Iron Widow - Review
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
*I received this e-arc from Penguin Teen via NetGalley. All views are my own*
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao was an interesting one. I have so many mixed reactions and emotions about this piece. I received this e-arc from NetGalley during their Read Now promotions and decided to take advantage of it. I was already on the fence about it because of the level of science fiction I was going to be reading, but now that I've read it, I'm more puzzled by the purpose of this story than I initially thought. It's not that I didn't like the story. I just feel like this was more of a discussion piece … with the side action of Power Rangers doing Pacific Rim shit.
"The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn't matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it's to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister's death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed."
Now when I say I don't know the story's purpose, that doesn't mean I don't know what it's about. Zhao had an initiative in mind to write about a headstrong feminist girl rising through the ranks to topple the patriarchy laced with eras of Chinese culture and traditions. But I don't understand WHY the story was written. Maybe I messed up by reading the author's note before diving into the narrative. Zhao mentioned that "even she frequently thought the concept was absurd" until she took it seriously. I almost ended up DNFing after reading the intro with that knowledge. But I pushed on.
(*Sidebar* Something you should know about me when it comes to high Fantasy and Science Fiction genres is that you can't just drop me into a story guns-blazing. I need to get there with you slowly. I will watch The Fifth Element a million times, but I will not read about it. All of this is new for me.)
She got her inspiration from the infamous Empress Regent Wu – a woman in the seventh century A.D. who became the de facto ruler of the Tang dynasty from 665 to 690. Zhao shaped the main character, Wu Zetian, like a reimagined Empress Wu for this futuristic story. Adding in machines called Chrysalises fighting other foreign mecha giants in a dystopian-like world put me in the mind of several movies and videos games such as Hunger Games, Assassin's Creed, and Extinction.
I liked the story because Zhao incorporated real-life practices that damage a women's worth, all for the views of beauty and honor. Foot binding was heavily mentioned throughout the story – a barbaric practice that involves breaking a young girl's feet and binding them to appear more petite for beauty. Thankfully that tradition has been banned since 1912. Honor killings are another topic I saw, and that practice is still being used today. Zhao loads us with the reality that only women and girls suffer through these customs while the men officiate what is proper and dutiful for the opposite sex.
The main character Zetian isn't going for any of that. She constantly questions why the customs must be this way and fight tooth and nail for a reprieve. I honestly thought Zentian's character would be this solo rising queen bitch that wreaks havoc on the system, but she's latched on to the very ideology that she despises. It's not bad, and it works for the story.
As admirable and fearless as she seems, she is also very, VERY harsh. Typically when you hear stories of a woman fighting her way to the top, she's feminine in every way or that butch side character that resembles a man. No, Zetian breaks the barriers of all of that. She BECOMES the Iron Widow. So much so, her character does not know how to dial it back. She's ruthless in her ways of thinking and heartless in her actions, even when she's trying to show that she cares. She's also selfish. She doesn't think about the consequences of her actions and what that can do to her people. But I get it. When you grow up thinking that the world hates you because you're a girl, trusting whatever system that's placed will forever be questionable to a girl. The reality of it all is that the man sets the rules.
I think I followed the story pretty well up until I got to the ending. The ending almost undid every thought I had perceived of this book. I would have thrown my tablet across the room if I had insurance on it. The conclusion really threw me off. And for it to be a cliffhanger!
Overall, I have no rating for Iron Widow. The story didn't bring me joy, anger, or self-awareness. It gave me something to stew over. My two repetitive thoughts are what the fuck did I just read and what was the point? I found myself rechecking the synopsis to make sure that I was reading the same story advertised. Again, it wasn't bad. I just wasn't expecting a conversational piece. I can imagine other reviewers praising the hell out of this book because it's all about feminism and have some queer aspects in it. But I think it's bigger than what the author intended it to be. Who knows? Maybe the author was "high when she came up with this concept," and we're just entering Wonderland.
Iron Widow debuts September 21, 2021.
After careful consideration (and catching some of her tweets and tik toks) I'm finally rating this 4 stars. Watching her talk about the book and seeing her personality... I get it now lol.