Title: Iron Widow
Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
Genre: Young Adult/Sci-Fi
Version: ebook – ARC
Page Count: 400
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Synopsis: GoodReads | StoryGraph
Notable Notables: Based in Chinese culture with a Chinese-coded cast; inspired by China’s only female emperor; polyamorous relationship
Recommended Readers: Fans of mecha anime and revenge stories
CAWPILE Rating: 7.86
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is a stand-out, explosive debut that is sure to capture the imaginations and whet the appetites of readers searching for female revenge stories. With sci-fi being a rarer sight in the YA genre, Iron Widow takes a bold approach with its mecha anime-inspired roots along with being steeped in Chinese history.
In Huxia, boys dream of becoming ace pilots of Chrysalises, which are giant, transforming robots powered by syncing up with female concubine-pilots. It doesn’t matter that the girls die of mental strain, only that the mecha aliens beyond the Great Wall are stopped. Wu Zetian volunteers as a concubine-pilot to assassinate the male pilot who killed her older sister, only to emerge from the cockpit unscathed and with her co-pilot dead after overcoming him through their psychic link. Instead of being his One True Match and Iron Princess, Zetian is an Iron Widow, a much-feared and often silenced female pilot who can sacrifice boys instead. To subdue her, she is paired with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial pilot in Huxia, but she is not interested in being cowed. Instead, she plots to use Shimin and their newfound notoriety to survive attempt after attempt against her life until she can discover why the pilot system works as it does and stop more girls from being sacrificed for male dominance.
I found the overall story and plot of Iron Widow to be utterly engaging. Once I started reading, I had to force myself to take breaks and absorb what I read. Despite some of the darker subject matter, it’s also an incredibly quick read to breeze through. I’ve never read a mecha anime on paper before, but Zhao did the damn thing and did it incredibly well.
Wu Zetian was also highly enjoyable to read as a character. She starts off as such a bitter person willingly hurtling toward her own doom, so it’s fun to see what happens when she does obtain power and claws for control over her own agency. While she does adjust some of her perspective towards certain characters, she doesn’t necessarily grow much as a person but rather becomes so much worse. Redemption arc? No, hers is a corruption arc, and I’m along for the ride. Is she going to be in this more for the power moving forward? Will her idealized visions of the world and the girls in it truly matter in the end? What else will she sacrifice to achieve this shining future she envisions? Do the ends justify the means? Readers will have to wait and see.
I’m interested to see her future struggles with right and wrong and to realize how much more she’s willing to get her hands dirty. Plus—and this is a personal pro for me—I never had to read the line, “If you do this bad thing, then you’re just as bad as them,” and have Zetian agree with it, like so many other YA books would’ve had her do. An instant win, this.
Zhao’s descriptive writing is gripping as the story is told through Zetian’s eyes. How she visualizes the world around her, what the Chrysalises look like, the pilots’ elaborate spirit metal armor, the qi changes, and the fights against the Hunduns all made the novel colorful and the world-building thorough. Sci-fi elements blended seamlessly with nods to Chinese culture and vice versa.
That being said, because the descriptive writing is so strong, the dialogue is mostly subpar in comparison. At times, it was like reading two different writers composing separate parts of the book. For the most part, I couldn’t “hear” any of the characters’ voices as they spoke, and when they did, it wasn’t all that impressive. Fortunately, the majority of the book is told in description, namely through Zetian’s first-person thought processes. It’s like she’s speaking to you the whole time. Her inner voice is by far the strongest one in the book, and no one feels as fleshed out as she does, which is fine if you like her. If you don’t, you might not find Iron Widow all that enjoyable.
As for the other characters, I like some of them a lot as concepts, Yizhi especially. He is Zetian’s rich childhood friend who has secretly fallen for her for awhile. His pressed robes hide a torso covered in tattoos, he is bisexual and fiercely loyal to Zetian, and his father is essentially a corporate mob boss. But I don’t really know who he is. I don’t know what drives him, what his motivations are, how and why he fell for Zetian over anyone else, or if he has any kind of hidden agenda. The bare bones of him being a character are there, but there’s not much there filling in the space.
