Cover Image: Iron Widow

Iron Widow

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Member Reviews

First things first, Iron Widow absolutely lives up to the hype. This book was one of the most interesting and entertaining fantasy novels I’ve read in awhile. The elaborate fight scenes made my action movie loving self so happy. And I loved Pacific Rim vibes, but with a very angry girl at the center of the story. Also that twist in the epilogue had me like 😮. I will honestly read anything this author writes and will gladly throw this book at people until they read it.
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The premise was interesting - about the only female emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian - however I thought that it was poorly executed. Although action packed and quite a fast read, with one or other momentum, I also found it lacked character development. I mean, the revenge concept should be quite intriguing but perhaps not enough to be the main (and only) theme explored in this novel.

While the writing was easy, I found it chopped. That being said, Zhao tackled well the Chinese misogynist system, focusing on a strong female character plus the well-known historical figures.

I wanted to love the Transformers concept, yet it fell flat for me.

DNF @30%
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I received a copy of this book via NetGalley (thank you Penguin Random House Canada). All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Sort of voltron meets transformers meets badass meets revenge?
It was a wild ride this book, but i did have mixed feelings. 
 
The premise is awesome. I could not wait to read it. I loved the  mix between pacrim, chinese history, and the handmaid's tale. the love triange?( if we can call it that) and the overall vibe of the book. 

BUT!

BUT THE INFO DUMP. LOL. I know there was a lot to get to, but i felt like all the info dumps throughout various points in the book took you out of the story and stopped the momentum I felt while reading it. This, along with the chaotic pacing made the book feel a bit inconsistent at times.

And the writing. I know it's YA. but honestly, the quality of writing is a bit thing for me and I cringed through most of the dialogue in the  book. 

which is why it got 3 stars.
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I’d first heard about this book because well my ears tend to perk up when people say Pacific Rim (copilots and drift compatibility, am I right?) and then I’d started following the author on Instagram and TikTok and after being both utterly amazed by their cosplay and costuming skills, I also thought they were drop-dead hilarious. I really thought I knew what I was getting into reading this book. Reader, I did not. Reader, you do not. If you are reading this and are contemplating reading this, first read the trigger warnings (because they do abound and take care of yourself) but if after that you’re good, please read this extraordinary work of art. I am going to try really hard to not spoil everything that makes this book so incredible while also hyping the heck out of it but I’m gonna try.
Like I hinted, this is a heavy book that tackles a bunch of really heavy topics like alcohol abuse, rape, murder, physical abuse, emotional abuse, torture, and sexism and patriarchy bullshit, and more and worse. I am not an expert on these things, so please consult other trigger warning guides on Goodreads and other places. That being said, THis book is so worth reading.
I can’t believe this is a debut. How absolutely and intricately crafted it all was just left me gobsmacked. These characters, even the bad ones are so dynamic and alive and sizzling off the page, especially our leading lady. God, I love her so much.
I also was freaking fist-pumping at the romance in this book. I cannot tell you how many times when reading books with love triangles I have shouted at books “THIS ISN’T A TRIANGLE, IT’S A JEALOUSY ANGLE! STOP BEING COWARDS AND MAKE IT POLYAMOROUS!” And guys! Guys! Xiran heard me! They heard me yelling from across time and space and delivered and it is so freaking fantastic and nuanced and god so well executed. May God and all other deities bless this author for this wonderful service they have done me.
Also, I just have to say very briefly that it’s the kind of book with an ending that had me just yelling and going WAIT WHAT?! And also going OMG IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW and it was incredible. What a power punch of a book. I can’t decide whether to send Xiran a thank you note or an invoice for the number of times I had to clutch my heart because I was having heart palpitations reading this book. This book will not be everyone’s cup of tea and but is big and loud and messy and marvelous and I will be carrying this book in my heart for a long time to come. If you’re willing to let it in, this book will surprise you, I hope you take the leap, I highly recommend it!
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YA sci fi has never seen a book quite like this one.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Buckle up, girls, gays and theys. IRON WIDOW by Xiran Jay Zhao (who has a Youtube channel that I thoroughly enjoy) packs a giant, robotic PUNCH. If you haven’t heard of this instant NYT bestseller, where have you been?! Basically if you’re into mecha anime and furries, this is the book for you. This book’s concept is INSANELY good. 
Marketed as Pacific Rim meets the Handmaid’s Tale, IRON WIDOW follows Zetian, your resident Angry Girl. And boy does she have cause to be angry – her sister is dead, presumably at the hands of her Chrysalis co-pilot so she’s a girl on a vendetta. Zetian follows in her sisters footsteps to become a concubine pilot (whose lives are disposable in comparison to the dream boy pilot counterparts) with revenge in her heart. Yet somehow she emerges from battle, stronger than most of her male counterparts and victorious. Then and there, she decides to use her power to save all the girls in their country, Huaxia.

