Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
Release date: 4 May 2021
Publisher:  Penguin Teen (US/Canada); Rocktheboat (UK)
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopia, Thriller
Goodreads: Here 

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 know, I know – I’ve been gone for far too long, perhaps most of you had already forgotten that this blog is a thing anymore. To be frank, I’d gone under some major life changes, for better and worse (more on that on a future post). I simply needed some time to catch up with those changes.

Anyways.

First Chinese female emperor in a mecha sci-fi alternate universe? Sign. Me. up.

Xiran had me the moment I read the synopsis on their webpage, and since then I just had to read what they had in mind for Wu Zetian. I actually feel apologetic that my review of Iron Widow had come months too late, late enough for us to have learned the title of its sequel, Heavenly Tyrant.

Review

In this Huaxia, the Great Wall divides it against Hunduns and their alient mechas – and all they have against their invading presence are mechas of their own dubbed “Chrysalises.” Constant waves of battle are broadcasted for the people to watch and be entertained by. Well, it is easy to see the appeal as these mechs transform into mythical creatures, and with more special abilities under very specific circumstances: when two pilots are able to bond together, weave their qi together, fight stronger together, and have a big adventure in battles together.

The problem? Young girls are given up by their families to serve the army and have their qi tested to see if they would be able to help pilot alongside a powerful boy. Most times the boy completely invades through the psychic link and uses up every ounce of lifeforce the girl has, killing her during battle. Then the very same boys are hailed as heroes while the girls lie forgotten as stone-cold corpses. Wu Zetian’s older sister, as the opening scene narrates, is one such casualty.

If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then I truly fear for whoever wrongs Wu Zetian, because this reimagined character is the embodiment of vengeful wrath herself. We literally open with a scene so infuriating, it completely sets the challenges Zetian has to contend with and therefore justifies her perpetual fury against the world she lives in. In a world where girls are sacrificed for men to indulge in glory of battle, who would even dream of world peace as is?

While Zetian gets her revenge for her older sister’s pointless death rather early in the story, Iron Widow digs deeper into the culture that had truly killed her: the sheer misogyny upheld by cruel and complacent men alike. From this point on, Iron Widow was no longer about who, or what Zetian wants – but a more deadly struggle against a world that would see her dead and not even bat an eye, or even sigh in relief. Zetian takes this battle in stride, however, and takes immense pleasure in spitting in the face of power every chance she gets. Any symbol of misogyny she sees, she cuts down with vengeance for the countless girls dead and swept under the rug. Of course, this makes for an exhilarating read amidst the larger skirmishes she gets thrown into.

As revolutionary as Zetian aims to be, however, she constantly proves to be belligerent in her approach (for better and worse). Most times this works to her benefit, but sometimes it also presents two major flaws in her character: an inability to consider other angles beyond what she could see and an exaggerated sense of self-righteousness. While otherwise this would make her the perfect champion to strongarm the status quo, this also undermines the stability of the new one she seeks to implement. Given her ruthless nature, it would be easy to see why she needs her companions to help her course correct. Some may view her character as juvenile, hypocritical, and needlessly violent; but I see a heroine full of anger and a network of enemies so wide-reaching she wouldn’t know where to direct it all into. Someone volatile in need of constant support from the people she cares for lest she makes the wrong choice (corruption arc, anyone?). This makes Zetian even more of a compelling (anti?) heroine to me, one to root for even more.

In regards to the ending (no spoilers), Iron Widow takes its readers to a wild spin in its exciting twist – pulling off a mind-screw so big it sets up a sequel of gigantic, epic proportions. Combined with the potential for a corruption arc given the losses Zetian endures in Iron Widow, Zhao promises a wild ride for the sequel Heavenly Tyrant.

Concluding Thoughts

Iron Widow is unhinged, chaotic, and exciting. The perfect combination of angry feminist reimagination of Chinese history and mecha sci-fi.

Reading this book had been an entirely new experience, with many exhilarating moments permeated with meaningful themes so masterfully weaved together with both traditional and modern, futuristic sensibilities with a compelling, morally-challenged (anti?)heroine to spearhead it.

I definitely had so much fun reading this book and would gladly devour Heavenly Tyrant whenever it comes out (edit: out in 2023, I recently heard). I’m also very, very scared 🙂

Acknowledgements

Thank you so much PenguinTeen for providing me with an early copy! I received a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

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