Cover Image: Iron Widow

Iron Widow

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Member Reviews

As everyone says, this is an amazing novel just bursting with ideas, gorgeous prose, and some fantastic, at-time prickly characters. From the premise to the polyamorous anti-love-triangle, this book subverts expectations and then takes its core ideas even further. I can't wait to read the sequel.
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i'm very sad rn.

to summarize, i LOVED the first 50% of this book, the world, the characters and fast paced plot were all going super well. I was having so much fun with the lush world and Zhao's flowy writing but then i slowly started feeling a bit disinterested? though wu zetian unhinged af, her personality got to a point where it was unrealistic. not only that, but there wasn't much character development going on and as someone who prefers character-driven stories to plot-driven ones, i was getting bored because i had no characters to root for.

i wish the author all the best and i will definitely be on the look for rest of their works!

2.5/5 stars

A huge thank you to Penguin Teen for providing me with an advance reader copy via Netgalley. This did not impact my review in any way.
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Life is Huaxia is fueled by the deaths of girls in metal mechs call Chrysalises. When Zetian's sister is murdered by a pilot, Zetian volunteers to join their ranks knowing that she'll have a chance at vengeance before her life is sacrificed, but instead she finds her will is strong enough that she survives and sacrifices her partner her first time piloting a mech. It's an incredible story of power, propaganda, and vengeance. I cannot wait to read the sequel to see how Zetian continues to change her world.
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I thought this was a great debut, but it needed a bit more depth which is why I rated it a 4 rather than a 5! Very readable and very engaging, I just wanted to see a bit more character depth and world building
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I keep waffling… two stars, three stars? I mean it’s YA/teen and it fits the genre and target audience well; but sadly Iron Widow is mediocre at best. It comes off as a teenage soap opera that has: boxy characters, too many twists, not enough explanation of what is happening (if you’re going to write fantasy/sci-fi then expect readers to want to understand what is happening please), and is frankly obnoxious and preachy. 
On the flip-side it’s also: immensely readable, fast-paced (in an omg what a train wreck kind of way), and with more over-the-top twists people are likely to love (seriously might as well have the line “Luke, I am your father” or “It was Earth all along”) written into the narrative. I know many will love it. But just like Twilight, I would bet money, it will not stand the test of time and the writing is not good enough to have any lasting power. A second read of Iron Widow will bring it to its knees for most readers as they realize it’s: contrived, poorly explained, badly written, and just rife with issues regarding its use of: feminism (which should be about equality not power), vengeance, intellect (if I’m supposed to think our lead gal is brilliant then I’m sorry to say, even with her bit of character growth, she really isn’t (what she is: obnoxious, shallow, and power hungry), and blatant male archetypal characters (her men all fit perfectly in a cookie cutter persona) which is ironic given one of the main themes is how women don’t just fit into one or two molds like the patriarchy seems to prefer us in. Oh, and there is a love triangle; although ironically the romance is very well handled and easily the best written narrative of the whole story.

If you want to get an idea of the type of attitude you will get from the lead gal here read the acknowledgements at the back. There are no spoilers. You’ll get a sense of the type of bragging and (frankly) immature tones that exist in the novel. From comments like how her (previously unsupportive) family can serve her fruit on a plate to the bragging that she now was a big multi-book deal (this is her debut novel), it’s apparent that the arrogance and immaturity of her lead girl is really a big reflection of her own thoughts and views. Obviously this  isn’t surprising; all authors write from their own place in the word. It’s just unfortunate that a number of teens will gobble up the themes of hatred and revenge thinking they are just being feminist and getting retribution for what should be theirs). If you’re under 20, and love this, give it ten years, read it again and then let’s talk. I bet your opinion will have drastically changed. 

Maybe this review is just a showing of my age (I realized I’m more than old enough to be the young authors mother, ack!) but I love lots of YA/teen books and this just isn’t one of them. 
My suggestions to read instead of Iron Widow (and I’m sad to say that as Zhao is a young Canadian author I wish I could endorse) would include: The Last Namsara by (another fellow Canadian) Kristen Ciccarelli, Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, or A Curse so Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
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Iron Widow is the beginning book within a new series, where we follow a young girl called Zetian who offers herself to be a concubine-pilot in order to assassinate a male pilot who killed her sister. In killing him, she uses a psychic link to do so, allowing her to leave the cockpit unscathed and thus declared an "Iron Widow" - a feared female pilot. The story then follows on from this.

