Non-obvious and obvious hiccups aside, Iron Widow has to be one of the best books I’ve read in 2021 and will continue to remain one of my favourite books of all time. Wu Zetian, the titular Iron Widow is everything I wish I had the guts to be and the blend of science fiction, Ancient China and Chinese culture is chef’s kiss. Despite numerous Asian-inspired fantasies, none have hit quite as hard with a realistic portrayal of Chinese culture. They are normally magical, fantastical and whimsical.
Writing this review and reading Iron Widow forced me to confront a lot of dark and negative thoughts about my life, and so many of them reflect the injustices that Wu Zetian and the women in her lives face. Iron Widow may be fiction but the lived reality of most Asian women are eerily similar. I almost didn’t want to include my life experiences and how I could relate to her brand of feminism, which plays strongly throughout the book.
Hi, book fam! It’s been more than a month of silence from me and despite having read multiple books, and one ARC from my favourite author, I could not find the energy to sit down and write out a review. I typically take anywhere from three to five hours to write down my thoughts, not including editing as I go along, procrastinating as well as formatting it onto the blog. So, you can imagine why I put off writing reviews! But, when Shealea offered the opportunity to be a part of the Iron Widow blog tour, I couldn’t say no.
Unfortunately, this is perhaps one of the lengthiest reviews I’ve written in a long while, perhaps, fueled by the fact that I haven’t written a review in over a month. Please bear with me and my thoughts and I hope Iron Widow finds a way onto your shelves! A huge and massive thank you to Penguin Teen Canada for granting me an eARC for review and Shealea and the team at Caffeine Books Tour for allowing me to host a tour spot! Minor spoilers ahead~!
Iron Widow: Five-Star Feminist, Fiery and Fearsome
Jump to Section:
- Plot, Prose and Pacing: Punchy Prose In A Predictable Plot
- Characters: Wu Zetian and Polyamory Take Centre Stage
- Worldbuilding: Perfectly Flawed
- Themes: Feminism and The Asian Woman Lived Experience
- Book Information
Iron Widow is one of those books that I desperately wanted to read before it even hit the shelves, hype aside, I’ve been a huge fan of Xiran Jay Zhao from their Mulan video on Youtube, after being disappointed by the live-action film. So, I knew that they knew what they would walk the walk when it came to a novel featuring Wu Zetian.
When one of my Netgalley support groups announced that Iron Widow was a read now, I searched Netgalley high and low but was disappointed that despite being on both US and UK Netgalley, neither had it. Out of desperation, I scoured the internet for a publisher’s contact to find that Xiran Jay Zhao had posted an ARC request form on their Twitter and I was months too late. But, I gave it a shot anyway because you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. And, weeks after forgetting I had dropped my details, I received a Netgalley approval email. And the joy I felt in that moment was surreal.
But being typical of me, I didn’t begin reading Iron Widow until the tour. And, I breezed through Iron Widow within a handful of days, it would have been one but I had to succumb to cursed sleep.
“But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance.”
Plot, Prose and Pacing: Punchy Prose In A Predictable Plot
A blend between Pacific Rim-esque science fiction, East Asian mythology, and the Ancient China-inspired television dramas I consumed religiously as a child, there is nothing inherently unique in Iron Widow’s plot. A strong, sexy and all-powerful woman (think Aelin Galathynius/Celaena Sardothien) takes on and seeks change against the sexist, dangerous and disgusting men of her world who are determined to maintain the eons-old status quo while battling her inner demons, sordid past and society’s impression of her.
When Wu Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, she only has one goal in mind: to avenge her sister’s wrongful death by murdering the mecha pilot, a beloved national celebrity, who made it happen. But, when her plans go awry and she is strapped into the Chrysalis along with said pilot to battle the scourge of the land, the alien Hunduns, Zetian’s spirit pressure (a measure of mental power used in channelling qi) proves stronger than the pilot’s and she ends up killing him. Immediately, she is labelled an Iron Widow, a concubine-pilot who sacrifices male pilots in order to power the Chrysalis and is forced to pair up with Li Shimin, a dangerous criminal who committed patricide and is also Huaxia’s top Chrysalis pilot. But, Zetian refuses to play into the hands of misogynists pilots any more and attempts to kill Shimin but when the battle is over, they both emerge unscatched, declaring them a Balanced Match. And thus sets off a new and shaky partnership to right the wrongs they have been cursed with. Along with Zetian’s childhood sweetheart, Gao Yizhi, the three form an unlikely partnership for their survival as they delve deeper into the dark secrets of Chang’an and Huaxia.
