Review: Iron Widow (Xiran Jay Zhao) | an epic YA futuristic fantasy full of feminism, Chinese history and interesting (aka badass) characters who smash the patriarchy!

From now on, I’ll only ever be able to associate the word “epic” with Iron widow. This book is so hard to describe, but that one word pretty much summarises it all for me. This feminist YA scifi/fantasy is…definitely something else! Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut is just so much at once; a futuristic novel, yet inspired by Chinese history; a story about feminism and the patriarchy; a love triangle turned into a polyamorous relationship between some of the most interesting characters I’ve read about.

Iron widow is a book many are highly anticipating, and I can totally see why! I kinda still can’t believe I got to read it early, to be honest, but in today’s review I’m gonna be telling you all about what I thought of this book and all its epicness!

Thank you to the publisher for providing me with this book in exchange for an honest review! This did not affect my opinions in any way. This review is completely spoiler-free.

Iron widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Publisher: Penguin teen
Release date: September 21st, 2021
Genre: YA science-fiction
Representation: Chinese main characters, Chinese/bisexual main characters, polyamorous relationship
Trigger/Content warnings: gore, murder, torture, mentions of rape, threats of rape, misogyny, femicide, suicide ideation, abuse, alcohol addiction, graphic depictions of violence

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.

Okay so where is the sign-up form to marry, I mean, all three of our main characters? You all know I am weak for complex characters and Xiran Jay Zhao just took that to a whole other level. Zetian, Shimin and Yizhi have such strong and different personalities and they are, well, not always morally correct. They are pretty ruthless even and you know what? Good for them! I am soft for them either way…

But Iron Widow is a refreshing debut in so many ways besides its characters, too. YA is so full of tropes and while I love lots of them, some are pretty annoying or even problematic. While reading this, I often felt like the book was challenging the problematic tropes and turning them into something powerful. Nothing but respect for Xiran Jay Zhao.

And yeah…the feminism was everything I wanted. The author really didn’t beat around the bush which made it all blatantly honest and — even though this takes place in a world very different from our own — so true to our (unfortunate) reality. It hurt to see all of this injustice, but I was also glad that the truths were there, no matter how shocking.

I could literally feel Zetian’s rage because, well, we shared it.

While I could mostly feel Zetian’s emotions very strongly, I do wish we’d seen and felt more of her grief. She’s doing this stuff to avenge her sisters’ death, but I can’t help but feel like we as readers didn’t even get a glimpse of what their relationship was like, and that’s a bit of a missed opportunity in my opinion.

Xiran Jay Zhao, Iron Widow (quoted from an advanced copy)

Now, you all need to understand this very urgent need I have…The need for an Iron Widow adaptation. Like. Right now. Xiran Jay Zhao writes in a perfect tone for this book and it’s all very vivid, which caused my brain to not only make me read everything but also see it. That wasn’t always pleasant because some of the descriptions are…yeah. But I can assure you this would make a BANGER of an adaptation!

The romance though…it definitely went beyond my expectations. Iron Widow includes a polyamorous relationship that really works as a triangle. All three of them are very much in love with each other and I’m just so emotional. I was scared I would like “these two” together more than “these two, but that luckily wasn’t the case because Xiran Jay Zhao is a genius.

The thing with their romance is is that they don’t come in pairs, but as a group, and I love that.

I do have to be honest though. If you ask me anything about the world-building, my brain will just go blank. I did not understand a lot about what was happening…a lot of the times. I actually read the book twice and the last 20% thrice, even, but I still have no idea. I could just be the dumb one but…yeah.

As for the ending…Xiran Jay Zhao straight up messed with me and my poor brain. I’m honestly terrified for the sequel because what in the hell was that.

Xiran Jay Zhao, Iron Widow (quoted from an advanced copy)

I am bowing down to Xiran Jay Zhao because they DELIVERED with their debut! It was an intricate, unique and important story that was just so well crafted. From the characters and their complexity, to the feminism that drives this book; it’s a book you absolutely can’t miss out on!

That only leaves us with one question (actually dozens of them but most importantly): sequel please??

Oh and if the author happens to be reading this: I’d give up everything for a chance to read the draft of Iron Widow that is even darker and R18-rated, thank you.

art by Cassberrie

One-sentence pitch: To avenge her sisters’ murder and save other girls from getting sacrificed, Zetian challenges the patriarchy “where male pilots of giant magical mecha are worshipped, while female pilots must serve as their concubines” and offer their lives for them.
One-sentence review: Side effects of reading this book may include absolutely losing your mind, whispering “wtf” under your breath repeatedly, being in love with Zetian, Yizhi AND Shimin, and of course: no longer seeing the difference between the words “Iron Widow” and “epic”.

Definitely read it if: you want more badass female characters, you like characters who aren’t morally correct (yet NOT problematic!!!), you want to smash the patriarchy, too, or if you’re interested in reading about a polyamorous relationship.
Maybe skip it if: you don’t like complicated stories or aren’t a fan of/have never read science fiction books.

Characters: 4.5 out of 5 stars!
Writing: 4 out of 5 stars!
Vibes: 5 out of 5 stars!
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars!
Enjoyment: 4 out of 5 stars!
OVERALL: 4.25 out of 5 stars!

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14 thoughts on “Review: Iron Widow (Xiran Jay Zhao) | an epic YA futuristic fantasy full of feminism, Chinese history and interesting (aka badass) characters who smash the patriarchy!

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