Cover Image: Iron Widow

Iron Widow

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

Human existence in Huaxia is constantly threatened by mechanical aliens. Their only true means of protection the Chrysalises, giant transforming suits of robotic armor, and the pilots who fight within them. Boys celebrated for their prowess in protecting their home and the girls who pair with and support them. The girls who die from the strain, their ki drained and their minds broken. Zetian volunteers to be one of those girls, a concubine pilot, not to support her family or protect her home but for revenge. To kill the pilot who murdered her sister. All seems lost when they are called to battle. All seems lost until Zetian wakes and the pilot does not. She won. She killed him and in doing so proved herself too valuable to simply execute. Now she will have to deal with the consequences of her power and her new situation as an Iron Widow. She will have to find a way to make her new assignment as the paired pilot to the Iron Demon, Li Shimin, the most dangerous male pilot in Huaxia work for her as she tries to figure out why the pilot system is rigged against girls and how to end it.

It has been a while since a book grabbed me like Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow. There have been books that I read faster and books that I wanted to spend more time picking through, but none that made me want to see more of the world and how it worked as things were revealed and the protagonist made more of her situation. I find myself left with so many questions about the setting and the Chrysalises and the whole situation with the gods, but not in a way that feels unsatisfying. It winds up being more that the world feels rich and full and I want to see as much of it as Zhao is willing to share in this series.

That actually sort of makes this difficult for me to write. There is so much I enjoyed about the setting and the world building and the characters, that I find myself unsure where to start, so let’s start with what Iron Widow feels like. This being a science fiction reimagining of the story of China’s only female emperor I was not sure what to expect or if my lack of prior knowledge would leave me lost, but rather than feeling like a story based in history it felt like really solid science fiction. It flowed really well and the progression felt really solid. The whole idea of the Chrysalises was fascinating and I wanted to know what decided the shapes they took, if they were designed after beings from Chinese mythology because that would be good for the people of Huaxia’s moral or if the designs were set by the mysterious gods of the setting for another reason. Taken with that, I wanted to know more about the mythology of Huaxia. There are rumors about Zetian being a fox spirit after her first battle and the death of that pilot, and I would have loved to see more about that. It would not have fit with the plotting, but I do hope that more can be shown in later novels.

The characters feel three dimensional and interesting and delightfully human. Zetian’s anger is glorious and it builds and shifts to accommodate the people she comes to care about and those who have harmed them. She is deeply ambitious, with that ambition only slightly tempered by the fact that it needs to keep her and hers alive and safe. Li Shimin, the much feared and loathed Iron Demon, has this almost lovingly tragic backstory of trying to improve his situation only to fall because of his better nature, he follows Zetian’s plans as a partner rather than trying to drag her where he wants to go. The balance between them was fantastic. Even more, the way Zetian’s friend Yizhi fits into things, bringing another layer to how the setting works as well as backing Zetian and Shimin’s play for safety and power. I am very about these characters and how they work as a group.

Ultimately even the thing that usually annoys me with first novels, having an ending that heavily implies the next one, just left me excited because it meant more of this. Plus it stands really well on its own. I have no complaints about Iron Widow and I have total grabby hands for the next book in the series. Iron Widow gets a five out of five from me. I greatly enjoyed Zhao’s writing and cannot wait to see where they go from here.
Was this review helpful?
Big thank you to NetGalley for the E-ARC in exchange for an honest review 

I went in with high hopes and I felt most if not all were met in this book! The writing at times can feel a little choppy, but in a way, I would think would happen with a new author and overall is something she will only get better with the more novels she writes. 

I want to say so much about this book from the plot I found inventive and just gripping from the start to the characters that had a good blend of reliability but also being these badass mech pilots as well, but this book I believe is even better if you go into knowing as little as possible. I read this only knowing the basic idea that is was a mix of mech suit fighting and Chinese history/myths and in my mind made the rea even more fun! 

