Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
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.
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Zetian has no need for wealth or glory. She only needs vengeance.
After Zetian’s older sister dies during a battle, another victim of the Chrysalis pilot system that so often destroys girls, she enlists under the very same pilot. Her only aim? To kill him, even if she dies in the process.
But it’s not so simple, because once he’s dead and her sister is avenged, she still remains. More than that, an entire system fears her. For once in her life, she has some shred of power, and she intends to use it without remorse. Every ounce of leverage she can grasp, every hint of strength she can wield, she’ll use it to tear down the system that has caused so much pain and grief. Her allies are few, the attempts on her life are many, and the secrets still lying in wait are greater than she knows.
Zetian is an Iron Widow, though. She is more powerful than the world wants to admit, more frightening than any battle that might lie ahead. She just has to learn to utilize that power for herself.
“May he stay unsettled.”
This book is brutal, and leaving readers unsettled is an understatement. Iron Widow doesn’t just challenge abuses of power; it explores them, cracks them wide open. We see the fear these abuses of power cause, the pain and the suffering. We see what these abuses are trying to protect, and at what cost to the victims, never the abusers.
And then Zetian arrives, vicious and driven and furious to her core. Though she’s experienced her fair share of suffering at the hands of the system, she has the intensity to rage against it. More than that, she has the strength to tear it apart from the inside. Becoming an Iron Widow and pairing up with the most powerful Chrysalis pilot in Huaxia restrains her in new ways, but it also allows her access to an exclusive vantage point, one where she can discover exactly how the system works.
Exactly how she can destroy it from within.
There’s no shying away from the violence in this book, the unflinching bitterness that Zetian wields against her enemies. It makes her an incredible, ruthless sort of character who uses every ounce of leverage she has to disrupt her enemies, undermine their confidence. Or kill them, as the case may be. Revolution is messy, bloody work, and leaving her opponents unsettled is only the start.
Iron Widow is the history of China’s only female emperor with a hefty dose of Pacific Rim and a pinch of a polyamorous trio.
Zetian is far and away the best thing about this book. Her drive absolutely burns through every page, and it’s irresistible, following her story. But it’s made even better by the elements that combine around her, without a doubt.
For one, it’s fascinating to put this against its historical context. I know very little world history outside of classical antiquity, since that was the focus of my studies, but Xiran Jay Zhao’s author note at the beginning of the book provided valuable historical context. More than that, it also opened up an itch to learn more, and I can’t complain when a book makes me curious, especially about a topic I’m not well-informed on!
Two, the giant mech elements. While not exclusive to Pacific Rim by any means, that’s certainly one of the more contemporary, well known comparisons to make, and it’s apt. Giant mechs clashing with otherworldly enemies on the battlefield, powered and piloted successfully only by duos that can match one another’s power? What should be an exercise of trust corrupted by power and greed? An exploration of said trust and corruption? It’s a fantastic element that brings the action up a notch, in sequences I can’t help but imagine with full animation. I do love a good fight scene, and what’s better than adding multi-story towering robots with elemental powers to the mix?
And last but not least, that sweet, sweet polyamory. I actually don’t think I’ve read a YA book before that’s so comfortable about polyamory, and I ended up liking it a ton. The three personalities involved are so different, yet they carry a balancing common thread, along with more secrets we’ve yet to explore (I’m looking at you especially, Yizhi). Plus, this trio works so well with everything that happens in the cockpit of the mechs. There’s some clever, subtle exploration of gender that I really appreciated. It doesn’t come to conclusions outside the binary yet, but it’s perfect for characters who have lived their lives in this rigid system that values boys over girls without question.
(I do admittedly wish we saw more of Yizhi and Shimin, as I felt their characterization was occasionally underwhelming. But is that a consequence of not having enough substance, or is it that Zetian just burns that brightly on the page, that she eclipses them both with ease? That would, naturally, be extremely in character for her.)
Do not miss this book, whatever you do.
2021 debuts have not been messing around, and Iron Widow is no exception. It’s fast-paced and impossible to put down, not to mention furious as hell. It gripped me from start to finish without mercy, and I’d happily let it do so again. Plus, it ends in such a way that I am dying to know more about the next book. Even the title alone would appease me, but let’s be real: I just want the whole thing. Iron Widow ends on a note that leaves you craving more even though there’s a fresh fear waking in your bones.
This is a book that does not hold back, and neither should you. Iron Widow is on shelves now, and waiting for you to pick it up.
CW: violence (including gun violence), loss of a loved one, suicidal ideation, child abuse, domestic abuse, gore, graphic injury, torture, alcoholism, sexual assault