Review: 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.

Rating: 3/5

Review

To say I was excited for this book was an understatement: I love Xiran Jay Zhao’s social media presence, and really appreciate their energy, humour and what appears to be a deep knowledge of Chinese history. I also read a few articles about their fight to retain the polyamorous romance at the centre of Iron Widow, and I wanted to support them in that effort.

Unfortunately, I had a number of issues with Iron Widow.

To start with the good, however: the aesthetic is excellent. I’m not hugely into anime so didn’t necessarily recognise the specific comps, but the mecha battles are really cool. I also really liked the Chinese inspired world-building: there are lots of little details that make the world feel really expansive and hint at the cultural diversity within the setting, such as the conflicts between different ethnic groups. I really appreciated that this book didn’t treat Chinese culture (or the fantasy cultures inspired by it) as a monolith.

As for everything else, well: the best way to describe Iron Widow is unsubtle. Sometimes that works – I was very into the ‘fuck the patriarchy’ vibe of this book at the beginning. Iron Widow is Wu Zetian’s revenge story, as she seeks revenge against the mecha pilot who killed her sister, but also the system that has pushed her down and denied her autonomy and opportunities at every turn. I love unapologetic women who fight for their rights, and I’m glad this book continues that tradition.

However, below the surface, the lack of subtlely in the feminist message means it doesn’t actually make much sense. Zetian’s entire story revolves around the same events: someone sense something grossly misogynistic, Zetian snaps back with a witty reply and owns them (where she learnt these retorts given the lack of feminist role models in her life is unclear). It doesn’t help that Wu Zetian gives off the biggest ‘not like other girls’ vibe I’ve seen for a while – she is miraculously somehow the most talented female concubine with the most spirit energy that’s ever been seen. She also has no positive interactions with women, either getting into catfights with them (over men), or looking down on them for choosing a different path in life (her disdain for another women who has chosen to have children with her mecha pilot partner is not the feminist message I was looking for). There’s simply no sympathy for the women who have been downtrodden and broken by the patriarchal society they live in and are yet to reach the same level of feminist enlightment as Wu Zetian.

The rest of the book is a bit of a mess, as well. The writing is clunky and unpolished, again lacking any kind of nuance or subtlety. There is a lot of telling rather than showing. And Zetian’s relationships with the two love interests, childhood friend Yizhi and fellow mecha pilot Shimin, lack consistency, making it hard to root for them. At one point, Zetian screams about how much she hates Shimin, only to passionately kiss him about three pages later. I really wanted to cheer for the relationship given the author’s attempts to break new ground and move away from toxic YA love triangles, but there wasn’t a lot to work with.

Ultimately, I really admire the intent of this book and I really hope the author continues to grow as a writer: I think they have a lot of really excellent feminist energy to bring to the genre, but lack the experience to nuance the messaging and tell a compelling story in this venture.

Note: I received an ARC from Oneworld Publications. Iron Widow will be be released on 7 October by Rock the Boat (21 September from Penguin Teen in some jurisdictions).

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