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Iron Widow #1
Published by Penguin Teen on September 21, 2021
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult, Retellings
Representation: Chinese cast (based on historical figures), polyamory, bisexual/pansexual mains
Format: ARC, eBook
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.
A copy of the book was provided for review purposes - thank you! Receiving a copy does not guarantee a positive review and therefore does not affect the opinion or content of the review.
Trigger Warnings: per author notes: violence and abuse, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture.
Iron Widow was a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable read, but I think I walked in with higher expectations that I should have. Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut novel takes inspiration from Chinese mythology and history, reimagining Empress Wu (the only female emporia in Chinese history) as a mecha pilot in a futuristic world where girls service male pilots as concubine-pilots to power Chrysalises (war machines taking inspiration from various creatures in Chinese mythology) in Huaxia’s ongoing war with the Hunduns.
(The concubine-pilots typically die unfortunately.)
I loved Zhao’s take of Empress Wu in Iron Widow and the different figures throughout Chinese history and mythology. When her sister is killed as a concubine-pilot in the army for one of the pilots, Zetian hatches a plan (not the greatest, but hey, it’s a plan and that’s step one) to follow in her sister’s footsteps and enlist under the same pilot that killed her so she can take her revenge. Only things don’t work out exactly to plan (or maybe it did depending on who you ask), the tables turn, and Zetian ends up killing the pilot during a battle where theoretically, she should’ve died from her mind being consumed. She didn’t even have to actually murder him.
(Not gonna lie, I love how that plan turned out.)
In an effort to control her, the army places her with Li Shimin, who we’re first introduced to as a monster who killed his family and would be executed if he weren’t so useful to the army (even if every girl he’s paired up with ends up getting killed, unless you’re Zetian, who miraculously survives, much to his surprise). But as the book progresses and Zetian works with him more, Shimin turns out to not be so monstrous as everyone makes him out to be (still looks like he would stab though). Completing the trio is Yizhi, a soft cinnamon roll who really deserves better in life and regularly met with Zetian monthly before she enlists.
Iron Widow moves at a rapid-pace, going from one moment to the other quickly, and there’s never a dull moment. Zhao’s novel is fun and entertaining as Zetian schemes her way up the ranks while taking down powerful figures who want her to be subservient and compliant (or better off, get killed). She doesn’t hesitate with bending and breaking rules to make demands and exposing the corruption of the system, and Zhao doesn’t shy away from making the novel dark. However, I personally feel the fast pace of the novel bounces from point A to point B quick enough that I feel like it misses on some of the world building, and focuses more on progressing the plot and moving the story along. When it does take time, it’s like a sudden stop with an info dump of sorts before starting up and repeating the cycle. Despite that, I still found myself fascinated and absorbed into the world Zhao built around the mechas.
While the pacing didn’t work out for me and world building felt like it was lacking in some parts, I still enjoyed Zhao’s debut with the concept, characters, and themes explored throughout the novel. Iron Widow unfortunately didn’t turn out to be a new favorite like I hoped it would since it was one of my most anticipated releases, but I’m still looking forward to the sequel and diving back into the world.