I don't want to include more for fear of spoiling it too much, but definitely also keep your eyes peeled for a polyam relationship (Zetian and her boyfriends!). Have you ever seen such a thing in YA novels? All the nods of my hat to Xiran Jay Zhao. 

Zhao’s world building is also incredible – one of the best dystopias I’ve read in recent memory. The blend of Chinese history and science fiction was near seamless. Also their ability to twist a knife in your heart (that cliffhanger at the end? *insert enraged screaming here*)

Sometimes the pacing and the dialogue felt a little clunky but the plot was so compelling and the characters so loveable that you can’t help but continue. Zhao clearly has a long career as a writer ahead of them and I will enthusiastically read her books as they come out.
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This was my most anticipated book of the year and it did not disappoint. It took me a while to get into it, but once the story got going I could not put it down. It was amazing and I loved the characters.
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This incredible book had my heart racing and my eyes opened wide the entire time! There is so much I can say about this book that really touched my inner Mecha loving heart, and the best word I could use to sum up my feelings is reinvigorated. This book opens up right in the heat of action that sets up this incredible world of Qi powered robots and an awful, sexist pilot pairing system that enrages the soul and has you rooting for our would be assassin Wu Zetian. 

From the minute Zetian stepped out of the cockpit carrying her dead male pilot and crying out "Welcome to your nightmare!" I knew in my heart of hearts that this book would stick with me for all of eternity. It has made its way to the very top of my list of favorites of all time and I simply cannot wait for the sequel.
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TW: torture, sexual assault, mysogyny, alcohol addiction

Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, and I thought there was a dash of Hunger Games vibes as well.

Zeitan is a total badass that offers herself up as a concubine sacrifice for the chance at exacting revenge on the fighter pilot responsible for her sister's death.

I admired Zeitan's strength and tenacity, but she could be petulant at times. Though she was the MC, I didn't feel as connected to her character or her transformation as I would've liked.

The smashing of the patriarchy was amazing, and I liked the way the author sprinkled Chinese culture into the story. And the representation! Love and gender as a spectrum and non-binary, also featuring a polyamorous romance, was refreshing.

Action packed and super fast paced, I still found myself unsure of what was happening. I’m not as familiar with Pacific Rim, so the concept of Chrysalises was harder for me to grasp. There was also little background in the war and the aliens they were fighting. Definitely hoping for more of this in the second book!