Side note also there is some Poly rep in the novel even though it is not a romance and I don't think people should go in thinking it is. Romance is more of a little extra side plot while the main plot has more to do with action and the underlining feminist message of the story and characters' journey.
Was this review helpful?
4.5 Stars

I could not put Iron Widow down! The Pacific Rim meets Handmaid's Tale description couldn't be more accurate. Zetian is the rage-filled, badass female character I have been searching for and she's not afraid to embrace her inner villainy. The book felt very fast paced the whole time and my only real complaint was that the writing style has room for improvement, particularly towards the end. I couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was but something about it just didn't flow.

I hope Xiran Jay Zhao is frantically writing because I cannot wait for the sequel!

Thanks so much to Netgalley for the e-arc!
Was this review helpful?
For sure this book is a five stars and a favorite of mine! zetian, shimin and yizhi are the lovers of my life and I can't put into words how good this book it is. it has been weeks since I read Iron Widow and, even now, it's a strange, good and amazing sensation about how well-done, well-written this book is. I can't wait for the next one of this series!
Was this review helpful?
Adding representation to my bookshelf has been a priority goal of mine for 2021, so I was so excited to receive this ARC! It's a feminist story with bi representation rooted in Chinese history. Zetain is also a morally grey character, which I oftentimes find are my favorites, If you like futuristic sci-fi reads, this is definitely one you will love. I am usually not one for sci-fi and to be honest some of this story just went over my head. I can understand why it has rave reviews, but unfortunately, I'm just not the right audience.
Was this review helpful?
This was SO good! Theories and guesses I had about the plot and relationships were proved wrong which I always love. A surprising book will always be rated highly by me! It was impossible to pause the audiobook and so much was happening but yet it was not overwhelming. I could easily follow it and then my mind could catch up to the next scene because the action and intrigue does not let up!

Iron Widow reminded me of Pacific Rim but instead of robots, living, evolving creatures and story elements/politics/and society that is inspired by past Chinese culture and history.
Was this review helpful?
There are very few books that have astounded me so much and taken me so aback that it takes me weeks to formulate words to review them. Not in the same way life is too busy for me to sit down and finish a review but more I can't find words. This is a book that is greater than words. Iron Widow is the latest in that line. 

I've had this book on  my radar since I started watching Xiran Jay Zhao's videos earlier this year. I've never been quite what I'd call a history nerd but I do have a tendency to focus on random countries, periods or figures and read or check out all I can about them. One of those was Wu Zetian.  I would recommend the authors own video on her to  get the full  details but safe to say she fascinated and terrified me. 

We follow Wu Zetian in this fantastic, reimagined in an alternate scifi world where women are seen as consumable objects to fuel an ongoing battle against the beings known as the Hunduns. Women pilots are needed to fuel the mecha suits, pilotted by male ones, in an attempt at a balanced match in something called spirit pressure. When we meet Zetian, she is reeling from the death of her sister after her being forced into the becoming on of these pilots. The depiction of how Zetian and her older sister are valued by their family, is depicted very bluntly. There is no detail spared to her true feelings about them. She details her father's rage, her sense of betrayal at the loss of her sister, the brutal process of when they bound her feet.

It's hard not to join in Zetian's rage and burning desire for change. Her (justified) outrage as the world fails to value her for anything else other than  her ability to boost the campaign of a man. Something I loved about Zetian from the start was she's not only willing to do any thing, no matter how savage, to change things. But she is also very flawed. I have mentioned in many a review I love nothing more than a morally grey, more nuanced character. Especially when that character is a woman. But this book is YA and it's so interesting to see a character like Zetian in that demographic. No sooner than when she meets her new partner, Li Shimin, do we see her own internal logic confronted as maybe being a bit too skewed. Later on, the same applies to when she meets other Iron Princesses. She seeks to use them, and some are wise to it. She is suddenly not the strongest one in the room. It's an excellent deconstruction of the protagonist. 

The really outstanding world building is easy to see in the images of the mecha suits on the authors website but even without them, it's so easy to visualise. The different types, from wood to fire,  the different transformation potential they can go through, all the way down to how within the spirit realm how both pilots manage them. It's all so immersive and rich in references to history, culture and (even) pop culture, it's hard not to love it. 

