You might have seen Iron Widow––Xiran Jay Zhao's sci-fi retelling of Chinese Empress Wu Zetian––while scrolling around social media. This book got a LOT of hype in the bookish community, and for good reason.
Genre: YA Dystopian Fantasy / Sci-fi
Category: Epic Read
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RATING: 4/5 Stars
Plot: 4.5/5 stars
Characters: 4.5/5 stars
World: 3/5 stars
Pairings: Mapo tofu + oolong tea
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.
Wu Zetian’s mission is simple: become a concubine-pilot and get close enough to assassinate the man who murdered her sister. But she accomplishes so much more—becoming the strongest female pilot, challenging societal norms and narratives, and uncovering the dark secrets of the Huaxian military.
Iron Widow is an exciting read with an engaging plot, plenty of badass action sequences, and SO MUCH EMOTION! It's political and personal, touching on subjects like gender roles, binary thinking, the hoarding of knowledge, manipulation, displacement, and government corruption.
Although I predicted the plot twist / cliffhanger ending, I still enjoyed it and wanted to scream in frustration along with Zetian. I wish I didn’t have to wait so long for the next installment, and really hope the tv adaptation is well done.
This story gets dark, so I would suggest checking the disclaimers and content warnings online or in the first few pages to determine for yourself if this is a good read for you.
That said, the only thing that could have made this book better (in my opinion) is if it were more NA or adult, so it could be darker and spicier.
There are three main characters in Iron Widow, and the best (read: easiest) way I can think of to describe them is:
Looks like a cinnamon roll but could actually kill you: Yizhi
Looks like they could kill you but is actually a cinnamon roll: Shimin
Looks like they could kill you, and could actually kill you: Zetian
Zetian is our morally grey FMC whose initial motivation is revenge. She doesn’t expect to survive her assassination mission. When she does, she becomes driven by her anger at the unfairness with which women are treated and a burning desire to destroy the patriarchal piloting system. She is a clever, ruthless woman who cannot be brainwashed, cowed, or controlled. She sees everything that is wrong with society and uses it against them.
Shimin and Yizhi are complimentary opposites that help balance and encourage Zetian on her path. I absolutely abhor love triangles, but this book is an exception. I will not go into detail so as to not ruin anything, but the way this story played out that trope was so refreshing.
Some readers argue that this is not a feminist book because Zetian does not have any significant, healthy female relationships. However, we do see her being impacted by other female pilots, and I think/hope her relationships with other women are part of a larger arc that will play out in the next book. And there's also the fact that she hasn't been treated well by women either, yet she still fights for them.
All I will say about the antagonists is that they made me angry and disgusted, and I got a lot of satisfaction watching Zetian tear them (and their world) apart.
Though Huaxia is a fictional, dystopian sci-fi reimagining of China, Zetian’s journey speaks to many of the issues and upsets faced in our reality; especially by women. Pilots are military celebrities, image and money are everything, and men have distinct advantages over women, who are constantly told that their only worth is in serving the men in their life by marrying, becoming concubine pilots, and/or birthing children.
My only disappointment while reading the story was wanting a smidge more worldbuilding around qi and the piloting systems. But we’re limited to Zetian’s own knowledge, and for good reason.
Iron Widow deserves every bit of hype it got. It's exciting, emotional, refreshing, imaginative, and powerful. It's an awesome combination of Chinese history, Gundam/Transformers, and The Hunger Games. Despite a few imperfections, I was entertained the entire time and did not want to put it down. I would highly recommend it if you want:
Morally grey characters
Epic anime vibes
Romance as a sub-plot
"Labour" by Paris Paloma vibes