Science fiction and East Asian myth combine in this dazzling retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history
The boys of Huaxia dream of the celebrity status that comes with piloting Chrysalises – giant transforming robots that battle the aliens beyond the Great Wall. No one cares that their female co-pilots must serve as concubines and sacrifice their lives.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, her plan is to assassinate the man responsible for her sister’s death. But on miraculously emerging from the cockpit unscathed after her first battle, she has a new plan. The time has come to overturn the entire patriarchal military system.
‘Absolutely epic. This is the historical-inspired, futuristic sci-fi mash-up of my wildest dreams. Iron Widow charges headfirst into a world of giant mechas and uncompromising characters.’ Chloe Gong, author of These Violent Delights
‘Like its ferocious heroine, Iron Widow is brutal, bloodthirsty and full of rage. Zetian’s fight to shatter patriarchal definitions of power makes for a truly thrilling read.’ Julie C. Dao, author of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
‘A primal scream of a book, Iron Widow delivers on all that fury and more, combining meticulous pacing and brilliant world building to make a truly epic read.’ E.K. Johnston, author of Aetherbound
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 86 members
I want to begin by saying thank you to Netgalley and the publisher (oneworld publications) for kindly providing me with this eArc. OH-MY-GOSH. This book is something special. With deeply feminist messages and an amazing East Asian setting/inspiration I ADORED this book. Love triangles? Forget it, there’s some great polyamorous representation in this book!! With a content that matches this beautiful cover I cannot recommend this enough. Some trigger/content warnings: gore, torture, murder, rape (mentions and threats), misogyny, femicide, suicide, alcoholism/drug usage and abuse.
Iron Widow is an INCREDIBLE book! The writing is so detailed I felt more like I was watching the story unfold on the big screen than on the page. Zetian is not a likeable character, and I didn't like her at all. However, that didn't matter one bit - she is still a strong, uncompromising woman doing what she can in a world where everything is working against her. I cannot wait for the sequel! I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Hello and welcome to this review of one of my favourite 2021 releases. Is Zetian one of my favourite protagonists of all time? Yes!!! But not only that, Iron Widow has a fast-paced, gripping plot that held my attention from start to finish in one of the strongest ways. I am blown away by how fantastic every element of this book is – it is a masterful use of first person present tense, which I usually strongly dislike, the characters are just perfect and the story is a complete banger. Please read this when it releases in September, you will not be disappointed. Iron Widow follows Zetian, a girl who’s strong character immediately flies off the page and carries this book through its opening chapters. She offers herself up as a concubine pilot in a world that values men, with the aim of killing the pilot that killed her sister. Zetian takes no prisoners, she is fierce, she speaks her mind, she is cold and calculating. But she also has love in her heart, and a miraculous softer side given the world she has grown up in. After killing the murder, the strategists don’t know what to do with their new Iron Widow, a girl who can use boys to pilot rather than vice versa. She is paired with the strongest pilot of all, Shimin, a boy who murdered his family and is treated like a prisoner. The other boy in Zetian’s life is Yizhi, a rich guy from the city who she has been hanging out with for a while now. To begin with, Zetian doesn’t let boys distract her from her goals but between Yizhi and Shimin, she has two who see the real her and don’t shy away. It’s no secret that this book is poly and I am here for it – it totally made sense in the story, these three characters have one of the most perfect dynamics and I couldn’t ask for more in the romance department. I have to say it, I am obsessed with Zetian’s directness in a world where women are forced to be submissive. The plot is driven by her decisions and it’s a huge hit because of it. Her approach to everything is just no cares left to give, except for the people she loves. It makes for the most interesting of stories, and that’s not to mention the shocking but not that shocking on reflection twists at the end. I also really enjoyed both Shimin and Yizhi as love interests, they are both complimentary in different ways and have their own tragic backstories. These boys show that there is more to people than what you see and Zetian goes on a journey to realise that. The world-building is very much drop a reader in it and let them figure it out, but Xiran Jay Zhao does a wonderful job of explaining some complex human-machine teaming style ‘magic’ in a simple way. It never took me out of the story which I am very grateful. Add to that the in-built misogyny that Zetian is trying to prove and it really is a frustrating story that inspires rage at injustice and inequality. I could honestly talk about this book forever but I feel like readers should pick it up and experience it for themselves. I really don’t know how I’m going to wait for the next book because the ending is immense and sets up a follow-up that has the potential to be just as brilliant if not more so, expanding the world to include more and growing Zetian’s character. Overall, this is an absolute banger of a book that I can’t wait to read again before the sequel comes out.