I feel I can't admire the book as well without commenting on the success of the throuple. I'm not someone who practiced polyamory at any stage of my life but this book really nails the most positive depiction of it I've read. Zetian, Shimin and Yizhi work perfectly in sync together. It's later explained in the narrative how they work on a deeper level for fighting and how they might shatter the notion of couples being the best for balanced piloting as well. But they have so many tender moments, intercut with some really difficult conversations that lend the relationship far more credibility and is far from the fetishization. 

I am still reeling from the ending of the book as well I might add. I honestly can't wait for the sequel, mostly because of how this one wraps up but I am also so looking forward to reading more of the authors work. Thankfully for the meantime, I have their videos to keep me going. Thank you to the publisher for the digital copy in exchange for this review. Thanks for checking in guys, happy reading!
Was this review helpful?
This was quite an adventure! I love the feminist themes, the bled of history with this future world, the triangle that formed, and now I need the sequel.
Was this review helpful?
4.5 stars rounding up. Wow wow wow. Now I see why this is nominated for a best book of 2021 on goodreads! This book was everything. Our character questioned backwards gendered norms, we had a to-die-for “villain”, so many epic scenes. I just devoured this book. Will definitely be picking up book 2.
Was this review helpful?
If we can just insert every stunned reaction gif RIGHT HERE, that would be my face at the end of this book. This left me stunned at the utter C H A O S (and gloriousness) of that epilogue and I NEED BOOK 2. 

This book is an absolutely WILD ride and it just got my adrenaline pumping?? Like, you all know that moment in Catching Fire where Peeta says, “if it weren’t for the baby” and it’s pandemonium??? THIS BOOK IS LIKE THAT MOMENT. OVER AND OVER AGAIN. 

Why did I take so long to read this book??? I’ve only heard good things and knew it had a polyam relationship, and something to do with giant transforming mechas based on China’s first (and only) female empress. The page count of this book was intimidating to me, but I had NOTHING to fear. I read this book in less than a day because I couldn’t put this down. It ensnared me in the best way, and now I am emotionally undone. 

Content notes include graphic descriptions of foot binding, attempted sexual assault, mentions of rape, misogyny, murder, deaths, violence, blackmail, a waterboarding scene, alcoholism and scenes of withdrawal, and mentions of organ harvesting. 

This book is told from Wu Zetian’s POV. She has only ever lived in the countryside and when her sister was sold to operate alongside a boy in a mecha called a Chrysalis and winded up being killed, Zetian has vowed to avenge her big sister. This plan means leaving behind the rich boy, Yizhi who she thinks she could’ve loved, and condemning her remaining family to death. Her family never did anything for her anyways but give her pain and misery, and Yizhi and her are miles away in their social classes to ever make it work, so leaving that all behind on what is basically a suicide mission wasn’t too hard for her. 

But when she gets paired up with the boy who killed her sister and she actually winds up killing said boy? Everything changes. 

I think the most important consequence of her actions is that she meets Li Shimin. He is deadly by all accounts but it turns out he has a very soft heart and I LOVE HIM??? Thankfully, I knew going into this book that this is going to be a polyam relationship so no conflicted feelings whether Zetian will choose Yizhi or Shimin when she can clearly have BOTH (and they can have each other). 

This book deserves the hype. It is FANTASTIC. Listen, I don’t know anything really about the comps used to sell this book - I still haven’t seen Pacific Rim or Handsmaid’s Tale. But what I DO know is that this book gives off heavy Evangelion, Gundam, and even some .hack//SIGN vibes sprinkled with ancient Chinese history, but set in a fantastical future. 

I think the weirdest thing to wrap my head around in this book is the dichotomy of having real Chinese figures and places inspired by ancient China but the setting is futuristic in its use of mechas and technology? It’s strange and I couldn’t really tell you what all was happening in some scenes, but I just went with it. This book is sometimes just vibes. And that’s okay. 

I loved that this story got to stick to the traditional Chinese naming conventions where you’re saying the last name, then the first name. I feel like Western books can be weird about this but I’m so happy this convention was kept for this book! 

