Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

‘He should be the Iron King, and I should be the Iron Queen. Yet Iron Demon and Iron Widow is all they’ll let us be.’

****Trigger warnings for gore, body horror, torture, mentions of sexual assault, physical and domestic abuse, coerced drinking/drug taking, and death of a sibling****

There are very few books that have astounded me so much and taken me so aback that it takes me weeks to formulate words to review them. Not in the same way life is too busy for me to sit down and finish a review but more I can’t find words. This is a book that is greater than words. Iron Widow is the latest in that line.

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.

I’ve had this book on my radar since I started watching Xiran Jay Zhao’s videos earlier this year. I’ve never been quite what I’d call a history nerd but I do have a tendency to focus on random countries, periods or figures and read or check out all I can about them. One of those was Wu Zetian. I would recommend the authors own video on her to get the full details but safe to say she fascinated and terrified me.

We follow Wu Zetian in this fantastic, reimagined in an alternate scifi world where women are seen as consumable objects to fuel an ongoing battle against the beings known as the Hunduns. Women pilots are needed to fuel the mecha suits, pilotted by male ones, in an attempt at a balanced match in something called spirit pressure. When we meet Zetian, she is reeling from the death of her sister after her being forced into the becoming on of these pilots. The depiction of how Zetian and her older sister are valued by their family, is depicted very bluntly. There is no detail spared to her true feelings about them. She details her father’s rage, her sense of betrayal at the loss of her sister, the brutal process of when they bound her feet.

It’s hard not to join in Zetian’s rage and burning desire for change. Her (justified) outrage as the world fails to value her for anything else other than her ability to boost the campaign of a man. Something I loved about Zetian from the start was she’s not only willing to do any thing, no matter how savage, to change things. But she is also very flawed. I have mentioned in many a review I love nothing more than a morally grey, more nuanced character. Especially when that character is a woman. But this book is YA and it’s so interesting to see a character like Zetian in that demographic. No sooner than when she meets her new partner, Li Shimin, do we see her own internal logic confronted as maybe being a bit too skewed. Later on, the same applies to when she meets other Iron Princesses. She seeks to use them, and some are wise to it. She is suddenly not the strongest one in the room. It’s an excellent deconstruction of the protagonist.

The really outstanding world building is easy to see in the images of the mecha suits on the authors website but even without them, it’s so easy to visualise. The different types, from wood to fire, the different transformation potential they can go through, all the way down to how within the spirit realm how both pilots manage them. It’s all so immersive and rich in references to history, culture and (even) pop culture, it’s hard not to love it.

I feel I can’t admire the book as well without commenting on the success of the throuple. I’m not someone who practiced polyamory at any stage of my life but this book really nails the most positive depiction of it I’ve read. Zetian, Shimin and Yizhi work perfectly in sync together. It’s later explained in the narrative how they work on a deeper level for fighting and how they might shatter the notion of couples being the best for balanced piloting as well. But they have so many tender moments, intercut with some really difficult conversations that lend the relationship far more credibility and is far from the fetishization.

I am still reeling from the ending of the book as well I might add. I honestly can’t wait for the sequel, mostly because of how this one wraps up but I am also so looking forward to reading more of the authors work. Thankfully for the meantime, I have their videos to keep me going. Thank you to the publisher for the digital copy in exchange for this review. Thanks for checking in guys, happy reading!


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