by Xiran Jay Zhao
Series: Iron Widow #1
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Publication Date: September 21, 2021
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
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.
Look, I am always down for demolishing the patriarchy with mecha. Maybe it’s my fierce dedication to Gundam Wing as a teen, but I have a deep and abiding love for mecha and especially female pilots, so of course I was anticipating this. And it’s exactly what it bills itself as – a fierce and brutal takedown of the patriarchy.
In this version of China, the Great Wall protects Huaxia from the Hunduns, strange alien lifeforms that, once killed, can be transformed into Chrysalises, mecha that can be piloted by men with sufficiently strong qi. In order to further enhance them, they siphon the qi off so-called concubines, often killing them during battle. After the death of her sister at the hands of a Chrysalis pilot, Zetian has one goal: killing the pilot. She knows it’ll mean her own death, but she’s done with being subjugated and dismissed just because she’s female. But when a Hundun attack occurs before she has a chance to kill him, she’s thrown into the cockpit with him – and kills him. Paired with the strongest pilot – a criminal – Zetian realizes she can take her vengeance farther than she had ever dreamed and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
“Some of us were born to be used and discarded. We can’t afford to simply go along with the flow of life, because nothing in this world has been created, built, or set up in our favor. If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”
The characters, according to the author’s note, are loosely adapted from historical Chinese figures, but I’ll admit that aside from a few gongdou C-dramas I have very little knowledge of Chinese history, so I really can’t speak to that aspect. Zetian is absolutely vicious and, at the start, willing to sacrifice everything to get revenge on the boy who killed her sister. After all, her culture is always willing to sacrifice girls, so why shouldn’t she chose the way she goes? She’s headstrong, impulsive, and most definitely so fixated on her cause that she can’t see a good thing when it’s right in front of her. There’s not a lot of room for grey areas, in either Zetian’s worldview or the the plot in general, and honestly I think that’s very realistic for a teen. I loved her fire and determination, even against unsurmountable odds.
“When you cherish someone for how amazing they are, you don’t pluck them from their roots just to watch them wither in your hands. You help them bloom into the incredible thing they’re really meant to be.”
And then there’s the two boys she becomes involved with. Yizhi is her complete opposite: a soft rich boy, who’s loved Zetian since he first started meeting with her secretly once a month. It’s Yizhi who shares some of the (forbidden to girls) knowledge with her, and he’s the one who shows her what love is.. and that there’s room for in their hearts for more than just the man/woman partnership condoned by their society. Shimin is the third person involved with them, a pilot who was condemned for murdering his family but plucked out of prison due to his qi power. Zetian initially sees him as much the same as the pilot who killed her sister – guilty – but the gradual reveal of his backstory was devastating. Obviously, it’s right in the blurb that they end up in a polyamorous triad, though I thought some of the plot supporting it was a bit weak. It’s a little too instalove for me with not enough relationship development, though the bits with Yizhi and Shimin were excellent.
This book reads a lot like an action movie to me: lots of very serviceable prose in service to the plot line. It’s fierce in its takedown of Huaxia’s misogyny, but I also felt like it didn’t leave much space for Zetian to show much character development, besides the romance aspect. Her need for vengeance is so overpowering, but it also worked on pulling me along with the story. Which was good, because there were times the uneven world building was confusing. More attention is given to the details of one Chrysalis than the entire political landscape of Huaxia.
Overall, this was an enjoyable and rollicking read, and I will definitely be picking up the next book. Recommended if you’ve got room in your heart for a fierce girl who’ll stop at nothing to yeet the patriarchy into the sun.
Content notes: View Spoiler »Violence and gore, child abuse (physical and verbal), domestic abuse, death of a parent (in the past), suicidal ideation, depression, murder, torture (graphic), references to and threats of sexual assault, misogyny, alcohol addiction, forced medical procedures (foot binding and organ removal) « Hide Spoiler