I was really excited to see the authors take on this sci-fi fantasy tale where we see our characters having to fight against these aliens in order to save the world. However I would describe Zhao's writing style as frankly thoughtless.

Throughout the entire novel, there are several conflicts which are not explained at all. Neither is the technology thats being used to fight in these conflicts. After finishing this book, I was left with so many questions surrounding the world politics as this was also not explained.

A lot of people seem to love the main character, however I found Zetian and all the other characters to be incredibly surface level. They all remind me of the cast from Throne of Glass, where we are told a lot about them but not shown. The romance was instalove which is my least favourite trope and just was completely unrealistic. Although the poly rep was nice to see, all relationships were rushed.

No character building, no world building, underdeveloped sci-fi elements- frankly a let down!
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a solid, solid debut! i love the author's voice, the moral-gray-ness of the main character, and the inclusion of the poly trio! it was something extremely unique, and very anime-esque as well. i especially loved watching the main character's development through the story, and the way she reacted to the society around her.
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The whole Iron Widow experience felt like being on the biggest, baddest and loopiest rollercoaster in the world. The constants twists and turns and loops pretty much gave me whiplash the entire time, there was literally never a dull moment while devouring this book. I appreciated how fast-paced the whole thing was, if I hadn’t suffered a book slump half-way through this, it would’ve been so easy to get through it in a day or two (but alas). However, the high speed of its pace is one of the things that prevented it from reaching its full potential as a fully decked out Sci-fi novel.

There were a lot of things I loved about Iron Widow but there are also aspects of it that I found lacking, which I feel can be remedied in the second book. There were moments that honestly felt very The Hunger Games-y for me (minus the battle royale-style death matches), particularly the scenes wherein Zetian and Shimin had to campaign to rally for people’s support and the whole flamboyance of their dressing up and dramatics. And that’s one of the issues I had with Iron Widow: it relies too much on shock-value to distract the reader from looking too deeply into its lack of depth.

As much as I liked Zetian as an MC (which I really did), I felt that her agenda lacked cohesiveness and proper building to make her more convincing. Her anger at the patriarchy is 100% justified, while foot-binding is no longer done in current times, there’s still an underlying bias towards sons and male familial figures now; and her need to topple, dismantle and destroy it is absolutely bad-ass (it was especially fascinating seeing not just toxic masculinity, but the reality that women tend to be pitted against one another by men/authority figures). However, how this anger came about, where it came from and how it grew to complete hatred wasn’t touched upon, which was the missing piece in completing Zetian’s character. (Xiran Jay Zhao tried too hard into making Zetian “not your typical girl” without giving us the hows and whys.)

One of the things that drew me to reading Iron Widow was the promise of a poly relationship, I’ve personally never been a big fan of love triangles because 1) I either get second lead syndrome or 2) just want the three of them to end up together. And you do get the best of both worlds in this book. I just wish we’d gotten to see the romance develop more between the three, it was kind of surprising how quickly Shimin and Yizhi got together and in turn, got with Zetian as well. I think that the relationship between them could have benefitted from a POV from either men (seeing as this book was written in TPP, it could’ve been done).

This was definitely more of a plot-driven book than anything else, Xiran Jay Zhao gives highlight to the battle sequences and odes to mythical Chinese beasts in the form of Chrysalises, which I have to say, were incredibly detailed and the whole co-pilot system, while crude, was fascinating. Comping this book to Pacific Rim, except a bit more brutal, was the right move. Though I will say, ever since seeing the Shang-chi film, I couldn’t help imagining the Hunduns as Morris, which made them less threatening and more aww-worthy.

Iron Widow, all in all, was a great reading experienc, it just lacked certain aspects to it that could’ve made it better, more convincing. And after that crazy af ending (which the author gets plus points for because holy crap, did NOT see that coming), I will definitely be picking up book 2 and hoping for the best.
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What do you get when you combine the Handmaidens Tale with Pacific Rim?  A wild insane ride. I literally stayed up half the night reading this book and could not put it down. The twists and the turns and the political intrigue and action all combined to make for an insane experience that you just go along with. Cannot wait for the next one and will absolutely be following this author. Explosive debut!
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I recommend this one. It's a good book and everyone should read. Of course I would love to have this book in my bookstore.
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Described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow (Penguin Random House, September 21st 2021) is a must-read blend of Chinese history and science fiction that also combines compelling writing with an original plot.