Thank you Penguin Random House and NetGalley for the gifted e-copy in exchange for an honest review
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for this advanced copy in exchange for my honest review. I grabbed this one as from a ‘read now’ email I got from NetGalley. I saw a few trusted book friends hype it up online and then saw that it was about giant fighting robots and an angry girl. So, that’s really all I knew going into the story. But I was already super interested just from those two things. There was an interesting authors note before the start of my eARC copy of the book where the author talked a bit about how this story was inspired by the only female Empress that Chima ever had. She mentions that this book is heavily inspired by her own Chinese culture, but that specific woman in history really stuck with her and she wrote this as a retelling of sorts, of how the author thought that Empress might be as a teenage girl in the world that the author created for this story. 
We follow Zetian Wu as she’s about to enlist herself as a concubine-pilot for the Chrysalis (the giant fighting robots). This is a position that many families pressure their daughters into singing up for despite knowing that most concubine-pilots will die. Zetian isn’t signing up for any reason other than to kill the pilot that murdered her sister and she knows that she will probably die soon after, if she succeeds. I’m not explaining the Chrysalis very well, theyre complicated machines that are gifts from the gods and the actual science behind how they’re built isn’t really explained, but the way that they’re piloted was absolutely fascinating. When Zetian succeeds in her mission, she’s surprised that she isn’t immediately killed afterward. Instead, she’s paired with another pilot: the famous murderer. This is where the story really takes off. 
Iron Widow is action packed and will suck you into the story so quickly. Between the fighting robots and the unlikely team that Zetian finds herself in, it’s hard not to get pulled into the story until you’re spit out at the end left wondering what the heck just happened. The world building was phenomenal. We see the world through Zetian’s eyes, so it’s easy to be angry about the way women are treated. And when she uncovers some of the military’s secrets that proves this unfair treatment, I raged right alongside the characters. I would have loved to know more about the gods of this world, but I think that’s something we will get in the next book if the ending of this one was giving any hints about what’s to come. I’d also loved to have known more about the nomads that Zetian meets (but it wouldn’t have really made sense in the story if that had happened. I just thought they were really interesting and maybe there was a bit of hinting that we will learn more in the next book.) 
The characters were easy to love. Zetian is angry. She’s angry that her sister is dead. She’s angry about how her family treats her. She’s angry about how her mother and grandmother are treated. She’s angry about the way the world treats women. Then she realizes that she just might be able to do something about that unfair treatment. I loved her. I was angry right along with her. The author made it so easy to feel the things that Zetian was feeling. There was a smidge of a polyamorous relationship that I absolutely was rooting for. It starts off between Zetian and her second pilot, but also there’s a romance between Zetian and another character. But both are accepting that she might love them both, until they realize that all three have feelings for one another. I wanted more of the three of them. I loved the way the romance was developed. We got to see a slow formation of the dynamic between the three of them, but I wanted more of it. It felt cut short, but I’m hoping that we will get more of that in the next book. 
Overall, I cannot say enough good things about this book. It was beautiful and enraging, compelling and fast paced. It had characters that were easy to root for and love. There was a romance that I couldn’t help but get invested in. Plus the giant fighting robots, of course.
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Wu Zetian is a woman on a mission. In a Chinese inspired world where humans are at war with the alien Hundun, giant beasts which regularly cross Huaxia's border wall and unleash devastation on the provinces beyond, humanity's only hope lies in the Chrysalises, giant robot fighters with two pilots, one male, one female, who can transform and unleash elemental attacks to keep the invaders at bay. Zetian dreams of becoming a concubine pilot, following in her older sister's path, but not for the reason one might imagine: while it's considered acceptable and normal for women to die while piloting the Chrysalises, as part of the mental strain of the process, Zetian's sister was killed out of battle by a pilot's misogynist violence. This has deprived her family of the payout they would normally receive for her sacrifice in a chrysalis, and also massively pissed Zetian off. In a move that has nothing to do with the finances of a family that doesn't want her anyway, she changes her own life course, and leaves behind Yizhi, a local rich kid who has taken a shine to her but isn't likely to offer her any real security, and signs herself up as a concubine to the same pilot, hoping to murder him before he gets the chance to kill any more women.

The bad news is that this plan doesn't work, and Zetian gets crammed into a Chrysalis cockpit after all. And yet, when the battle is over, it's the male pilot who has died of mental stress, and Zetian gets a brief moment of radiant feral awesomeness before she's thrown into even deeper water, pushed into the heart of the system of Chrysalis pilots and the people who control them. Zetian finds she has allies - importantly they are two hot boys, more about them later - but that being powerful and irrepressible is a tough role when the entire system is set up to control and/or kill you. Zetian also learns that piloting giant robots in battle against supermassive aliens while psychically linked to damaged boys is hard work, no matter how cool it looks to the reader. And hey, it sure does look pretty cool. They even transform and light up! I can only assume the line of action figures is on its way.