The moment when Zetian decides to drop Li Shimin’s surname and JUST calls him Shimin??? Like they’re FRIENDS NOW? If y’all could’ve heard my scream at that very pivotal moment. Will readers catch that significance? Probably not a lot will. But it’s big! Contrast that with the fact that Zetian has called Yizhi simply “Yizhi” this entire time and the only time she calls him Gao Yizhi with his surname was to yell at him??? The power she holds over these two is unrivaled (and they love it). 

However, I will say that keeping the English translation like “Big Sister” in the book comes across as a little awkward to read when I just know the correct Mandarin words are jiejie and that IS used some of the time. I did find the mixing and matching of the English versus the Mandarin at different points in the story to be very inconsistent throughout the book. That’s really my only complaint. 

There is a lot of unnerving things that happen in this book, but I think the most visceral to me is the foot binding. It’s quite detailed and we see how this is something Zetian has lived with her whole life. I think this part of the book hits harder for me personally because it’s something my ancestors would definitely had to go through? My grandmother lived in a more ~liberal~ family, my mom says, and managed to not undergo this in the early 1900s as a child, but further back in the line, there’s definitely women who did. So, this part of the book was a lot. Especially since I wasn’t expecting it. 

Zetian is disabled. Because of the foot binding, she has a very hard time walking. At the beginning of the book she had a cane. But when that was lost, she had to deal with the pain and walking on her own. We do see her get a wheelchair later on this book. I think the fact that she can walk pain free in the dream-like realm when she operates a Chrysalis can be something that’s addictive because what happened to her feet is not something that can be undone or ever cured. It’s something she lives with, and to be free from pain for even a little bit is something I can see her wanting to hold on to as long as she can, by whatever means necessary. 

What I liked about this book is that this is based on the actual Wu Zetian. Loosely. But the real Wu Zetian’s life is a wild ride. And just borrowing a sliver of that would already be SO MUCH to write about. Add in the Chrysalis, and there’s no end to the action-packed scenes. 

This book does explore gender identity a little bit? More so at the beginning of the book than the end. I think it’s interesting how this is weaved into the storyline and we see how Zetian views herself and bucks “tradition” with not only her words but her actions throughout the book. The one time she does try to conform, despite even her presumed enemy telling her not to, winds up biting her hard. 

There’s really still so much I want to say, but I don’t know how when all I want to do is scream about how great this book is!!! I love Zetian. I love  Yizhi. I love Shimin. Everyone else?? I guess we’ll just have to see. I trust nobody else. 

Iron Widow is one of my favorite books this year, if not my all time favorite!! This book gives me LIFE and book 2 can’t come fast enough!
Was this review helpful?
Eighteen-year-old Zetian signs herself up as a concubine-pilot to avenge her older sister’s death. Girls are paired with pilots, who use their qi power to power their machines and fight the aliens beyond the Great Wall, and the girls are sacrificed for their power. In Zetian’s first battle, where she is paired up with the boy who killed her sister, she surprises everyone when she survives the battle but the pilot doesn’t. Zetian is more powerful than they expected, so she’s paired up with the dangerous Li Shimin, one of the most powerful pilots they have. Now that Zetian has some power, she wants to figure out the reason behind this misogynistic situation to save girls from being sacrificed.

This book definitely lived up to the hype. It was action packed and exciting. The beginning was a little predictable, when Zetian achieved what she set out to do as a concubine-pilot immediately. Soon after avenging her sister’s death, the story picked up and had some surprising twists.

Gender was a major theme in this story. Zetian lived in a misogynistic society where the lives of girls weren’t valued. Girls were sent to the battlefield to be sacrificed during alien battles. However, when Zetian gained some power, with having a high qi rating and having avenged her sister’s death, she was prepared to prevent girls from being sacrificed in the future.

Iron Widow is an amazing fantasy debut!

