Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay ZhaoIron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Published by Penguin on September 21, 2021
Genres: Young Adult Fiction / Diversity & Multicultural, Young Adult Fiction / Girls & Women, Young Adult Fiction / Science Fiction / General
Pages: 400

An instant #1 New York Times bestseller!

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid's Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.

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.

One of the things that I like best about Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut, Iron Widow, is that it truly defies categorization. A YA dystopian novel inspired by figures and cultural periods throughout Chinese history, Iron Widow is also a battle-mecha story that dives deep into the trauma of war, abuse, and gender-based violence.  It’s a lot all at once but it worked for me!

Wu Zetian is a towering pillar of rage, largely kept in check by her circumstances. When Zetian’s older sister is quietly murdered by one of the most famous men in the country, all her attempts to play by the rules are called off. Knowing full well that her plan to murder a war hero will result in her undoing, Zetian plunges headfirst into her ill-conceived plan…and in so doing unearths one of the most closely-guarded secrets in Huaxia.  

Thrown into the cockpit of a mecha creature called a Chrysalis, Zetian must partner up with Li Shimin, a pilot as powerful as he is despised. Powerhouse though he may be, Zetian isn’t about to cede control to Shimin. As they jockey for control of their Chrysalis, a tentative alliance is formed…one that becomes even stronger when Zetian’s would-be lover Yizhui enters the mix. That’s right people: polyamory in YA. As Zetian says herself, the triangle is the strongest shape!

I really loved the way that these three characters care for each other and support each other, each one adding something that the others lack. Tenderness is just as valuable as power, maybe even more so since there’s such a dearth of it in Huaxia. Zetian, Shimin, and Yizhui have conversations about patriarchy, racism, violence, substance abuse, desire – you name it, they discuss it. It’s refreshing to see teenagers in such a high-stakes environment taking the effort to connect and build emotional intimacy.

"It’s refreshing to see teenagers in such a high-stakes environment taking the effort to connect and build emotional intimacy."

While there’s a lot to love about Iron Widow, few novels are perfect so there were some aspects that I found a little underwhelming. For all the details about foot binding, technology, mechas, and the alien enemies that Chrysalis pilots fight, I still felt that the world building was a little thin. Frankly, the world building seems to be composed primarily of vibes and aesthetics. They’re good vibes and good aesthetics – just look at all the fan art – but still.

I was also disappointed that Zetian didn’t have more women around her that she could count on as allies and mentors. I get why things played out the way they did, women can be complicit in the systems that oppress us and all that, but that’s something that I expect to see remedied in the sequel. Zetian may be tearing the patriarchy down but she can also lift other women up! She’s clearly a great multitasker (if you know, you know).

Things that Iron Widow is not: subtle, predictable, safe-for-work. If you’re expecting a nuanced feminist opus, this isn’t it. If, like me, you just want to see an angry girl tear shit down, then you’re in for one hell of a ride. For the first time in ages, I’m feeling truly excited about YA science fiction and fantasy again. Recommended for fans of mecha anime and readers who appreciate some good, white-hot female rage.