Title: Iron Widow
Series: Iron Widow #1
Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
Genre: YA, Fantasy
Published: September 21st, 2021 (Penguin Teen)
Synopsis: 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 the publisher, Penguin Teen Canada, and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
“You tell them they’re meant to do nothing but serve from the minute they’re born. You tell them they’re weak. You tell them they’re prey. You tell them over and over, until it’s the only truth they’re capable of living.”
The land of Huaxia has been at war with the Hunduns and mecha aliens beyond the Great Wall for many centuries and the only way to fight them are using Chrysalises, giant robots that require a boy-girl pair to activate and pilot. The girl of the pair often dies of the mental strain involved in the process, but the harshly patriarchal and misogynistic society sees them as acceptable losses. When Zetian’s sister is killed by one of the most famous male pilots, she enlists as a concubine-pilot to gain vengeance. And on the field, a shocking and unprecedented event occurs – instead of dying from the strain, she instead overpowers the male pilot through the psychic bond, killing him and taking control of the Chrysalis to return unharmed. Labelled an Iron Widow, the army is eager to silence her and pairs her up with the strongest pilot in Huaxia. But while this was initially about vengeance for Zetian, the taste of power she has gained has her seeking more and more, determined to break down the skewed pilot system and stop any more girls from being sent to their deaths.
I have been looking forward to reading Iron Widow ever since I heard of it on Penguin Teen’s top 10 list, and it did not disappoint. Absolutely gorgeous cover aside, this was such an epic read and unlike anything I’ve ever come across before. Iron Widow is inspired by Chinese history, particularly the life of Empress Wu, the first and only female Emperor of China. This is one area I know literally nothing about, but reading this book has made me so curious to know more, and as I understand it, there are several characters throughout the story inspired by real historical figures, so I imagine actually knowing the background would make it so much more intriguing a read. This is set in a well-built world and though we get quite a bit of detail, it never felt like info dumping at any point. Very important to note, there are a whole lot of content and trigger warnings for this book – take them seriously. It was nice that the author mentioned them at the beginning of the book because this story gets dark really quickly and it was good to have an idea of what to expect.
“He doesn’t own me. Nobody does. They may think they do, but no matter how they scold or threaten on beat me, they can’t really control what goes on in my head, and I think that frustrates them to no end.”
Zetian was an amazing character, fierce and determined and she refuses to be tied down by the system that suppresses girls in the name of tradition and morals. Also, she was a very, very angry young woman – totally justified, because I myself got pretty mad just reading about what that society was like – and when she finds out just how skewed the system is against girls, decides to do something about it instead of accepting the status quo as so many other women around her have. Zetian was a phenomenal protagonist, a take no prisoners kind of character, and definitely not your average fantasy heroine. She is one of those characters that will leave an impression on the reader long after the story is over. Also, can I just say, hats off to the author for taking what seemed to be headed for a very awkward love triangle and turning it into something I have never seen in YA before? I wasn’t sure it was going to work initially but it did and we really need more books like this!
There was just one tiny thing that didn’t really work for me and that was the level of detail in the battle scenes. It was described in quite a bit of detail, but here’s the thing – the mecha fights are more or less like Transformers with people inside piloting them and while it’s pretty cool, it’s not really my thing and I lost interest in the minutiae after the first two such battles. I was more interested in the reason behind the piloting system and the extremely dangerous game Zetian was playing.
Even though I sensed there was a major plot twist in the air going into those final couple of chapters, it still took me completely by surprise as it came from an angle I wasn’t expecting. The closing events of this book have completely changed the lay of the land and Zetian’s challenges are just beginning. I can’t wait to see what happens in the sequel! Iron Widow was a fantastic read and basically the book I never knew I needed. I really wish it were another 100 pages long because I just flew through this book in one sitting and it was not enough. If this book isn’t on your TBR yet, what are you waiting for? Highly, highly recommended for every fantasy and sci-fi fan out there!
Iron Widow releases on September 21st, 2021.
Do you plan to read this book? Let me know in the comments below!
All quotes in this review were taken from an advance reader’s edition and may differ from the final version of the book.
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