Happy Sunday book friends! I finally decided to start reading through my NetGalley arcs, and I have no regrets that I chose Iron Widow first. It also comes out within a month, so it was probably time I started that one anyway.
Iron widow is what happens when someone decides to write a story about Pacific Rim (but not) and ancient China (but not). That sounds vague, so lemme retry. Basically, the author has described it as taking place in a separate sci-fi world, with a society very loosely based on Chinese history. So it’s not to be taken as a historical retelling. I really enjoyed this book, though it’s a lot more intense than your average YA. So check out the content warnings below, and read on for my thoughts!
By Xiran jay ZhaoMy Rating: ★★★★☆
Published 27 September 2021 by Penguin Teen
Science Fiction | Alien invasion | LGBTQ
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.
What I Liked
If you are looking for a book with likable characters, this isn’t it. Some people solve their problems by thinking rationally, or asking for help. Our MC solves problems with murder. I’m okay with that. So yes, our MC Zetian isn’t a likable character, but I enjoyed her journey regardless. I already said this isn’t an accurate historical portrayal, but I did read some things that as far as I’m aware were (are?) real parts of Chinese society, and society in general. I think the author did a great job of explaining the difficulties women face/have faced in society and within their own family. My own friend vents to me about her family difficulties often enough, and I recognized her in Zetian a lot (minus the murdering).
Anyway, the injustices made me mad, but the compliance displayed was even worse. I loved how Zetian refused to comply, and continuously questioned why things are the way they are. She doesn’t believe for a second that women’s inferior position is because it’s the natural order. An added bonus is that this is also a very sex-positive book; something that I believe YA can use more. I think Zetian learns a lot about life in this book, and I liked that she is forced to sometimes admit that she’s wrong (can’t have too perfect characters). Her interactions with the other important characters, Shimin and Yizhi, were a lot of fun to read. They especially added a good sprinkling of humor to an otherwise very intense book.
In short, I enjoyed this book mainly because it forced me to think, and will likely float in my head for a while. Plus, I enjoyed reading about an MC that isn’t trying her best to be good. Every now and then it’s just a lot of fun to read about characters with a very small moral compass. Also the ending sets up the second book up nicely, so I already can’t wait to read that.
What I Liked Less
My biggest gripe with this book is that I had a hard time really pointing out the plot. The book was never boring, so this isn’t the biggest issue ever, but I felt like the characters kind of moved through the story with no clear goal. Zetian of course wants to find out why the pilot system is the way it is, but I felt like this only started to become important in the last third of the book.
I also had a somewhat hard time picturing the Chrysalises and Hunduns. To be honest, I was only able to picture the Kaiju from Pacific Rim even though I know that’s not what Hunduns are supposed to look like. I’m not sure if this lack of visual is on me, or on the author though.