4.75/5 ⭐ Iron Widow is speculative sci-fi at its best - absolutely bonkers, stunningly brutal and unabashedly bad*ss - and I adored every minute of harrowing, heart-rending mayhem it brought. The mesmerizing blend of mecha, myth and borrowed history it bases itself upon on makes for a sensational stage to take a stand on the mores and morals of heritage, and Iron Widow stands out for its serried and merciless brandishing of words and weapons against the systemic misogyny and male hegemony that buttresses Huaxia's status quo. The brilliant matches of its magnetic mains and the harmonious bonds that burn meteorically bright between them are all the more strikingly believable because of the slow stripping of barriers and the sentimental breakthroughs that Zhao sprinkles through the story's advancement and its anarchic avalanches of action, and the mercurial movements of bridges being built and broken down between Zetian, Shimin and Yizhi (not to mention their malignant family members, the antagonistic pilots they find as their peers, their mercenary pit bosses and the bloodthirsty broader public that strong-arms them into putting on a polarizing show) only bolster the fealty you'll swear to this book's monstrously heroic and and supportively polyamorous focal ménage. I'm already anxiously awaiting the follow-up! Thank you to NetGalley and Oneworld Publications for kindly passing on this ARC! 💫
Did anyone else get some strong Girls of Paper and Fire vibes from the way the girls in this world were treated? Once again, this is not a story where the girl falls in love with the powerful man who killed her big sister, even if there is a love triangle within these pages that ends up polyamorous. The story opens with Yang Guang's callousness in the prologue, but don't worry, he doesn't last for long. I want to write a whole letter to the author of this novel asking her 'How Dare You' with how much she made me love her characters and then constantly put them into danger. Also to the publishing industry for making me need to wait a year until the next one is out. I honestly don't know how I'm going to wait. This is the best book I have read this year. Zetian is kickass and ruthless in her plan when we meet her after her Big Sister has been killed. She has only one plan and that is the murder of the person who did it. She doesn't care if that will fall back on her family; they never treated her all that well anyway. There is a lot in the way of culturally accurate sexism and abuse that was just awful to read for a Western reader to whom a lot of information may be quite new. Before she goes away from her family and town, we meet the gorgeous Yizhi who is a rich boy that for some reason has taken a liking to Zetian. They are childhood friends anyway, and desperation from him not to have her sacrifice her life in vengeance for her sister has him asking her to marry him on the chance that it might not make her leave. It doesn't work. Eventually, we meet Li Shimin who is a host unto himself. He seems really scary to begin with, but it's pretty quick that we realise that this is the opinion other people have of him and doesn't necessarily resemble the truth. In fact, some of Li Shimin's backstory is heartbreaking and may be triggering with regards to addiction. The three of these characters are my babies and I will absolutely stand against anyone who says that there is any fault in either story telling or characters in this story.
Yes, yes, yes!! I am so happy to have read this book, I was so lucky to get the e-arc. Such badass and interesting characters and such a good storyline, my only negative is that this book wasn't bigger so I could have read it for longer. I am off to find a special edition now!
Simply the easiest 5 stars I've given this year. From the moment I first heard about this book from the author's tweet last year (I think?) I knew I wanted to read it simply for the poly rep which I'm always interested in reading more about. I didn't know anything specific about the novel except that it's a reimagining of China's only female emperor which was enough to catch my attention. I never expected to love it so much, and I especially didn't expect to give it 5 stars this quickly. I knew this would be a great read from the first page and I was not disappointed. I am at a loss for words. It's so rare for me to read books that perfectly fit everything I like: a great plot and a good balance of character development and story progression, good action scenes, an immensely strong female character who challenges the society she lives in and thinks outside the box, who has also found like-minded people in her partners and simply an easy to read writing style. I absolutely adored this book and find it a bit hard to write about it without saying the words "I loved it" in every other sentence, but it is the truth. I don't even know where to start. There are so many things I can talk about, so many topics that can be discussed... (Defo check CWs and TWs!!!) Wu Zetian is the type of person that thinks outside of the box and doesn't confrom to the society she's grown up in. Even though it's hard for her to speak out and act out, since the society in the book is very much strictly patriarchal, she still does it. We can see her trying to get out of the mould her world has put her in and refusing to be bound by the expectations of others. I loved that. I loved seeing how no matter the challenges, no matter what others would say or do to her, she would still be herself and be strong. I loved reading about her journey and she's a character I enjoyed being in the mind of. Yizhi is simply a cinnamon roll that must be protected but he's also very much able to take care of himself it seems. I loved reading about him and I can't wait to learn more about him. Since Zetian has already known him for years when the book start, as the reader, we don't get that much information about him and I can't wait for that to change. Li Shimin is another character we need to protect, especially