Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao (2021)
YA Fiction | Fantasy/Sci-Fi
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.
pooled ink Review:
Okay so I was drawn to the cover of this book plus the blurb sounded exciting but it wasn’t until the book club I attend chose Iron Widow as our next read that I finally moved it to the top of my TBR list. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book and ended up having some ups and downs with it. Overall I’d say it had Chinese mythology x Hunger Games x alien/sci-fi vibes, but let’s get to those ups and downs… (prepare for a weird mix of praise and ranting haha)
At the very beginning when we meet Zetian, she declares to her best friend Yizhi that she’s going to enlist for a suicide mission just to kill the pilot that drained/killed her sister just as the male pilots do to every female “co-pilot”/concubine every time they go out into battle. My first reaction was wow there are some intense decisions and situations going on here and though it all felt a bit extreme I was curious to see where it went (besides this was all in the book’s blurb anyway so it wasn’t a surprise).
In some ways this mountain scene between Zetian and Yizhi felt very Katniss and Gale (The Hunger Games) to me.
The next big moment is when Zetian succeeds in killing the pilot and becomes an Iron Widow (again this isn’t a spoiler, it’s all in the book’s blurb). This was a pretty epic sequence and her fierce declaration had me getting so hype for this book. Her suicide mission felt dramatic and emotion-fueled and now it felt like potential and logic were creeping in to bring Zetian to a place of so much more and I was ready to see her conquer the world with it.
Next up Zetian is paired with the infamous pilot of the Vermilion Bird (no, this also is not a spoiler lol). Li Shimin is the #1 pilot and yet the most feared and hated because he was plucked from death row where he’d been sentenced for killing his family. A female has never survived being paired with him before and really this is the military’s way of getting rid of Zetian, a dangerous Iron Widow. At this point Zetian has begun getting on my nerves a bit more but it was whatever because I could feel the excitement and potential of the story building and with those two paired up I just knew epic things were going to happen.
Zetian and Shimin have a sort of Katniss and Peeta vibe. Sima Yi I guess would be Haymitch/Effie except in this case it’s Shimin with the major drinking problem.
Then came the rest of the book. Obviously Zetian survived the Vermilion Bird. Obviously Li Shimin is not what he seemed. Unfortunately Zetian wasn’t either. I simply did not vibe with Zetian almost at all. I wanted to, but couldn’t make myself. She was a very I AM A POWERFUL FEMALE HEAR ME ROAR MEN SUCK type of character, and hey I love badass female characters but she was the kind that you just wanted to shut up for a minute ya know? Like you can chill for a second. Author E.K. Johnston is quoted on the front cover describing Iron Widow as “A primal scream of a book.” and I agree. Thankfully all I had to do to make it quiet was snap it shut.
To make things more irritating, she would be on her high rebel horse about being a powerful not-afraid-of-death badass then as soon as it was time to do anything but rage and rant in her head she cried, ran, hid, squeaked, flailed, and was just all around the opposite of what she kept claiming to be. Plus she knew how she was being manipulated, controlled, forced, and wronged yet not once thought anyone else could possibly be enduring the same?? Whatever, we’ll attribute that to her upbringing. Honestly, her upbringing was the worst and it made sense that she had a lot of pent-up rage. Still…I wish there was just idk some way to unleash her rage in a way that had me wanting to stand beside her with my own fists raised instead of wanting her to just hush for a second to give me a break once in a while. Because I get it. Viva women. I’m a woman and support our rights etc. but even when you agree with someone it isn’t fun being yelled at by them or having to listen to them rant on and on and on. Ya know? Lol maybe it’s just me. Oh well.
But Zetian’s character just felt a bit inconsistent to me and also like she was trying too hard (or maybe more that the author was trying too hard with Zetian’s character). Be a badass character, grow into a badass character, don’t be a badass character, whatever. But cram in a bunch of platforms and social stances to spotlight to the point that they felt like an author checking off items on a list? But scream and strut pretending to be a badass? Just not my vibe, that’s all, and maybe it was simply the way it was written or the way my dumb brain read it. I don’t love it when I can tell what an author’s agenda is regardless as to whether or not I agree with it. It just feels a bit pushy instead of naturally convincing. And I mean hey, I 100% would pee myself too if I was forced to go into battle where I knew I would die or even one where I simply could die. But I also wouldn’t be acting all tough and mighty and arrogant beforehand.