At its foundation, Iron Widow is an exploration of an exploitative, restricting misogynist system, one which takes a lot of its methods of control from Chinese history. For example, Zetian has bound feet and is often frustrated by the way they restrict her mobility, even as she gets more resources and options to deal with it. It's considered acceptable for women to die while piloting Chrysalises because they simply don't have the right levels of spirit energy, and families like Zetian's are perfectly happy to throw their love and expectations at male relatives, thinking of daughters only as a possible source of financial gain. There are a few rare female Chrysalis pilots who have formed "perfect matches" with their male counterparts, and these are held up as aspirational for the rest of the girls: sign up to a system that will probably kill you, because it might not! For the first third of the book, the level of restriction and violation and sheer unpleasantness thrown at Zetian made me feel physically ill. That it's a depiction rooted in historical fact - Zetian herself is a manifestation of a real Tang Dynasty empress, and many of her fellow characters are based on real historical figures too - makes that depiction all the more powerful and hard to stomach. It's a rough ride, but it's one that makes the connections Zetian goes on to make all the more powerful.

At the risk of a very obvious spoiler (yes, the YA protagonist survives to end of her own book!), Zetian's turning point is with her second pilot, the notorious convicted criminal Li Shimin. Li only remains alive because he's capable of piloting the Vermillion Bird, an extremely powerful Chrysalis, and the cost of his deployment is that, until Zetian, every girl who has been paired with him has died. Unlike many of his fellow pilots, Shimin is deeply traumatised at being part of this system, and Zetian's ability to match his power and forge a mental bond while they pilot together means the two of them get very close, very quickly. In any other book, the reappearance of Zetian's old flame Yizhi would set up some dramatic love triangle shenanigans, but instead Yizhi becomes another part of their pilot bond and the romance turns polyamorous. This is set up and executed in a way where I couldn't imagine it playing out differently: both are incredibly important to Zetian, who also has far more important things to do than agonise over which boy to pick, and both Shimin and Yizhi thrive on the connections with her and with each other as well. Their relationship provides a tiny anchor of hope and stability, giving Zetian - who started off the book ready to throw her life away on a small revenge quest - something to fight for as she unravels and challenges the assumptions behind the chrysalis system. Importantly, this involves a massive challenge to the gender essentialist aspects of that system, making this that rare book that confronts "gender based magic" as being just as much a social construct as gender itself.

This all makes Iron Widow sound like quite a heavy book, and in many ways it is, but its also about giant robots battling giant aliens and for that to work, there has to be some fun to go along with the desperation. Iron Widow delivers on that too: I'm not a regular consumer of kaiju and mecha content so perhaps I am getting excited about something basic here, but I enjoyed the descriptions and the physicality of the fights, as well as the explanations of the elemental magic system and how it affected the Chrysalises strengths and powers (also, did I mention that they transform and light up?). Beyond the Chrysalis - Hundun conflict, some of Iron Widow's worldbuilding gets a bit sketchier, and there's some big escalations and introductions towards the end of the book which come in very quick succession and could have benefited from having more space to develop. On the whole, though, this is a really entertaining package, one which delivers on some satisfying YA tropes while pushing others in different directions. I'll be awaiting the sequel with excitement!
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Book received for free through NetGalley

OH MY GOODNESS!! This book was incredible, fantastic, and amazing! Im so sad it’s over and can’t wait to read whatever book comes next. This book was so good that I attempted to save it to read when no one could bug me and savor it for a day or so longer. Definitely can’t wait for whatever else this author writes.
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Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is easily one of my favorite books read in 2021. Full of adventure, Iron Widow is a story of Zetian, a woman destined to change the world. Zetian offers herself as a concubine pilot, where she works towards the revenge of her sister's murder. Inverting the social system that has long been in place, Zetian kills the male pilot and embodies the name Iron Widow -- a female pilot that can sacrifice men to power giant mecha Chrysalises. 