after everything he's been through. I loved reading about him through Zetian's perspective, slowly seeing her change her mind about him after discovering the truth behind what he's been through. I really liked the way it's written because she meets him while already having a bunch of prejudice about him due to the way she was brought up, so she doesn't believe men can be different from what she knows. Personally, I would've loved to see a bit more from him, but this was enough for now. What's more, while the romance isn't the main theme of the book, it's there and while I can't speak for how well-developed it is, because I simply didn't care in this case, I really did enjoy it. My favourite thing is probably Shimin and Yizhi's scenes where it was shown how attarcted they were to each other because it was so cute, but my most favourite scene would probably be when all three of them embraced. I really loved this. Do keep in mind that despite this being YA, it actually tends to get really dark real quick. This books explores various themes like domestic abuse, alchoholism, outright sexism and others. Wu Zetian, Yizhi and Li Shimin don't just fight to save their planet from the Hunduns, they also fight for their right to live. While I did see the main big twist coming because I've actually read at least 2 novels with the same twist, I loved it anyway. I wasn't surprised by any of the revelations, but this didn't take away from my enjoyment. I could probably write more about the plot and dive deeper into the themes explored, but I believe that it would be better if you go into it knowing as little as possible. If you aren't a big fan of mecha, like me, I'd say to give Iron Widow a chance anyway because it's amazing and it deserves all the stars in the world.
But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance. Holy wow, this book was everything I needed and more! The feminism! The polyamory! Screw the love triangle, let’s just have them all love each other! I am ALL for this! This book is nothing but inspiring, Xiran Jay Zhao has tackled so many important issues, that usually get skirted around, in such a direct and fantastic way. We watch a young girl who’s always taught to be second best to men, to do what the men ‘need’ her to do and told that that’s all she’ll amount to in life, become a full on warrior QUEEN. The misogyny she fought throughout this entire novel was insane. Wu Zetian is my favourite character, ever. Point blank, end of story. She is a warrior. She knows what she wants and what she believes in and she will damn well make sure she fights for her beliefs. I love that when we first meet her we find out that she’s purely undertaking her role to enlist in the army for vengeance. Yes girl, you bloody fight for your sister! You get your revenge! She hated that she was always defined by her gender and ended up trying to find a way to stop that from happening any more. I have so much respect for her character, knowing that she deserves more regardless of her gender. Knowing that the way society treated women was wrong and unjust and fighting for them. She is awe-inspiring, and I will forever love her as a character. To sum her up, she is angry, powerful and fierce! I enjoyed the dynamic between Wu Zetian, Li Shimin and Gao Yizhi, they knew their strengths, knew their weaknesses and then worked together to become one. I loved how Yizhi was one of the most selfless characters and just wanted to support Zetian in whichever way possible. I love that the relationships between them became more than friendships, more than lovers. At the end, they were family. For a debut novel I am absolutely astounded by how much I adored this. Xiran Jay Zhao’s writing style is absolutely beautiful, I was enraptured from page one and couldn’t bring myself to put the book down until I was finished. It is, in my eyes, literary perfection. The whole book was action packed from page one, I felt as though we started with a ‘bang’, and ended with a ‘bang, crash, holy hell the whole thing is imploding’ type scenario and I am absolutely INVESTED in this world. However, this book has reminded me why I dislike arc reading. I now have to wait even longer for the next instalment. Cry. Trigger warnings: Suicidal ideation. Alcoholism. Blood & gore depiction. Murder.
Iron Widow was one of the best books I read this year and I think everyone needs to read this book! 💫fast paced and immersive story which is a reimagining of the rise of China’s only female emperor. The plot keeps you hooked and it’s always happening which makes it an interesting read. 💫an unhinged and brutal mc trying to smash patriarchy and destroy the world and take revenge and she’s one you can’t help but root for. I love the journey and growth Zetian goes through and also how fleshed out her character was which made it super fun to read about her. I absolutely loved Yizhi and Shimin too. 💫a love triangle which ends in healthy polyamorous relationship. I wish the romance part was shown a little more but it didn’t hinder my reading experience much. 💫 discussed themes of misogyny, patriarchy and privilege and I love how all this addressed and written. 💫super engaging and addictive with an ending that’ll leave you wanting so much more. No seriously that epilogue was something else and I can’t wait for book two. TW: murder, abuse, torture, alcohol addiction, suicide ideation, mentions and threat of rape. Thank you the publisher for providing an eARC through NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
Not sure what my favourite part of the book was. Was it the amazing, rich, exciting world, or perhaps the complex, ruthless and three-dimensional characters? It could've been the amazing themes discussed which included gender roles, family expectations, imperialism, environmentalism and so much more. But it was probably the highly engaging and relatable way it was written. Iron Widow gave me an exciting, high-stakes sci-fi story about the robots from Power Rangers and I loved it. Seriously go read it.