Although the plot of this YA novel is complex and has many twists and turns, this is a book worth sticking with! In Huxia, boys pair with girls (known as concubines) to pilot the giant shape-shifting robots (known as Chrysalises) that Huxia uses to defend their land and the Great Wall from the aliens who regularly attack and attempt to gain grown. Mentally connected to the robots, the boys use their spirit energy and the spirit energy of the girls to power them. However, the girls regularly die from the experience, and are often expected to.

The novel follows 18-year-old Zetian, who volunteers to be a concubine pilot in an effort to assassinate one of the top male pilots who was responsible for her sister’s death. When Zetian kills the man through unexpected means—by overpowering him in the Chrysalis and destroying him through their psychic link, she is labelled an Iron Widow, a dangerously powerful female pilot who flips the gender binary of the Chrysalises. She is able to sacrifice boys in order to pilot the robot, not girls. When Huxia’s military pairs her with Li Shimin as a way to discipline her incredible and unnerving power, Zetian struggles to maintain the power she refuses to relinquish now that she has encountered it. A story of survival, strength, and queer power, Zetian works to counter the misogyny of the pilot system to keep more girls from being unnecessarily sacrificed.

While this novel is complicated in its premise, it is also fun, immersive, and represents a fascinating blend of historical fact and science fiction. Xiran Jay Zhao’s world building is excellent and happens almost without the reader noticing. The setting arrives in the text as an immediate and stunning picture of a world where women are second-class, and where one person refutes that designation through her power and iron will. The world is also presented as a place where extraordinary things are possible, and there is an undercurrent of hope in the text primarily visible in Zetian’s character.

As a non-binary author, Zhao’s representation of queer characters is crucial to the novel’s structure. At its core, beyond its important representation of Chinese characters and people of colour, the novel is an exploration of the complex systems that uphold and perpetuate gender binaries, and a celebration of the bold people who oppose them through living authentically. The novel features bisexual main characters and a polyamorous relationship. Not only is this representation important in literature, but it is especially significant in a YA novel like this one. I personally found the characters’ identities and relationships to be enjoyable, authentic, and eye-opening.

Overall, Iron Widow is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and I think it is an innovative, exhilarating, and totally original novel with authentic queer characters and an important message. I highly recommend!

Please visit Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter and put Iron Widow on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical violence, substance abuse.
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We are seeing a new star! Iron Widow is a book that everyone will not forget after a read. It's a f-word marvelous thing. It's brilliant debut! I wish the sequel to be as this one.
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This book is a breath of fresh air, and believe me, you are not ready for it. I mean, seriously - it has everything. Asian-rep, a completely independent sci-fi world inspired by Chinese history, a classic YA triangle that ends in a healthy polyamorous relationship, a beautiful cover, and most of all, the last time the patriarchy can enjoy their insultingly pitiful gender roles.


Well done, the author deserves a round of applause.


Wu Zetian, our protagonist, is such a good female character. The fate of her sister, who had been sacrificed in order to help power a machine called a Chrysalis (strictly male run, might I add,) fuels a lot of Zetian’s rage and motive throughout the book. So, she signs up to be a concubine pilot in order to avenge her sister and slit the pilot who had been running the Chrysalis’ throat. Much to the government’s displeasure, things don’t go quite as planned, and she manages to take control of the Chrysalis and get out of the attack with opposing mecha aliens alive.


She becomes the new Iron Widow, paired with the Iron Demon Li Shimin - the strongest pilot alive - in order to help fight the war and hopefully turn things around. While she’s at it, she uncovers many secrets withheld from the public and shocking twists that could turn the fate of the world around.


Zetian is so strong-willed and an absolute badass, if I do say so myself. She bends to no one - just like her qi, am I right - and she actually has a mind of her own. I do want to mention that it did seem a bit in-your-face at the beginning, as if she was trying too hard to be a badass. Don't get me wrong, I still loved how feminist oriented she was, but towards the middle and end, it flowed more naturally and I was able to appreciate her as a character so much more.


I love how she was driven by her revenge, anger, and bitterness towards the oppressive patriarchy and gender roles forced onto her by society.


Edit: As I've thought about it more and discussing it with others, I've come to the conclusion that the feminism was very in your face. Zetian wasn't a good person at all, and while she could be consider badass from some standpoints, I don't think "feminist icon" is the right word to describe her. I don't actually like the way the feminism was portrayed in this book, and I don't even know if it can really be called feminism.


Oh, and basic YA love triangle who? We don’t know her.


Instead of conforming to the typical laid out form of any typical YA story, this book takes a spin and ends up with a poly relationship rather than a ~love triangle~. To quote the author, “Zetian has 2 boyfriends and her boyfriends are also boyfriends.” It was absolutely delightful and refreshing to read about this romance, and I’d love to see more of it in future books.


