitely appeal to fans of anime and manga. If any of those things sound exciting to you, I urge you to pick it up because it’s a game changer and an incredibly fun read with a powerful message.

Book Info

Published: 7th October 2021 by Oneworld Publications
Genre: sci-fi, teen fiction, dystopia
Pages: 400
Series: Iron Widow, book one
Narration style: first person present tense, single narrator
Format read: eARC
Content Warnings: violence, abuse, suicide ideation, reference to sexual assault, alcohol addiction, and torture.

3 thoughts on “Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

  1. Great review! I admit I was also a little worried about not being familiar enough with anime, which is why I’ve beeb putting it off a little, but I’m much more eager to start it now.

    Liked by 1 person

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