Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Series: Iron Widow #1
Expected publication: September 21st 2021 by Penguin Teen
Age Range: Young Adult
Genre: Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Representation: East Asian characters, LGBTQ+ (Bi, Polyamory)
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.
Thank you to Caffeine Book Tours for choosing me as one of the participants in the #IronWidow tour. I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review. If you’re interested in the other tour stops, check out the schedule!
trigger and content warnings:
Violence and abuse, footbinding, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture
trigger and content warnings:
- Violence and abuse, footbinding, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture
Pilots channel their qi, life force, to activate their mecha to fight the Hunduns. To sustain during battles, male pilots draw on their own qi and sacrifice their concubine-pilot’s life by sucking up all of hers. Spirit pressure is another measurement of the pilot’s ability. It’s the level of force the pilot can use to channel their qi.
Qi and spirit metal are governed by the five subdivisions of yin and yang: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water, with each person slightly more dominant in one. The usage of the five-element framework in Chinese culture is something I don’t see often in books. It added layers upon the dynamic between each pilot and concubine-pilot pair as well since each element does nourish and control another.
“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 incredible thing they’re really meant to be.”
🔥 Gao Yizhi: son of the richest man in Huaxia
Don’t mistake his softness and sweetness for weakness. I believe Yizhi possesses a ruthless side of himself that we just haven’t seen yet. Although he worries for Wu Zetian, he doesn’t question her decisions and instead, supported her every single time. The tender moments he shared with Zetian showed just that. Yizhi is too good to be true, and I’m terrified of that.
🔥 Wu Zetian: frontier girl
To avenge her sister’s senseless death, Zetian enlisted to become Yang Guang’s concubine-pilot. Because of her gender, Zetian was barely treated well in her own home where her parents cared more about her brother, Dalang. This aspect is reminiscent of the olden days, and in some places in modern-day, when males are valued while women are belittled (重男轻女). Nobody ever truly cared about her feelings, and only treated Zetian as a commodity to be traded off at the highest market value. One way of doing that was breaking and binding Zetian’s feet into a perfect lotus shape.
Through Zetian and her family, readers know how the system is rigged against females. Consistently underestimated and undervalued, females are expected to be dainty, pretty, clean, and subservient. To families, a daughter married off is like water hurled out the door (嫁出去的女儿，泼出去的水). Women were drowned in pig cages (浸猪笼) after disgracing or dishonoring their families, oftentimes they are the victims but still received punishments.
Zetian’s a wild card. You just never know what she’ll do next. Her ballsy attitude and unpredictability scare everyone around her and it’s freaking amazing. In a society where females are looked down upon, Zetian proved to everyone that she isn’t beneath anyone or unworthy.
“Zetian, every time you choose to look at me, I know for certain that there’s a place for me in your heart.”
🔥 Li Shimin: death-row inmate
Nicknamed Iron Demon, Shimin powers the Vermilion Bird, the strongest Chrysalis in Huaxia, the only King class now. Shimin, who killed his father and brothers at 16-years-old, is half-Rongdi with a prisoner, 囚, tattoo on his face. His past haunts him frequently and relentlessly.
The first time they met was the moment they were paired up to fight against the Hunduns. Having the highest spirit pressure in two centuries, everyone had expected Shimin to overwhelm and sacrifice Zetian and they were (unpleasantly) surprised.
One might think Shimin, with his appearance and reputation, will be scary and intimidating but actually, he’s a teddy bear. He has moments of weakness and vulnerability that contrasted his physical looks. Oftentimes, Shimin’s thoughtful and quiet. He cares more than he let out to be.
“I cherish who you’ve managed to be, despite the world telling you over and over that you’re wrong. You may have some undeniably monstrous parts inside you, but that’s okay. I have them too. No matter what anyone says, I’m proud to call you my co-pilot, Iron Demon.”
In Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao established the hierarchy of the mecha and, the history behind the creation of the Chrysalis and the fights against the Hunduns. If you thought that is all, you are wrong. The ending alludes to a wider agenda and a greater villain that we never ever saw coming.
If you’re familiar with Chinese legends, you might recognize the names, Zhuge Liang, Ma Xiuying and Zhu Yuanzhang, Dugu QieLuo and YangJian, and Sun Wukong (Journey to the West). Transported into this science fiction world, these historical figures are brought to life as well, some to a greater extent than others, but still fascinating nonetheless.
Since I’ve never read any YA that centers on a polyamory relationship, it’s one of the elements of Iron Widow that I was excited to read. Yizhi and Zetian already had something going on since they’ve known each other for three years. Though Zetian and Shimin were forced together, his demeanor obliterated her expectations. Yizhi and Shimin were pulled together by an invisible string from the beginning. Not sure if I read too much into it knowing that it’s a three-way romance, but they were already comfortable with one another from the start.
I have no qualms about the book. Iron Widow enraptured me from the beginning till the end. The only time I stopped reading was because I had work to do. Wu Zetian’s punching through the suffocating system that subjugated women and crushing the society’s expectations of how a female should be. The world will expand in book two, and I’m desperate for it already.
This review is a little long, and if you’re still here, thank you very much. I hope you liked it! I’m grateful to be a part of this blog tour, especially since Iron Widow‘s one of my most anticipated releases of 2021. I had high expectations all of which Xiran Jay Zhao surpassed.