The plot was very fast-paced, but it did feel slightly uneven to me. There were some parts that went so unbelievably fast it was impossible to put down, but there were other parts where I felt dragged and I had a hard time finding motivation to pick it up.


The world-building needed work. There were a lot of complicated terms thrown around and it was lowkey confusing at first, but once you got a clearer idea of what was going on, we still had no idea how to picture anything. It needed more description. I had no idea what anything looked like, and I couldn't even imagine the war in my head. The Hunduns' physical attributes weren't described at all, for example. It was hard to have any image of what was going on.


There’s quite a lot of info-dumping at the beginning, which wasn’t explained very well, but as the story progressed, everything became much clearer. It was easier to read and understand everything, so that aspect definitely improved.


Edit: I forgot to add that the writing definitely wasn’t the best, and it annoyed me a lot because of the inconsistencies. It's not my kind of writing style for sure.


Overall, I really enjoyed this book! While it had its flaws, as any book does, I loved the themes of female empowerment and diversity, and would highly recommend that everyone read it. I would like to mention that after thinking about it more, I wonder if I would like it as much upon reread. I should definitely reread it sometime.


3.5 stars.
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This book simply astounded me…

I am not much one for gore or violence in books, but I knew this was going to have some of that going in and so I made it through. I honestly was mesmerised by the way that Zetian handled the situations she faced. She was so unapologetic and fierce and it was frankly refreshing to read about a character like that. I also thought all of the other characters were amazing, each with poignant developmental arcs and I loved the relationship.

All in all, I can see that this is a story that needed to be told. This author has created a unique world and they are definitely an amazing new talent in the industry! I can’t wait to read the sequel!
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Realistically a 3.6 or 3.7 out of 5 stars.

-Noticed a few details that didn't really make sense (i.e. drones & other high-tech devices everywhere, but radio signals are needed for communication) but this didn't really take away from my enjoyment of the book.

-Great lead character and supporting cast. However, secondary cast was all men. The women were almost non-existent, and those we did hear about were all weak, bad or boring. The protagonist cannot be the only "enlightened" female in all the land. More female or non-binary characters and nuanced POVs necessary.

-Some really amazing, evocative imagery at points. 

-Loved the unapologetic romance/sex.

-Fun ending.
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4.5/5 rounded up
What can I possibly say to do this book justice? I feel like I have to give a book 5 stars when a book is smarter than I am, and this book is smarter than me. I struggle sometimes with sci-fi to understand the concepts of the world and how machinery and such works, and while I got a good grip of it, there were most likely things that were over my head that I missed, but I didn't feel like I was missing anything super vital. Zetian is the perfect anti-heroine, so full of fury and hell-bent on making the patriarchal system that killed her sister pay. There's a fury that laces this entire story that I was absolutely living for, one that is relentless in its excoriation of patriarchal systems and the people and institutions that keep it in place, a system that devalues women and treats them as property. This was one of those books where I found a quote I loved every five seconds. Zhao's writing style and their sense of plotting is unparalleled, and keeps the reader flipping pages because it just builds and builds. I feel as though this is mostly sci-fi but there's magic and fantasy elements to it as well, so this book is one that transcends genre. And then consider the fact that this is a debut. It's truly a stunning book. Vengeance, romance, morally grey and compelling characters, forced proximity, this book has it all.  IRON WIDOW is a furious tale about one girl burning down the systems meant to hold her back and takes back the power she would be denied
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I loved Iron Widow so much. It's brutal and unapologetic and so all-around glorious. One of my favorite reads of 2021!
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Spectacular to say the least! I adored Zhao's charismatic prose and Zu Weitan's magnetic voice in the midst of incredibly well described mecha battles and a stunning love triangle (the strongest shape, after all!)
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This book was awesome! If you like fighting robots, feminism,  and/or a great blend of science fiction and fantasy set in China, this is the book for you! I loved one of the main characters, Zetian. She displays such fierceness and  rebellion against oppressive societal standards for women. Her two supporting main characters were both supportive and strong in independent ways which was highly refreshing, especially in young adult fantasy. Please please give this book a read!
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I have not read any ya books that feature a poly relationship and I was pleasantly surprised by this relationship. I loved it. Wu Zetian is my favorite, need more books featuring her. The world-building in this book is great. It's weird I felt like nothing about this book was bad, I loved it all.
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