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 received an ARC of this book from the publisher Penguin Teen Canada as part of the Iron Widow book tour by Caffeine Book Tours. All thoughts are my own.
Coming into 2021, Iron Widow probably topped by ‘Highly Anticipated’ list. Between the absolutely bonkers “summary for weebs” Zhao provides, and their clear passion for Chinese history and culture through their various Twitter threads and Youtube videos, the love and passion put into Iron Widow is very clear. I have a somewhat shaky relationship with YA fantasy, so the months up to now was just me praying, ‘dear god please let me love this book’. And I’m so excited to say I ADORED this book!
As the marketing says, this book is anime as fuck. The mechas vs hundun battles are written so anime in just the best way possible. I got flashbacks to the mecha shows I used to watch (Code Geass, Gundam, etc), mixed in with some Deca-Dence vibes. I felt like I was reading an anime and it was just glorious.
For the rest of the worldbuilding, I’m curious to see how it’ll be received. For me, a Chinese-American reading a book inspired by historical China, I’m familiar with the tropes and setting and my brain can easily fill in the gaps of imagination to really populate this world. For Western readers, I’d be really curious to see if the worldbuilding is considered ’empty’ or ‘confusing’ because this really does feel like it was written for an audience familiar with C-Drama setting tropes. That being said, there are so many mysteries and little clues scattered throughout the story that makes the ending sooo exciting. I’m extremely excited to see where book 2 leads. (let my gay dads fight!)
Along the lines of historical inspiration, seeing characters like Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang (actual historical figures + famous characters from Romance of the Three Kingdoms) with Zhuge’s iconic white feathered fan, and seeing Zhao’s personal take on those characters in this sci-fi world was really cool. Love that the West is slowly getting introduced to more Chinese classics. Likewise, I think every historical China inspired story is required to name drop Sun Wukong somewhere in the story and this particular rendition cracked me up because it simultaneously combines his traditional story in Journey to the West with the sheer cultural impact that story has in the millions of remakes and I loved that.
Wu Zetian my queen. I’ve talked before about how much I hate stories that are advertised with a “villanous” protagonist only to have said protag spend most of their time moaning about how they don’t want to be evil and ‘oh no I killed a guy gasp!” Wu Zetian has none of that. I think she’s now the most bloodthirsty YA protagonist I’ve had the fortune of reading and I adore her for it. Wu’s character growth, her bloodthirsty-ness fueled by that anger against the patriarchal society rigging life against the female concubine pilots, makes her one of the most compelling and determined protagonists. Bring on the corruption arc!
Like Wu, I also really adore her husband (Li Shimin) and boyfriend (Gao Yizhi). Both characters are really compellingly written, with strong determination to see their visions through (likewise, no bemoaning their past actions for a chapter. These are characters that commit.) With these usual setups with Female MC and Childhood friend boy next door Love Interest A and Edgy Dangerous Feral Boy Love interest B, I usually root for B. I was surprised to find that I actually liked A, Yizhi more. Partially because Yizhi isn’t actually that innocent cinnamon roll he first appears to be, partially because Yizhi knows he’s not a warrior, knows he’s not a mecha pilot. He’s a rich boy with too many connections and recognizes and works around those traits. Also! There’s no competition between the love interests! No petty fights and misplaced anger, just recognition that a single person can hold love for more than one person.
Subversion, so much subversion. Iron Widow takes every popular YA trope and subvert them all. Obviously there’s the poly trio because love triangles are overrated. There’s also that traditional YA ‘big makeover scene’ that just feels different than the usual, ‘oh shit she’s pretty in a dress’ scene. Without going into spoilers, media interaction is an important aspect of this book and part of that media play is making these characters ‘likeable’ to the general public through photoshoots and interviews. As a running theme in this book, Zetian’s attitude is extremely pragmatic, rarely letting herself get caught up in the moment or in the fame and hype. That pragmatism is just so refreshing to see.
If I’m forced to say I disliked something it would be that the book rather bludgeon the reader with the social messaging. The main theme of this book is ‘man, the patriarchy kinda sucks’ and it’s not subtle. I’m generally not a fan of books that really handhold the reader with social messaging, leaving no room for interpretation. However, Zetian is a (justifiably) very angry character and Zhao very visibly translates that anger to the reader, which manages to make this approach work. It’s still not my favorite aspect, but unlike many other books that do this, it fits the character’s personality.
Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. Anime as fuck, seeped in historical Chinese influence, characters, and mythology, and one hell of a power trio! One of the best books of 2021 and I just can’t wait for the sequel
About the Author
Xiran Jay Zhao is a first-gen immigrant from small-town China who was raised by the Internet. A recent graduate of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, they wrote science fiction and fantasy while they probably should have been studying more about biochemical pathways. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture. Iron Widow is their first novel.
- POC (East Asian)
- LGBTQ+ (Bisexuality, polyamory)
Trigger and Content Warnings
- Violence and abuse, footbinding, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture
r/Fantasy 2021-22 Bingo Squares:
- Set in Asia (hard mode)
- 1st-person POV
- Revenge-Seeking Character (hard mode)
- Published in 2021 (hard mode)
- Genre Mashup (science-fiction, mecha, romance)
Publication Date: 21 September 2021
Publisher: Penguin Teen Canada
Genres: Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Cover Artist: Ashley Mackenzie
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: eBook, ARC
Word Count: ~106,000
Buy It Here: Amazon | Google Books | Barnes and Nobles | Goodreads