Thank you Penguin Random House Canada for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?
Don't you just love it when one of your most anticipated reads turns out even better than your expectations? Because Iron Widow is that for me. Thrilling from start to finish, and by start I mean right from the author's note.
Was this review helpful?
This book was wild. I loved how fast paced the story was and how dark it is. I can’t reccomend this enough!
Was this review helpful?
I’ve seen a lot of mixed reviews about this book, and unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t like the world it was set in: everything was confusing and I had a hard time getting attached to the characters. However, this is the first YA book I’ve encountered that deals with polyamory, and I think it’s really great that YA publishing has come this far. Iron Widow wasn’t for me, but I know a lot of readers are going to love it.
Was this review helpful?
Iron Widow is excellent. Very well-written with fascinating, sympathetic characters and a unique and absorbing plot. 
Based on the real historical figure of an ancient Chinese empress, it is grounded in the traditional Chinese lack of status or rights for women. However, this SF story takes place in the future and the young girl involved is definitly not your typical meek and obedient female. The story of her rebellion, revenge and ultimate victory, with all its startling revelations and strong push for female empowerment is absorbing. I highly recommend it!

Posted on Goodreads and - Thanks for letting me read and review this book!
Was this review helpful?
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an advanced copy of ‘Iron Widow’ by Xiran Jay Zhao. Thoughts and opinions are my own.

Seriously. Thank you so much for letting me read this book! It’s definitely my top favorite release for 2021. I read this physically alongside the audiobook which helped with pronunciations as well as seeing the spellings of names and places. I’ve been feeling a bit burnt out on YA and this is exactly the kind of new and compelling book I’ve been waiting for. Reading this made me remember why I love reading. I’m looking forward to rereading this before the next book comes out.

5/5 stars
Was this review helpful?
From start to finish this book had me hooked! I absolutely loved the unique narrative and the cast of compelling characters. I would definitely recommend this to fans of fantasy and epic tales.
Was this review helpful?
Amazing Book. I have been in a reading slump going back stopping about midway through but Iron Widow really pulled me out of it. Sold as the Handmaid's Tale mixed with Pacific Rim and it really delivered. Xiran really makes each chapter like its own scene or episode in an anime. Leaving me itching to find out what happens next. I can't wait to find out what she makes next.
Was this review helpful?
This book was incredible. The characters and world building were just phenomenal, I simply was rooting for every last character. I cannot wait to read more from this author; they have truly outdone themselves. I need MORE after that ending!!!
Was this review helpful?
This book. THIS FREAKING BOOK Y’ALL. It’s been two months since I finished it - which took me ages because I was mildly intimidated by it because it was so hyped up and what if I didn’t like it?

Oh I liked it. It lived up to the hype and exceeded it. Honestly not a day goes by that I don’t think about this book at least once. Constantly just in the back of my mind.

Firstly this book is marketed as “Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale” and if you go to read it (which you should 100% do) heed that warning! This book is heavy - it’s brutal and dark. It’s full feminine rage in one completely twisted tale. Briefly this contains mentions and scenes of: murder, torture, rape, misogyny, mental illness and many other hard topics. This isn’t a light read but god it’s just so good that none of it stops you. 

The reason none of that stops you - the violence and the pain? The characters who are going through it - the main three in particular. Starting with one of my new favorite characters of all time - Zetian, our main character. The girl who set out to avenge her sister and now is in a position to possibly completely topple the misogynistic system that has been killing women off like they’re nothing but replaceable tools for so long. She’s wild and the embodiment of an anti-heroine. She knows the power she holds and uses every ounce of it to destroy that which wants to see her fail. I could honestly go on and on about her because I love her that much. 

But, I have to talk about her support system - and that’s truly what they are. Shining and Yizhi. Two men who love her and support her in every step of her mission. Li Shimin - a murderous pilot and Gao Yizhi - a wealthy intellectual. Polar opposites who come together in their joint admiration for Wu Zetian. Love them and adore them and the end of the book HAS ME STRESSED to say the least.

Also, the three of them getting together? A beautiful representation of a polyamorous relationship? No obnoxious love triangle to distract us from the violence and mayhem the three of them leave behind them? Made the book even better. Made them even better - made them stronger. 

The last bit of this book were absolutely wild and unhinged. I basically read the whole ending with my face just stuck in a permanently shocked expression. I know I screamed. I’ve sat on this review for months because my brain was very much just in shambles(sorry NetGalley).

I cannot recommend this enough. Yes it has a cliffhanger and yes I will be internally screaming until the next book is out. But - pick it up. Read it and feel the rage. I also just want more people to scream about this book with.
Was this review helpful?