Book Review: Iron Widow

October 8, 2021


In Huaxia, boys and girls are paired to pilot Chrysalises, the giant robots that make up their country's main defensive force against the mecha aliens beyond the Great Wall. Zetian offers herself up as a pilot concubine, not for glory or honor, but for the chance to assassinate the pilot who was responsible for her sister's death -- and she succeeds at her mission of vengeance by killing him through the psychic link while in the Chrysalis and emerging from the cockpit unscathed. Dubbed the Iron Widow for what she's accomplished, Zetian is paired with the strongest, most controversial male pilot in the force, Li Shimin. There are many who would see them both dead despite the unquestionable asset they happen to be in the war. But driven by her determination to understand and overturn the misogynist pilot system and prevent the needless deaths of more girls, Zetian won't go down without a fight.

I had an inkling that I would, at the very least, enjoy Iron Widow. (And I say that as someone who rarely, if ever, reads sci-fi.) As it turns out, it's so, so good, and very much unlike anything I've read previously despite some familiar elements and tropes! I'm rarely able to just sit back, relax (or stress, depending on what the characters are going through) and let the author lead me where she will with her words, so this was a pleasant surprise. With her debut novel, Xiran Jay Zhao has done something really interesting here; she's taken a historical figure (Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history), planted them in unique circumstances and let her imagination run wild with how it all comes together. The plot is the main driving force behind Iron Widow, and while I normally prefer more character-driven tales, I didn't mind it at all in this case.

There are, however, a few elements of Iron Widow that could have used a little bit more development (though I anticipate that happening as the series continues). Like the world, though it's understandably limited considering the position Zetian is in and the heavy focus on the war effort. And the characters, who we only get a limited perspective on and usually through the lens of limitations or trauma. (And yes, this includes Zetian, who readers will mostly identify as an angry young woman who is reckless after losing the person who matters most to her; someone who will do whatever it takes to keep herself and her own safe.) And the character relationships too, especially the romance that blossoms in this story (though I'll definitely give it props for surprising me in a good way).

The thing is, however, that despite my reservations, I really enjoyed Iron Widow. The beginning hooked me immediately, the story was compelling and refreshingly different from anything I've recently read and it totally gave me anime vibes (which is always a good thing in my book). I'm so glad that I ended up reading it and I'm very much looking forward to the sequel!

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Pub Info: September 21, 2021 by Penguin Teen
Source: e-galley received from publisher via NetGalley

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