If Zetian was a badass, then I’d love her. If Zetian was a frightened little flower who evolved into a stronger character then I’d love her. If Zetian was a precious cinnamon roll and remained that way, I’d love her. What I did not love was her being absolutely extra all the damn time and then failing to deliver. I mean, okay she does pull her weight in the actual battles and the ending was all exciting and stuff too, but that somehow came across as less skill and more luck/”chosen one”-esque and I wish it somehow could have been made more clear that no, Zetian is powerful and it isn’t just happenstance/luck. I wanted it to feel like at least some of her success was due to her skill.
Whatever, I just didn’t vibe with her. Unfortunately she’s the main character so that made trying to immerse myself into the story rather difficult.
There are other characters though!
Like Yizhi! Who is a rich boy in love with Zetian and is given like zero character up until the very end of the book (at least the ending sounds promising for his character development in book 2). Supposedly Zetian is in love with him too but I personally saw zero evidence of that. (Wanting to kiss someone and experience ~being~ with someone doesn’t equal loving someone.)
Or Li Shimin! The badass who is somehow pathetic and also apparently in love with Zetian despite her being the absolute worst to him until randomly changing her tune towards the end. (Also sleeping with someone does not get rid of tension or awkwardness. That’s not a thing. That is not a solution. Omg how about try being friends first or just listening to him/giving him a chance?! I saw no moment when “romance” entered the equation for either of them and it was a bit off-putting for her to set-up her desire to sleep with him as a way to get rid of whatever tension kept their qi from balancing or whatever to better pilot the Vermilion Bird.) (Oh, and something major happens with him also towards the end and I felt nothing. Lol.)
And when I said “pathetic” I was not referring to his drinking problem because that is not only understandable but further explained.
I’m not sure if there was supposed to be a love-triangle in this book (actually it ended up being a triad style relationship) but it felt more like Yizhi loved Zetian and had the hots for Shimin, Li Shimin was just glad Zetian was powerful enough not to die when he piloted the Vermilion Bird and was attracted to how nice Yizhi was to him because no one ever was, and Zetian didn’t know what she wanted other than to not die and to be a badass except for when any opportunity to be a badass actually presented itself.
In my opinion, the romance should have been axed from the book. Without it this would’ve been a fierce action sci-fi book. The romance was weak and confusing and unclear and unconvincing and it dragged the story down for me but I’m sure others will wholeheartedly disagree. (Also how wild is it that I of all people am wishing there wasn’t romance in a book?? I usually will sniff out romance anywhere and cling to it lol.)
BUT BACK TO THE ENDING!!
Okay, so the last few chapters were back to exciting action, plot twists, character development, etc. Very exciting stuff. The interrogation scene and then the epilogue both provide major plot twists (though a lot of hints are dropped throughout the book so idk they’re not really shocking just confirming) and as I keep saying, the world-building/concept of this book is pretty cool. I just felt like the characters fell flat and I didn’t connect to any of them and thus struggled to care about the story but this book did start and end strong so there’s that.
Oh! You know what this was like? An action movie. Epic, exciting, etc. but at the end you cared/were entertained more by the flash and concept than any of the characters or even necessarily the plot itself. It’s dazzling, thrilling, you’ll watch it from start to finish, but then it’s over and you walk away without glancing back. I mentioned earlier how this book gave me some The Hunger Games vibes but I cried while reading that series, like I felt those emotions. This one was cool but empty. For me anyway. Hopefully not for you.
Honestly, the premise of this book was absolutely epic and intriguing and full of potential. Iron Widow has a fascinating blend of history, culture, and sci-fi with epic battles and aliens and an idea that hooked me at once. Unfortunately, I struggled to connect with any of the characters in the story and thus was left feeling detached and honestly only finished it because it’s this month’s pick for book club so I figured I ought to read it to talk about it with everyone when we meet. I really wanted to love this, but simply didn’t.
I’m probably being too harsh but I just really really wanted to love this! And at first I was pretty sure I did! There are definitely loads of readers who will devour every page of this book and scream for more and I’m glad because it’s definitely a cool concept. I simply need to like characters (usually) to enjoy a book and since I didn’t with this one…*shrugs*. Don’t listen to me though. Go check it out for yourself and fingers crossed you think I’m absolutely bonkers for not becoming an Iron Widow die-hard.
Meet Xiran Jay Zhao!
This is where I’m supposed to say I’m a #1 New York Times bestselling sci-fi & fantasy author and YouTuber with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, but we both know I’m still that cringy meme-loving weeb on the inside. I’m in a cow suit because I made a promise to my friends 7 years ago that if I actually get published, this is what I’ll take my author photo in.