This awesome, angry book is my new obsession. Marketed as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Iron Widow reimagines the rise of Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor, in a futuristic world inspired by cultural elements from across Chinese history. So I have a question: Where has Iron Widow been all my life? Like, I could talk about how this book blew my mind. Because it’s true. Every single page packed a punch, and everything is so intense – like reading a story that’s been dialed up to 11. Instead of anger, we get fury – and I love furious characters. Instead of a love triangle, we get a polyamorous romance – and it’s so good. The characterisation? Incredible. The plot? Action-packed. And there were so many lines that seemed to speak straight to me that I stopped keeping count of my favourite quotes after about 50. In short, this book was everything I didn’t even know I needed. So back to my question: where has Iron Widow been all my life? Where has the smart, sexy, furious SFF been? And of course I know the answer. Because writers like Xiran Jay Zhao – writers who are doing mind-blowing new things in SFF books – are obviously out there. Look at She Who Became the Sun. Look at Legendborn. In fact, I’m looking at the majority of my favourite books from the past few years and they have all done something different or new in the genre – and they’ve all been written by authors from backgrounds that just weren’t getting a seat at the publishing table (in any sort of significant numbers, anyway) until very recently. And we have all been the poorer for it. Readers are wise to the same old, same old that publishers keep trotting out. And these publishers are going to be left behind. Because I’m feeling seen in so many of these incredible new books, and I can’t be the only reader who feels this way, Look at Iron Widow. According to Twitter, this book, this clearly incredible book, was actually rejected by several publishers, but thankfully managed to find a place at Penguin Teen Canada – and two months ahead of its publication had already pulled in more than 10,000 pre-orders. (See https://twitter.com/XiranJayZhao/status/1421144753706455041 and https://twitter.com/XiranJayZhao/status/1421265070097453056). As Zhao says in their tweet, hopefully big publishers take a chance on weirder books. And hopefully big publishers finally wake up and realise that SFF readers are begging for voices that we haven’t heard nearly enough from. Let’s talk about the hardcover: Iron Widow isn’t out until the autumn (Goodreads says September but UK booksellers are saying October) so I read an advanced digital copy via NetGalley. I’d hoping that it’ll be in one of my upcoming book subscription boxes – hopefully Illumicrate – because it’s such a highly anticipated debut. I’ve played it safe, though, and pre-ordered the signed bookplate edition available from Waterstones because I am not missing out on a signed hardcover copy of this masterpiece. Verdict: This is easily one of the best books of 2021
This novel is a work of art and I'm not sure if anything else I read this year will top it. It is original, compelling and entertaining with a breathless yet addictive plot. The main character Zetian is plain cool - I can't think of a better way to describe her and the book itself covers so many serious and important themes in an accessible way that is not preachy at all. From coloniality to racism to sexism - this book is the best attempt at writing feminism into a YA novel I have seen in years. I have nothing critical to say about it, it is well-developed, the world-building is ace and the only minor plot hole that I wanted (although I may have missed this whilst devouring the thing!) is the explanation behind Yizhi's tattoos. The only descriptor that kept repeating in my mind whilst reading this was "awesome" and I believe that readers will identify with Zetian all over. She is a real, raw, survivor and because of her the story is so satisfying all the way until the end. I look forward to seeing more from the author and wish her all the best with her writing - the world needs more like it!
How should I start this? It is a MASTERPIECE. A ride. Unputtable book. Each parts get more and more intense in action, the beautifully crafted world opens up, you get attached to the characters and root for not only the MC but everyone around to win their rightful reward…or punishment. This book is phenomenal! It mixes heavy topics (such as gender, feminine rights or how women are still made to fit inti certain roles under men, different paths you can choose, abusive and toxic relationships) but also shows beauty. The main character Zetian is one fierce, passionate and SASSY girl, who shakes things up in the capital. Oh did I tell you there are two boys she loves? But those guys get fond of each other too? My heart!! And if the amazing relationships, one bed trope, friends to lover and strangers hate to lovers tropes would not make you read RIGHT NOW this book, I hope the premise of an epic battle, fighting against creatures, using qi, piloting crazy huge robots will make you rethink the whole thought! Absolutely loved this book. I want more. The sequel cannot come out early enough!