Zetian is then paired with male pilot Li Shimin, known infamously for killing his family. As the story unfolds, Zetian learns there is much more to Li than the rumors the swirl around him though. The relationships fleshed out in this story were perfect and I loved the way these were explored. F*** a love triangle!

Zetian is a character who takes hold of her destiny and shapes it using every ounce of willpower she has -- I was enthralled -- I picked this book up and didn't put it down until it was finished.

My only complaint is that I now have to wait for the next one. And that I didn't read this sooner!
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I absolutely LOVEDDDDD this book! It inspired my "To All The Literary Angry Girls" post and it got it's own blog post later on! The links are attached!
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Love the premise, it's a mecha story set in futuristic Chinese-inspired world what's more to love? Plus the little references to the Four Chinese Classics gives me serotonin. I'm really happy there's a poly rep within the YA genre and Zhao really set the bar. However, the rest falls flat. Between the mediocre plot and rushed characterization, I don't get to see much of the worldbuilding (it feels plainly vague). I feel if the author would polish their world and lore a bit more, this wouldn't feel like a first draft. 

With that out of the way, I have to say I have high hopes for Zhao and their writing career. I'm curious what would the second book entail, hopefully the world would be fleshed out more in there.
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'Iron Widow': 5⭐

(Unpaid Review: thank you to @netgalley, @xiranjayzhao and the publishers for allowing me to read this eArc copy in exchange for a review.)

This was pitched to me as Pacífic Rim meets The Handmaid's Tale and that alone got me like: YES, I'M IN.
Then, I dove into it. Man, oh MAN, was this fantastic! The characters, the plot and subplot, THOSE LAST CHAPTERS, really got the best of me and I swear to God, I'm going to C-R-Y, if I don't get this book physically!
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I’m not sure my words can do this book justice. Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is a sci-fi novel unlike any I’ve read. It touches on issues like racism, rape, misogyny, murder, and femicide just to name a few while also exploring gender roles and turning them on their heads. This is NOT for the faint of heart. Following the story of one girl’s quest for vengeance, Iron Widow takes you on a heart-stopping, bloody adventure that will leave your head spinning and your heart aching.

Wu Zetian is an easy character to root for. Told entirely from her perspective, the story unfolds as Zetian faces one heartbreak after another. Zetian is tired and fed up with the role she is forced into in her life. Watching her sister die on national television was the final straw. Zetian is out for revenge, and she will stop at nothing to obtain it, even denying herself a life of ease and happiness with the only boy that makes her feel something other than hate. To avenge her sister, Zetian offers herself as a concubine-pilot for the Huaxian army of Chrysalises.

The entire system and world that Zetian lives in is based on a misogynistic view that women are inferior to men (this is where The Handmaid’s Tale reference comes into play). I personally loved how the author incorporated Chinese history here in the binding of Zetian’s feet and even how she used the Yin and Yang symbol to represent the pilots’ seats in the Chrysalises, not to mention the concubine sacrifices in battle. It’s truly horrific, making you root for Zetian to succeed all the more.

And succeed she does, over and over again. Each time more bloody than the last, testing the patience of those in power. But Zetian isn’t alone. She has Gao Yizhi and Li Shimin. These two couldn’t be more different, but somehow compliment Zetian and her battle. Like her, they will fight to the death for what they believe in. Shimin is the feared Iron Demon, someone that the country believes is the worst of the worst criminals, and yet because of his strong qi and ability to pilot the Chrysalises, he is also the most popular pilot. Yizhi is a son of one of the highest officials, yet he believes that women and men are equals. It is easy to see Zetian’s attraction to both boys and how the three form a relationship. This relationship is the backbone of the plot, most of the action and wins they receive wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Overall, I really enjoyed Iron Widow. I listened to an audiobook copy, and the narrator is fantastic. I loved hearing how to pronounce some of the names, but also she breathes life into the characters, adding a sense of urgency to the plot and endearing them to the reader even more. If you are a fan of science fiction, then you need to read this one. It is required not just recommended.
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced digital review copy in exchange for an honest review.