The same can be said for pretty much every other character with the exception of Li Shimin, and I really hope that more of the cast are developed more thoroughly in the next book. The only reason I got to know Shimin a little better is because of the mental pilot-bond Zetian forms with him. At times, she is able to experience his past memories, thoughts, and feelings as her own, and we get to know him more that way than through any conversations with him. Through these steady reveals, readers slowly learn how he came to be in his current predicament. Unfortunately, most of these revelations are a surprise only to Zetian; the writing takes too many pains to paint Shimin as the soft, broken, sad boy far too early, and I would’ve been more entertained if I had been able to believe he could be a threat to Zetian for at least a little while. Some of his character moments did shine, like during the cafeteria fight and the ending, but Zetian largely drowns him out along with the rest of the cast. Iron Widow is most assuredly Wu Zetian’s show.
In the event that established characters won’t be developed any further, then I’m holding out hope that the next book presents an actual, formidable villain opposite of Zetian (looking at you, Qin Huang) instead of just the vagueness of “the patriarchy.” I don’t know, mate. I’m just tired of books not having hot villains in them. So many protagonists (and friends) are fighting against these one-note, vague forces of evil now, and it’s getting old. Give evil a face and a name, and make it personal for the protagonist; it’s better every time.
Unfortunately, because so many of the other characters are lackluster next to Zetian, I also did not at all believe the polyamorous relationship between her, Yizhi, and Shimin. No one is more saddened by this than I am, trust me.
What’s tragic is I can see the ghost of it. I can see how the polyamory could’ve worked, even beyond developing Yizhi and Shimin more. I see how Yizhi and Zetian’s friendship—full of unspoken feelings—could have been written to form something deeper. How Zetian’s suspicions of Yizhi having an agenda (but also feelings) could’ve been true, shaking her faith in the validity of their friendship and lead to something that makes them work to rebuild trust. I see how Zetian’s hatred of all male pilots, including Shimin, for sacrificing their concubines could have led to her having equally hateful but messy attraction to Shimin. I could see how Shimin might have actually challenged her as an equal and formidable opponent, instead of being the yielding, broken, soft mess that he is. I could even see how Shimin and Yizhi might have fallen into this mutual attraction fueled by falling for the same girl and being forced to trust each other to take care of her in his own way despite their jealousy. Jealousy that might actually be something else, perhaps longing to have the other but thinking he is “taken” by Zetian.
I could see the outline of these many, many possibilities. Instead, it was rushed on all three sides with very little development, conflict, or earning it in any direction. Subverting a love triangle doesn’t really matter if you don’t put in the same work that a love triangle ultimately does. The plot needs Zetian, Yizhi, and Shimin to get along, hold hands, and fall in love, so they do. Zetian has a moment of being torn, wanting to be with Yizhi but knowing she has to work in sync with Shimin to survive. Her feelings for Yizhi might compromise that—but don’t worry, it’s okay. Yizhi basically says to her that her relationship with Shimin is none of his business, what she has with each of them is separate, and he can’t get jealous because hearts can be full of love for anyone. Which is a great sentiment, but man does it lead to boring relationships to read.
As for Shimin, he seems to just want to be with Zetian just because. She hasn’t died on him yet, and the plot demands it, so fall he does. Meanwhile, Yizhi and Shimin are attracted to each other because… no idea. At one point, they are slightly at odds if you squint, and the next they’re sleeping against each other, hands clasped as they wait beside Zetian’s hospital bed. The book does this half-assed thing where Zetian reveals that she suspected Yizhi is also attracted to men, so Shimin must be, too, and yeah, they’re together just because they’re bisexual—at least, that’s all the effort the writing made to justify it.
None of these relationships were sexy. There was no longing, no friction, no yearning, simply because there wasn’t time spent on any of it. Having a tiny snag and calling it conflict that results in development isn’t actually true. Also, calling a relationship “healthy” isn’t enough to make me invested. I mark these issues as consistent flaws I see in nearly every YA book. Even outside of standalone books, romances have to be established in the first book as quickly as possible, and it’s a letdown every time. There are no slowburns or realistic progressions, and with Iron Widow taking place over the course of a month, this was the time to exercise some restraint. If a triangle is the strongest shape, then please work on every side. Make me believe it and want to root for it to pan out in the end in spite of everything standing in its way.
