Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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Publisher: Rock the Boat

Publish Date: 07 October 2021

Page Count: 400 pages

In my last review, my one-word description for Linden Lewis’ The Second Rebel was ‘angry’. Welp, Xiran Jay Zhao delivers that same fury in Iron Widow, a sci-fi/fantasy novel about a young woman who rages both against and within the machine. 

‘This world can make monsters out of anyone.’

Iron Widow jumps straight into Zetian’s quest to avenge her sister’s death. In Zetian’s world, women are either sold off as brides or sacrificed as human batteries to the male pilots who power giant robots with their life force (or qi). When her sister dies in service as one of these concubine-pilots, Zetian follows in her footsteps, intent on killing the man responsible for her death.

The same day Zetian joins the military, the alien Hunduns mount a surprise attack on the border of Huaxia. Zetian is dragged into co-piloting the Chrysalis in an emergency mission, thinking her plan is ruined. But she’s shocked to find that her spirit pressure exceeds that of the legendary pilot Yang Guang, and she battles him for mental control of his Chrysalis, draining his qi and killing him in the process. 

Finding herself in an unprecedented position, Zetian fights fiercely to forge a path for herself in a world determined to keep women silent and servile. 

‘It’s hilarious. Men want us so badly for our bodies, yet hate us so much for our minds.’

Zetian is metal AF in Iron Widow, relentlessly railing against the shocking treatment of women across Huaxia, which is the primary driver of the story. In a character arc inspired by the rise of Empress Wu Zetian–the only female leader in Imperial China’s history–we see Zetian rise to power through grit and sometimes cruelty. 

‘We can live for more. We can live for justice. Change. Vengeance. Power’

At times, there was a little too much over-explanation as part of Zetian’s internal dialogue which made her come across as immature. That said, I still believed in her cause.

Hands down my favourite thing about Iron Widow is the spiritual mechanics of the Chyrysalises and the alien Hundens that they fight. If anything, I could have done with more mecha battle scenes! I’m no anime expert, but this story reminded me of Neon Genesis: Evangelion or Knights of Sidonia, but with the weird bug things from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. In their acknowledgements, Zhao does mention that Darling in the Franxx provided them with a lot of ideas for the story.

My only problem with the Hunden side of things is that the Hundens themselves didn’t seem to present much of a threat. I didn’t believe they would still be advancing into human territory after thousands of years. But still, the sheer novelty of a book that reads like an anime film kept me engaged throughout the story.

Beyond this, the worldbuilding is a little light in Iron Widow and the plot is relatively straightforward, but there are some exciting events towards the end that have me feeling looking forward to the next instalment. The brief, cryptic references to the gods in the sky makes me think that something big is about to kick off!

Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review!

Trigger warnings: Physical abuse/mutilation, threat of rape, murder, death of family

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