“Girls . . . know how to sacrifice.”
There are a lot of elements in Iron Widow, making them blend indistinctly into one another. This is definitely a series that would benefit from a slow-burn of events, taking its time to develop and come together but unfortunately, we’ve got a very fast-paced and exciting story that throws punches as hard as Zetian fights. Zhao’s prose is direct and unforgiving; it doesn’t beat around the bushes and the pacing is tremendous, in an incredible, gripping way which all lends to a highly-plot driven story.
Below are just a few things I wish had been given more time or page space to develop:
- It’s hardly emphasised that Zetian is actually a criminal and treated like one, the distinction is almost no different than being a concubine-pilot and I cannot determine if this was deliberate.
- We’re often being told instead of shown that Zetian’s motivation for her actions is to stop more girls from being sacrificed as concubine-pilots. Things often diverge from this plot line and then reconvene in a convenient moment. I wish the book had taken more time to demonstrate this.
- The worldbuilding feels rather bare bones, barely going into more detail to help better paint the world and the location of the characters can be fairly confusing at times. I will delve further into this in the Worldbuilding section of this review
- While a main part of the story focuses on the action, the introduction of concubine-pilots means there’s a whole world of concubines and their inner life. It would have been a rather interesting detail to include to better humanise the women that Zetian wants to liberate. Instead, we are only introduced to a few rather mean and catty concubine-pilots. While this isn’t uncommon (if you’re familiar with shows like Yanxi Palace that focus on concubines’ lives), I would have liked to see a more diverse cast of women. (This is also a worldbuilding point but I felt it important to include here as it does overlap with the plot as we are introduced to other pilots who are Balanced Matches)
- The polyamorous triangle of Zetian, Shimin and Yizhi should be given more space to grow and develop. Instead, the relationships formed seemed almost insta-love save for the existing one between Yizhi and Zetian. Their surface-level emotions made me feel as if their friendships and romances weren’t utilised to their full potential.
Characters and Romances: Wu Zetian and Polyamory Take Centre Stage
Amongst a rather lacklustre and almost unmemorable cast, the three main characters, Wu Zetian, Gao Yizhi and Li Shimin stick out like sore thumbs. One of the things I dislike the most is when characters, no matter how miniscule, are introduced only to serve a singular purpose, leading them to have only one personality trait. Most of Iron Widow’s supporting cast are like this from the one-dimensional, evil cackling and figurative beard stroking villains, the bumbling fool but well-meaning mentors, the catty concubine-pilots to the meek, submissive mothers and wives, the only character who shows any semblance of being well-rounded in Wu Zetian. (Even Yizhi and Shimin feel terribly one-dimensional!)
Wu Zetian, despite her impulsiveness and lack of planning, is an easy character to root for. I would have liked to see the relationship with her sister deepened and explored further beyond the “I love her, she was the best person ever” sentiment that drives her vengefulness as she feels a little stabby at the moment. I also felt that at certain moments, her characterisation seems a little confused. Zetian tends to gasp almost girlishly or behave in a ditzy manner, in comparison to the tough-as-nails front she presents but that could be my preconceived notions of what I expect in a strong, female character as her reactions are merely human. However, it feels out of place enough that I notice it.
“This will not do. I will not let this power go. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that brute strength means nothing on its own. It just makes everyone else want to strike you down.”
But what’s so well-written about Zetian is we know exactly what causes her pain, what she wants and what her motivations are. But, despite this, I’m not her biggest fan! She’s impulsive, acts without thinking, isn’t really much of a team player and I would go so far as to call Wu Zetian an anti-hero; there are a great number of things she does that I neither agree with nor would want a hero to do. But, she’s someone you’d definitely want to watch and I, for one, am morbidly engrossed with her every move!
