Please, immediately add this book to your TBR and pre-order all the copies you can get your hands on. If you are looking for a wild ride of a book that stands out from the rest – this is one you need to add to your collection! Marketed as Pacific Rim x The Handmaid’s Tale, Iron Widow lives up to every ounce of what is promised with those comps. It is rich in historical Chinese stories with a healthy dose of sci-fi and fantasy elements giving it a fresh twist. With its wild sci-fi elements and kick-butt attitude and actions of the cast of characters, it read like a manga/anime – but with a strong female lead which we absolutely adored. While lots of readers may shy away from sci-fi we cannot stress enough how wonderful this book is and one that you should absolutely give a chance no matter your preconceived opinions of the genre.
Iron Widow is based in a dystopian land called Huaxia that mixes elements of feudal China with futuristic elements. In this world, humans fight mecha aliens by powering Chrysalises, giant robots made from husks of aliens. Male and female pilots are required to be paired to control the Chrysalises and are paired up by “spirit pressure” which is a system to measure how mentally strong a person is. While the system claims they try to pair men and women equally to make a balanced match, most of the time the female pilots die during the fight. Yes, while male pilots receive the glory, female pilots, known as concubine pilots, receive death sentences as they are drained of their life force.
Zetian is one of these concubine pilots, a title that is seen as a great honor and a way for females to serve their misogynistic society. However, Zetian refuses to just be another sacrifice, another faceless woman used as mental fodder for male pilots. In fact, she is determined to bring down the male pilot who killed her sister. She succeeds, killing her male co-pilot mid-fight and takes control of the Chrysalis on her own, only she does not die herself. When she emerges, she is labeled an Iron Widow, a female pilot able to sacrifice men – something feared by society.
Because they are not quite sure what to do with Zetian as Iron Widows are so rare, they pair her with a new partner Li Shimin who is the strongest class pilot currently serving. He’s also the most controversial as he has a dark past and is widely known for slaughtering his family. Although their partnership starts off rocky, they quickly learn how to leverage their infamy and strength to try and take down the system that’s built them up and turned them into the weapons they are.
At its core, Iron Widow is a badass, feminist revenge story. While readers may not be able to personally relate to the cultures described, most can relate in at least a small way to the treatment women receive at the hands of society. Women of all cultures are subject to misogyny, treated as objects, and like they are “less” than men – and it’s simply not true. This book felt like a love letter to anyone who’s been oppressed by their society’s structure. Although Iron Widow’s influences are historical and imagined, it feels all too relevant for today’s struggles as well.
Zetian is a calculating and lethal character single-minded focused on her task. For readers who love “villainous” main characters who do not shy away from conflict, she is everything you could ask for. Every move and every thought Zetian has is unflinchingly scheming a way she can achieve her goal of bringing society to its knees.
Li Shimin is on the surface very similar to Zetian, forced to serve in a system he abhors. Their partnership and common goals feel very natural given their background and providing Zetian with a strong ally of the opposite sex worked well to balance Zetian’s understandable hatred for most men in power.
On the opposite end of the character spectrum, we have Gao Yizhi, a friend of Zetian’s prior to her enlisting with the army. His characteristics are very much opposite of both Zetian and Shimin and could be described as loyal, trusting, intelligent, and somewhat soft (in a good way).
One of the things that stands out in this book, is the fact that it includes a polyamorous couple. Personally, this is the first YA book we’ve read with polyamorous representation and it was great to see it! Since Iron Widow breaks many molds, it seems like a natural inclusion to also stretch boundaries and social norms with the romance as well.
We believe a sign of a good book is how long you continue to think about it and pine after a re-read. Well, we are a month out from our initial read and are still thinking about the book almost daily. Iron Widow has truly become a favorite book of all time and we can’t wait to read more of Xiran Jay Zhao’s books in the future!