Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao
Published by Penguin Random House Canada
Release Date : 21st September 2021
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.
Welcome to your nightmare!
ARC provided by the publisher Penguin Random House Canada through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
When Wu Zetian from Iron Widow says ‘Welcome to your nightmare!’ I didn’t think she meant it literally…
Iron Widow is the debut and first book of a duology by Xiran Jay Zhao. Marketed as “a YA Pacific Rim meets the Handmaid’s Tale” Sci-Fi/Fantasy retelling of the rising of Empress Wu Zetian, the only female ruler in Chinese history, set in a war torn world where humans fight using giant magical mechas (based of East Asian myths) for survival against aliens called Hunduns.
This year alone there’s been a flood of amazing books published by Asian writers, both debut and returning YA heavy hitters. One of the debuts that caught my eye is Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. I stumbled upon this book when I saw a few tweets of the cover art and many amazing character art that has been circulating around book tweet. When the opportunity to request the ARC (Advance Reader Copy) is available I decided to do so. The summary of Iron Widow contains a lot of things that got me interested : a retelling of Wu Zetian’s rising, magical mechas, East Asian myths, a world based of China, and women doing womanly things such as destroying a misogynistic society. Did the execution of the whole story meet the expectations that was presented in the summary ? Yes in a technical sense but no in overall quality. Before I dive deep into the review I would like to appreciate the amazing cover art of this book done by Ashley Mackenzie and designed by Terri Nimmo from Penguin Random House Canada. The cover looks gorgeous with the vermillion bird in the back and Zetian looking bad ass in her pilot suit emanating strong main character spirit pressure.
This is the first book and debut by a debut author of color the summary sells the book well that I have set a strong expectation for the story. What I did not expect is the utter chaos and anguish I felt while reading Iron Widow. There is a lot to unpack from reading the 400 pages book that is Iron Widow I will be as objective and brutally honest as possible.
“May our hearts beat in sync, and may our Chrysalis vanquish the Hunduns.”
For this review I’ll start with the good points first. Xiran created a world with a lot of potential to expand that is filled with East Asian, mostly Chinese, cultural references and historical characters. One of the cultural references that is immediately introduced to readers is Zetian’s lotus feet. A custom that is done to young girls to raise their marriage prospect of breaking and binding their feet. The custom lead to Zetian having a life long disability as with every step she takes is excruciatingly painful. Honestly, I applause Xiran for adding this piece of Chinese culture in her book because not many people know about it. Besides the bound feet there are other Chinese references presented through the names of the characters that named after prominent Chinese historical figures such as Wu Zetian, Sima Yi, Zhuge Liang, Ma Xiuying, Li Shimin, Zhu Yuanzhang, Dugu Qieluo, Yang Jian, and so on. In the story there are also legendary pilot stories based of famous Chinese mythological figure and legends one of them is about Sun Wukong or The Monkey King famously adapted in the novel Journey to the West. Personally, I will never get tired of authors of color adding in cultural references that they know to heart and grew up knowing. Xiran is known for her videos that analyze the cultural adaptations are executed in Western media whether it is right or wrong. The most famous video by Xiran is her commentary on the movie Mulan (2020) which I find insightful. Xiran included a lot of cultural references in this book that I know and probably don’t know prior to reading Iron Widow and it shows how knowledgeable Xiran is when there are moments that highlights these cultures.
Then again, I don’t belong to anybody, and I never will.
Pacing wise Xiran knows how to write an addictive fast paced story that starts of running the moment you read it. For me I had a hard time putting the book down, I wanted to know what happens next chapter and the next and so on. This attention grabbing pace is noteworthy when reading Iron Widow as the book is action packed filled with many explosive mecha battle scenes that are ruthless, out of this world, and vivid. The battle scenes got me hooked on the story, I love a good colossal battle with an added edge of flare in the battle with the mecha transformations and qi blasts. The mecha system weaving the qi into the piloting system of the Chrysalises is an intriguing idea and adding a battle flare in which qi can make the Chrysalis or their attacks take on the color of the dominant element of the pilot(s). I also liked the inner subconscious of the pilots, how their minds link, and then they become in sync as one similar to Pacific Rim. I have never watched or read Handmaid’s Tale so I’m not sure what the similarities are between Iron Widow and Handmaid’s Tale.
“.. You insecure men, you’re afraid. You can force us into compliance, but, deep down, you know you can’t force us to truly love and respect you. And without love and respect, there will always be a seed of hatred and resistance. Growing. Festering. Waiting.”