I’d say that Zhao has written some fantastic and unique characters to support Zetian, even if they’re a little dull on page. But, Yizhi and Shimin lack any depth despite some attempts to present them as multifaceted, even though their characters are hardly cookie cutters!
Gao Yizhi, is presented as your intelligent, gentle, beautiful and almost god-like wuxia fantasy type boy with a gentle smile (I sort of pictured him as Xie Lan from Heaven’s Official Blessing) but he is much more than meets the eye. Li Shimin, on the other hand, is his opposite, presented as brash, rude, masculine (his description when we first met him reminded me very much of Harrison Bergeron, in both appearance and the sci-fi nods to it) in every way possible but ultimately, a sweet softie with depth.
But, ultimately that’s all we get from, as Zhao puts it, “her 2 boyfriends and her boyfriends are also boyfriends”. With a story as complex as this one wants to be, I would have loved a lot more depth in terms of characterisation for both Yizhi and Shimin who seem to be very surface-level characters compared to the depths we get from Zetian. I love a big moment when the “behind every man, there’s a woman” trope is reversed, I wished Yizhi and Shimin had more of their own ground to stand upon, considering this is a feminist book and I’m very done with feminist stories flipping tropes around instead of dismantling them.
“Women will hate you for carrying yourself with the kind of domineering confidence they wish they had; men will hate you for scrambling their minds and luring their thoughts towards places they know they shouldn’t go. But their hate will scorch so hotly under their skin that they won’t be able to look away or stop talking about you. Together with Shimin, you will be Huaxia’s premier power couple. You’re not good, but you’re bad in the best way.”
One of the biggest selling points of Iron Widow is the polyamorous relationship between Zetian, Yizhi and Shimin. For a relationship type that is so taboo and Zhao’s boundary-breaking step to include it in a mainstream YA book, I was very excited to see how it would play out. They really took the typical love triangle and said, “Why choose? Let’s make them all fall in love!”
But alas, it was not meant to be. Their relationship can be summed in a single word: boring. It felt like Zhao fantasised this beautiful three-way relationship in their head but it did not translate onto paper. When we first meet Zetian, she harbours a massive crush on Yizhi but not the passionate kind, just a sweet love. And while her relationship with Shimin seems almost enemies-to-lovers, don’t be fooled. It’s not at all. For a split second there, Iron Widow introduced a fake marriage trope! I was over the moon, I absolutely love fake marriage tropes. But that soon fizzled out as well.
And within a few pages, they were all falling in love with each other so much so that it felt like insta-love. There was no tension! Where’s the push and pull of a relationship? Where’s the struggle, where’s the effort? It was frustrating that their romance fell so perfectly into place despite it being very fluffy and sweet. I’d hesitate to call it romantic; it made me happy but didn’t spark any sort of desire for them.
Worldbuilding: Perfectly Flawed
In a single word: phenomenal.
But, as I mentioned in previous sections, there are a lot of details about the world that are missing and while these don’t affect the plot (in my opinion), it would have definitely helped the immersiveness into a fantasy world that is a breath of fresh air. Below are just a few of the elements I felt made the reading experience feel a little flat:
We are barely introduced to the political system or the government of Chang’an and Huaxia. What we do know is that there are Sages who sit at the very top of the pyramid, followed by Central Command Committee who work for the Sages and oversee the Chrysalises and the pilots and then there are the local strategists, who are in charge of the local contingent of pilots and other soldiers. We do learn that there are seemingly omnipresent gods that communicate (whether exclusively or not, it is unclear) with the Sages. They bestow gifts of Chrysalis blueprints and other such technological guidance when sufficient Hundun corpses are presented to them.
We are also told that there are rural villages and tribes, collectively called Rongdi who are further split into different tribes and ethnicities. The people of Chang’an and Huaxia do not like the Rongdi tribes and often act in racist and prejudiced ways against them. But, we are not told much more.
To be very honest, the locations of the characters and where they come from are pretty confusing to me. I cannot recall where Zetian is from, just that it is a rural village and her family used to be from the Hundun-conquered Zhou. A majority of the plot occurs in two places I am able to identify:
- The Great Wall, where the main and most powerful Chrysalises and pilots are stationed in case of a Hundun attack.