I have heard nothing but rave reviews for this book, and was so excited to get to read it. It follows our protagonist Zetian, who decides to sign up to be a mecha pilot’s concubine to get revenge on the man who killed her sister. Zetian has grown up in a very misogynistic society that has abused and belittled girls in one form or another. Despite this, Zetian is a strong, stubborn, outspoken character who knows that these things are wrong and is determined to right them or get back at those who allow it to happen. Along the way she is paired up with pilot Li Shimin, a feared pilot known for violence and murder, and together they are meant to fight the Hunduns, robot-alien type creatures. She is eventually joined by her friend and crush from home, Yizhi, and the three have to work together on their journey. 

I liked learning about this world. It is inspired by Chinese history, specifically the first and only female emperor. I also liked how many important themes were discussed, like gender, misogyny, patriarchy, disability, sexuality, polyamory, alcoholism, and so on. I thought these aspects and discussion of them were woven throughout the story really well. One of the main reasons I wanted to read this was because I learned it involved polyamory rather than your standard YA love triangle. I personally felt like I wanted the relationships between the three to be a bit more developed. I thought the attraction/emotions between Yizhi and Shimin in particular seemed pretty rushed into, and I didn’t really get why they liked each other so much so quickly. I really liked the concept of the three of them loving one another but I never really felt invested in their relationships. 

Overall, I enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it.
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In Huaxia, boys and girls are paired to pilot Chrysalises, the giant robots that make up their country's main defensive force against the mecha aliens beyond the Great Wall. Zetian offers herself up as a pilot concubine, not for glory or honor, but for the chance to assassinate the pilot who was responsible for her sister's death -- and she succeeds at her mission of vengeance by killing him through the psychic link while in the Chrysalis and emerging from the cockpit unscathed. Dubbed the Iron Widow for what she's accomplished, Zetian is paired with the strongest, most controversial male pilot in the force, Li Shimin. There are many who would see them both dead despite the unquestionable asset they happen to be in the war. But driven by her determination to understand and overturn the misogynist pilot system and prevent the needless deaths of more girls, Zetian won't go down without a fight.

I had an inkling that I would, at the very least, enjoy Iron Widow. (And I say that as someone who rarely, if ever, reads sci-fi.) As it turns out, it's so, so good, and very much unlike anything I've read previously despite some familiar elements and tropes! I'm rarely able to just sit back, relax (or stress, depending on what the characters are going through) and let the author lead me where she will with her words, so this was a pleasant surprise. With her debut novel, Xiran Jay Zhao has done something really interesting here; she's taken a historical figure (Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history), planted them in unique circumstances and let her imagination run wild with how it all comes together. The plot is the main driving force behind Iron Widow, and while I normally prefer more character-driven tales, I didn't mind it at all in this case.

There are, however, a few elements of Iron Widow that could have used a little bit more development (though I anticipate that happening as the series continues). Like the world, though it's understandably limited considering the position Zetian is in and the heavy focus on the war effort. And the characters, who we only get a limited perspective on and usually through the lens of limitations or trauma. (And yes, this includes Zetian, who readers will mostly identify as an angry young woman who is reckless after losing the person who matters most to her; someone who will do whatever it takes to keep herself and her own safe.) And the character relationships too, especially the romance that blossoms in this story (though I'll definitely give it props for surprising me in a good way).

The thing is, however, that despite my reservations, I really enjoyed Iron Widow. The beginning hooked me immediately, the story was compelling and refreshingly different from anything I've recently read and it totally gave me anime vibes (which is always a good thing in my book). I'm so glad that I ended up reading it and I'm very much looking forward to the sequel!
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Absolutely adored this book. This poly triad has my heart forever, the idea of concubines being killed for power was such an interesting take and the way it was written with forced addiction and imprisonment of those who are inherently more powerful was done really well, glad Xiran memed themself into a NYT bestseller
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I have heard so many amazing things about this book, so naturally I was ecstatic receiving a review copy from netgalley! I will be recommending this book! wonderful author!
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