Gloriously brutal. Feminist and furious. There’s a reason Iron Widow has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for 34 weeks. Here’s why.
Name: Iron Widow
Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
Published: Oct 2021
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.
Historical, dystopian, sci fi – Iron Widow such a blur of genres that everything is new and nothing is predictable. It follows Zetian, a fiery and empathetic female (non binary?) protagonist as she fights aliens and tries to dismantle the constructs of her patriarchal planet; alongside a personal mission of vengeance.
Without fail, every scene is crafted and unexpected and so, so interesting. The plot keeps you on your toes, and is written in unexpectedly modern dialogue that I really enjoyed. Iron Widow touches on race relations, media control, monogamy. Zetian learns. There’s a thought-provoking exploration of gender juggled between a complicated plot and world building and character development. That’s a lot crammed into 400 pages!
“How do you take the fight out of half the population and render them willing slaves? You tell them they’re meant to do nothing but serve from the minute they’re born. You tell them they’re weak. You tell them they’re prey. You tell them over and over, until it’s the only truth they’re capable of living.”– IRON WIDOW
However, it’s such an interesting world that some details get lost. I was left with questions: what actually happened to “Big Sister”? Despite revenge being the point of Zetian’s journey, I thought her mission didn’t get a conclusive ending. Who are the Gods and why do they need all the metal? How do Hunduns and Chrysalis actually work? Iron Widow is intended as a series, so maybe these questions will be answered in the sequel, but I wouldn’t have minded an extra 75 pages to expand the world and fully flesh out Zetian’s relationships. The setting was fascinating, which is why I had so many questions remaining.
As for other criticisms? I saw some reviews saying there’s too much telling and not showing; sure the writing is rather simple but it works. It fits the blunt truth the book is trying to convey. Blunt and brutal – check trigger warnings! You can find them on the author’s website.
“He will not kill me. He does not get to make me a statistic.”– YOU ARE VENGEANCE.
Also, there could be more female characters. It’s difficult to avoid the ‘she’s not like other girls’ trap with YA heroines, and while I think the author danced around the hole pretty well, they could have been certain not to fall in by having more women who were just as eager as Zetian to escape the patriarchal regime. Maybe that’s something we’ll see in the sequel?
So, despite the dystopian setting, Iron Widow is an uncomfortably timely book. I loved how it discusses media – so much of the plot is depressingly relatable despite the archaic, patriarchal setting. Every chapter hits like a punch to the gut. Have you read The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna? The Iron Widow is similar… but better. What The Gilded Ones was trying to achieve but executed (lol) properly, with all the feminist brutality of Wilder Girls by Rory Power. Iron Widow is really funny at points. A manifesto at others.
A radical book for the YA genre. Game changing. If you read one book this year, make it this one.