When I first heard about Zhao’s novel, it was through their youtube channel, I recommend it if you like video essays, and as a writer and book blogger myself, I was excited. What I expected: historical fiction inspired by the sole female emperor of China and a polyamorous relationship. What I got: science fiction dystopia, aliens, and a throuple. And I loved it.
I also would like to thank Netgalley for providing me a copy of Iron Widow to review. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.
Zetian’s only goal is to enlist in the army and enact revenge against the man who murdered her older sister. If her family is damned, so be it. But the army of Huaxia pairs young boys and girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant robots that transform with the energy of the pilots’ qi. The pilots are renowned and famous except for the girls who rarely survive the battles. So when Zetian’s paired with her sister’s killer, she doesn’t hesitate and earns her nickname, iron widow.
As punishment, the army throws Zetian into battle with the iron demon, Shimin, who murdered his own family. Zetian doesn’t expect to survive the fight, but when she does, it is miraculous. While Zetian might hate Shimin, she’s confident in their ability to pilot together. However, Zetian begins to see cracks in the army’s piloting system, and she will not stop until she uncovers why it works to ensure the men’s survival.
Iron Widow left me feeling many things. First, I screamed because the ending was super frustrating but a little sad, so I was weepy, and I felt like throwing up because Zetian cannot catch a break. Despite that carousel of emotions, I thoroughly enjoyed Iron Widow.
Iron Widow’s big theme is misogyny. And this theme is embedded in the culture of Huaxia, the army, and Zetian’s familial relationships. Early on, Zetian recalls the day her grandmother broke and bound her feet to increase her market value. Despite the infections and nearly dying, Zetian’s family was okay with risking it all just so her daughter could marry. Additionally, Zetian laments her family was more than willing to offer her and her older sister to the army because the compensation they would have received for their deaths would have been worth more than their lives.
Zetian’s hatred for the Patriarchy shapes her into the Iron Widow. I felt like this theme was interwoven well into the story, and it drove Zetian’s rage. Yet, I was still shocked when Zetian chose murder every single time!
Zetian is calculated and unhinged, which makes her relationships with Shimin and Yizhi extra special. Li Shimin earned the title of the iron demon because he killed his family and because his spirit power is very high. But he’s a little soft. Shimin only murdered his family because he caught his brothers raping a woman, and he also has PTSD because he sacrificed girls during battle. So when Zetian survives their first battle together he weakly tries to befriend her. However, Shimin doesn’t shy away from a fight which makes him Zetian’s perfect partner in crime.
“My killer boy, my sweet boy.”Iron Widow Xiran Jay Zhao
On the other hand, Yizhi is the son of the richest man in Huaxia and Zetian’s secret friend. While Yizhi’s sweet personality was evident from the start, he had some hints of darkness in him, which Zetian never comments on. When Yizhi finally meets Shimin, he pulls him by his military leash and reminds him that Shimin needs to get it together for Zetian’s sake. This incident did make me question Yizhi’s sweet personality. Much later, Shimin and Zetian leave to kidnap and torture an army strategist and when they return Yizhi greets the chaos twins by making pastries. Yizhi never intended to stop them, he helped them kidnap the man, and then he watches the torture footage!
I’m not sure why Zetian does not acknowledge this other side of Yizhi but I thought it was worth noting. Especially with the way Yizhi ends this novel, there’s something more to this sweet boy.
While I liked Zetian’s relationship with both boys, I felt that Yizhi and Shimin’s relationship was precious. The boys’ flirtations were so tame I wondered if either of them would get the hint and make a move, but thankfully they figured it out in the end.
I did not expect this book to have mecha (the giant robots). I’m not a fan of mecha because I always found fantasy anime more appealing. Anywho I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t hate that element in Iron Widow. I was fascinated by the mechanics of the chrysalis, and their descriptions made them very magical. I was especially fascinated by Zetian and Shimin’s vermilion bird.
Lastly, I stumbled across fan arts of Iron Widow, and they are super beautiful! I fell in love with the characters all over again. For more beautiful fan art check out Xiran Jay Zhao’s blog.
Content Warning: violence, murder, mentions of past rape, torture, bound feet, misogyny, abuse of power.
After reading Iron Widow I am now craving some space reads so stay tune for my dive into sci-fi.
until next time reader I’ll be living in libros,
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I was eyeing that one! Cinder sounded super interesting. I will definitely add it to the list.
Oh also: Just as a general breakdown of the plot of the series, it follows Cyborg Cinder as she navigates in a dystopian world of post era royalty and space travel. Each book is a Sci fi spin off of
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There’s probably better plot summaries online than what I just gave if you’re interested 😅 🙂
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Thank you! 🙂