- Chang’an – the city in which Yizhi is from
Most of the time, the locations in which the characters are, are vaguely shaped in my mind. And the plot and action are so consuming I don’t notice the lack of details but as I try to recall them while writing this review, it’s all a blur.
While reading Iron Widow, I struggled to remember that it’s not fantasy but rather science fiction with elements of Ancient China and Chinese-presenting characters. That’s because beyond the Chrysalises, modern technology like elevators and aircrafts and modern weapons, there is quite little to indicate that there is much in the way of technology in Chang’an and Huaxia.
The main technology Iron Widow highlights is the Chrysalises. I absolutely love the idea that the Chrysalises are able to transform through multiple stages of forms, kind of like Pokémon or Digimon and I love that it is powered by qi which makes me laugh a little because of Disney’s 2020 retelling of Mulan and their horrendous depiction of qi. Iron Widow handles it phenomenally.
“A story of the Iron Widow and the Iron Demon, taming each other. Redeeming themselves in a battle over a lost province. Transforming from villains to heroes. What is this if not the first page?”
However, while I was initially picturing the kaijus from Pacific Rim, towards the end of the book, I finally realised that we don’t quite actually know how the technology of the Chrysalises work. For one, we don’t exactly know what the interior is really like save for the pilots’ seats. We also don’t know exactly how the qi powers the Chrysalises; we know it does and we know the mechanisms that extract qi, but we aren’t given insight into how it actually works.
As the book is told from Zetian’s perspective, this makes sense as she would be kept in the dark as well and the ending suggests that most of the explanation will come in the sequel. However, as it is the main part of the story, the Chrysalises’ function and mental space in which the pilots enter should have been explained.
Despite the above elements being essential to story-telling, especially in a science fiction setting, they are overshadowed by how beautifully Zhao incorporated the Ancient China and Chinese-inspired elements.
Ancient China and Chinese Culture
Within the first few pages of the book, as Zetian sets the stage for her upbringing, she is subjected to the absolutely inhumane and disgusting practice of foot binding where a young girl’s foot is broken and folded to create the desired and erotic lotus shape. The foot is continuously broken and bound throughout their lifetime. As the foot is broken and bound inside tight bindings, the flesh is often rotting and can be prone to infection; making it intensely painful for her to walk or run. Instead, she is forced to hobble around, which was seen to be incredibly erotic for men of that era.
Torturous customs and practices aside, I absolutely love how Iron Widow seamlessly weaves elements of Ancient China and Chinese culture from clothing, customs to mythology into its fabric. For example, the Chrysalises are all named after East Asian mythological creatures, particularly, the Chrysalis that Shimin and Zetian pilots is the Vermillion Bird. The language around Vermillion Bird vs Phoenix when it comes to Chinese mythology can be a little confusing as these two creatures are different but some sources also say they’re the same. In Iron Widow, I like to interpret the Vermillion Bird as a phoenix because it makes the meaning so much more poetic. In Chinese mythology, the phoenix is the symbol of the Empress and also Yin and Yang and it is so compelling in the Iron Widow context because Wu Zetian is based off China’s first and only female Emperor and Shimin and Zetian represent the Yin and Yang working together in harmony. Ah, it makes my heart sing!
There are a couple more elements fun to discuss such as the concubine and harem system typically accorded to the emperors of Ancient China and often, other high ranking officials, as well as the invasive purity checks required of these concubines. And other less invasive details such as the clothing Yizhi wears which I assume are similar to the hanfu and the soldiers lighting red lanterns into the sky in celebration. I would have liked to see a little more of the Chinese language used as well as foods (I only recall distinctly, one instance of porridge being served) which, to me, are the cornerstone of Chinese culture.
But, perhaps the most important element relayed so clearly in Iron Widow is the treatment of women in Ancient China and Chinese culture.