Now on to the things that I find to be a problem for me as a reader. As reader and reviewer I lean towards character driven stories. In all the books I’ve read the one thing that I look for is good characterization and development. They don’t need to be nice or lovable, they can be the most volatile human beings but if they have a good characterization and development it is a HUGE thumbs up. Iron Widow did not give me that. Please take this with a grain of salt because it is my personal opinion. There is no depth in the characters that got me rooting for them or attached to them. Each of them have a good base to be developed but in realization on page their characterization is a checklist of traits that is mentioned throughout the story. Even during the pivotal emotional moments it’s anti-climactic. What makes it even harder for me to root for them is that everything is written from Wu Zetian’s perspective, when the characters get a chance to do or say something that scene is short and is filled with long commentary from Zetian. If I have to put it in ratio it’s one part other character does/says something and ten parts Zetian talking about something. There is no balance in this story that makes the plot, worldbuilding, and characters adhesive.
The amazing potential presented in the world building did not come through, it is not explored enough or given enough time to set the world for the characters. All readers get is takes from Zetian of how cruel, misogynistic, unfair, and devalued women are. But not WHY the world it is what it is. There is lack of context. I’ve read plentiful YA books and no matter how subpar the world building is they offer context to establish the world. It is as though the whole society is bad for the sake of being bad. The context IS offered later in the story but it is only relevant for certain plots point not the scope of the whole society in the world. If in the story the character is going to offer commentary for how unfair the society at least do some justice by giving us more reasoning to critique said society besides going over the same surface level points.
Shame and humiliation are self-imposed emotions, and from here on out, I choose not to feel them. Make no mistake, though. He is dead.
Wu Zetian is the only character that has in depth background, motivation, and presence in the book. Even then Wu Zetian’s character is a mixture of many inconsistencies that contradicts and overlaps that it gets confusing which led to me skimming a whole chunk (~45%) of the book. One moment she’s cackling on top of her lungs after killing someone the next she shrinks her personality in fear. There is no depth and balance in Zetian’s character. For me I think it is a case of a character being overly written that the character gets tangled. I’ve read about many unhinged and blinded by vengeance characters but they have a much clearer purpose than Zetian. The escalation in Zetian’s intent and purposes wasn’t clear enough on page for me to believe it. The whiplash I got from Zetian is astounding, her character can bounce from one personality to the next in a heartbeat. As a reader I see a lot of potential for impressive political tension, resistance, or some form of justice by the end of the book that could be deeply explored. Wu Zetian is a prominent figure in Chinese history for being the only Empress that sat on the throne. To achieve such feats Wu Zetian had fought hard against other Empress’ and consorts to be favored by the Emperor and by manipulating the situation to her advantage with sheer cunningness and grit. The Wu Zetian in Iron Widow didn’t show me that. The story of Zetian didn’t rise to it’s full potential and fell flat. Everything is surface level about her intent, actions, motivations, and there is no complexity in her character. Zetian is neither well fleshed out or has a believable growth, everything seems to be offered to her and made available to progress the plot which made Zetian’s case in growth filled with an alarming amount of holes.
This is unconventional, yet another implicit rule we’re breaking, but you know what? It works for us. And I think the three of us are done with letting this world tell us what’s okay and what isn’t.
The other characters are surface level as well even for the two main love interests. Li Shimin or Iron Demon, the nineteen year old convicted murderer and pilot of Vermillion Bird, probably has more depth than Yizhi but it was sparse and wasn’t explored enough. I only feel bad for Shimin because of Zetian constant accusatory behavior and mistreatment of him. While Yizhi the rich best friend and fifth son of a media mogul, his whole characterization is established off page I don’t understand his motivations besides Zetian being his “polar star”. Their love triangle turned polyamorous relationship didn’t make sense, though I liked that it happened I did not understand how it happened. The only hints of the relationship is Zetian having curious thoughts of how far Shimin’s or Yizhi’s attractions towards the same gender and a few supposedly “tender” moments.
“Be their nightmare, Wu Zetian.”
This story has a lot of potential to be great with it’s imaginative Sci-Fi Chinese inspired world, complete with characters that are inspired from Chinese historical figures, the plentiful potential of the premise, the well thought out mecha system, and impressive action scenes. It is sad to say that all of this got overridden by the anti-climactic and disappointing characterization. In short Iron Widow isn’t a book for me, it could be a perfect fit for it’s intended target audience that are younger than me or readers that love a fast paced book filled with many bad ass character moments. Personally, I expected a fun short read but all I got is stress and infuriating anger that said I will not be continuing to duology. I still highly recommend readers to read it because there aren’t many books that contain insightful cultural references and historical Chinese figures that also depicts a polyamorous relationship in YA.
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.