It’s a shame because I wanted this polyamorous trio to be amazing. Instead, it was just kinda there, blocking the way to the action, plot, and world-building. The appearance of such a trio in Iron Widow does give me hope that polyamory will appear in other books across genres; I just hope they are written with more intrigue and nuance than this. I also hope the sequel to Iron Widow will give me something to sink my teeth into regarding this triangle. This can’t be all there is. It might be too late, though, and I have to accept that now. First books are for foundation, and it just wasn’t there for me in regards to the romance.
Finally, this is an extremely “stick it to the patriarchy” book, which comes with its own pros and cons. I wouldn’t comp it to The Handmaid’s Tale that the marketing is trying so desperately to do. It’s more like every post you’ve read on Twitter and Tumblr that introduces you to the evils of the patriarchy and the need for feminism without a single original thought. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing since this is a book directed at teens. There are a lot of messages that young girls will benefit from reading that will help them realize something about the world around them, that will let them know someone else has experienced what they have and sees them in their struggles. However, girls will be the only ones.
While Iron Widow doesn’t take the stark “all men are evil” route that The Gilded Ones does, it does not add anything new to the conversation that I’ve been seeing in modern YA books lately. Books that want to be so feminist and pro-woman and anti-misogyny so badly that they overlook the other half of the conversation. At no point do these books, including Iron Widow, add in their message of the patriarchy hurting girls that, news flash, it also hurts boys, too. It hurts boys, here’s how, and here’s why we can all benefit from tearing it down—and that doesn’t even include those outside the gender binary.
Rather, Zetian’s internal manifesto is all about how terrible girls have it across the board from sexuality to careers to motherhood to their inherent value all because of the patriarchy. She’s completely right, and these are good talking points to have. Zhao establishing Zetian as a victim of foot binding as a way to physically symbolize all of these problems with misogyny and how they can affect women for life is a brilliant touch. However, the book’s primary focus is still the type of one-sided feminism that emphasizes women, by and large excluding men save for being the source of the problem. Feminism is for everyone, and for once, I would like to see a feminist, girl-power book remember that boys will benefit from crushing the patriarchy as well. Perhaps, though, this will be a growth point for the sequel to cover, at least a bit. Zetian’s outlook on Shimin changed once she learned more about his circumstances and perspective, so maybe the idea that boys are just as trapped in this institution will strike her more definitively in the future. Or maybe she won’t give a shit, her revenge being all that matters, and will only make exceptions for Yizhi and Shimin because they’re her boyfriends, to hell with all other boys. Only time will tell.
Iron Widow at least does show many instances of the patriarchy at work in large and small ways, from its solely sci-fi/fantasy issues to things that feel a lot more applicable to real life, like women being conditioned to take up less space. The showing not telling was a high point for me, to the point where I felt that many of Zetian’s internal musings on these topics could’ve been cut because they become repetitive and unnecessary. She doesn’t have to tell me every time how bad girls have it in her world; I can see it playing out before me, but she has to explain each instance and both her bitterness and fury about it at every turn. I fear if you cut most of this, you’d lose almost a third of the book.
Ultimately, Iron Widow stands strong as a sci-fi action novel with fantasy elements, good world-building, interesting twists, and a powerfully written main female character. Where it suffers are the little areas in between, areas that I think can be corrected and fine tuned with more authorial experience on Zhao’s part. This book has a compelling beginning that starts to drag a little around the midway point of the book. It decides to focus on the PR part—hair, makeup, fashion, establishing celebrity personalities to gain rich sponsors—we all thought was cool in The Hunger Games but which those books wisely sped through and didn’t linger on. This part took us away from the Hundun action for a while and was weak on political intrigue and relationship-building, so I was glad when it did finally wrap up because the ending was all sorts of fun and shocking.
I am very hyped for Iron Widow to come out for others to read and experience and to see where Wu Zetian’s vengeful legacy will take us next. I’m also going to keep an eye on Zhao as a writer because, despite some issues, she seems to have a lot of great ideas and room for growth to tell even bigger and better stories in the future. I’m looking forward to it.