Themes: Feminism and The Asian Woman Lived Experience
While there are a great other themes that Zhao has introduced such as filial piety, the pervasiveness of the media, glorification of violence, colonisation and such, the main point of the conversation revolves around feminism and the Asian woman lived experience. I normally try and relate the themes a book introduces to a general overview of the subject matter in a more academic and broad setting but Iron Widow hits very close to home and hence, I will be writing this from a more personal aspect. Feel free to skip this section entirely as I hardly delve into feminist concepts and Zetian’s actions but rather how I relate Zetian’s lived experiences and motivations to my own.
“It’s hilarious. Men want us so badly for our bodies, yet hate us so much for our minds.”
Before sitting down to write reviews, I like to browse Goodreads to see what other people are saying and then think about how I can add value to the conversation. And in the course of browsing through reviews for Iron Widow, I came across one that, in paraphrase, said that Zetian’s vengefulness, anger and her outspoken defiance seems to have burst out of nowhere and doesn’t explain how she became that way.
But, as an Asian woman raised in a rather outdated and misogynistic environment, albeit without the torture, the blatant sexual abuse and mistreatment, there is no explanation needed to justify my anger. Our brothers, fathers, uncles and male figures are given more important placements in our lives; our genders literally write our life stories and our roles in the family: to be quiet, filial, the perfect, desirable, sweet lady.
It wasn’t until I discovered feminism when I went to college at age twenty, that I began to put a name to the injustice and unfairness I was experiencing at the hands of my Asian culture. While Zetian documents multiple extremes that seem unreal, many women across Asia are still being treated as second class citizens. Women are married off as soon as they can be, particularly in rural and poorer situations where marriage is seen as unburdening the parents as often these men who marry young women offer these parents high bride prices. Women, particularly in the Asian context, are as Zetian puts it, a daughter married off is like water hurled out the door.
Since I was a young girl, I was constantly reminded that the moment I got married, I would be taking on my husband’s name, Sunday dinners with my family would no longer be a thing as I would be expected to dine with my husband’s family, I would have to spend the first day of Chinese New Year with my husband’s family instead of my own. All of this boy-girl binary is because in Chinese culture, only the boys are able to carry on the family name, they’re the ones who will live with the parents and take care of them for the rest of their days much like how Zetian’s family treats her brother as precious and treats her like goods to be traded off the next day at market.
“How do you take the fight out of half the population and render them willing slaves? You tell them they’re meant to do nothing but serve from the minute they’re born. You tell them they’re weak. You tell them they’re prey. You tell them over and over, until it’s the only truth they’re capable of living.”
This, in turn, led me to cultivate poor self-image, self-perception and poor self-esteem, something I am actively working to overcome as I grow older. Growing up Asian has also led to a lot of childhood trauma I am actively identifying and working through because the household lived experience of Zetian reflects mine, again, albeit without a lot of the harshness.
The older my sister and I get, the more we learn about injustice against women and how much of the Asian culture sought to place women as secondary, to keep women in the familial and motherly roles and to put men first, the more we spoke out against our parents and the more our father sought to control us. Zetian details a similar experience: when she was younger, the world of pilots and their concubines appeared glamorous and sought after. When my father raises his voice in anger, we are expected to stop arguing or talking back. When we raise an argument he doesn’t like or agree with, particularly ones disagreeing with his misogynistic behaviour, he points and shakes his finger at us and are told to shut up or keep your mouth shut. We are expected to accept this is normal, just as the women in Zetian’s family and the concubine-pilots are expected to accept how they are treated as part and parcel of life. We receive no apology and constantly keep us in fear, walking on eggshells for fearing of triggering another angry spat.
“Countless time, I watched my father turn my mother into a nervous wreck by simply transforming himself into a dark cloud of a presence. He wouldn’t use any curses or shouts, but he’d set his bowl down a little too loudly or slam doors a little too harshly. She’d step cautiously around him as if he were a bomb, worrying about her every move for fear of setting him off. Without uttering a single word, he’d teach her to twist herself into knots to prioritise his needs and wants, in some strangling hope of quelling the pressure in the house and returning things to normal.”
While my father is a kind and loving man, he is also a product of misogynistic and outdated Chinese ideals, often saying, this is how I was raised whenever my mother tells him that he cannot speak to us that way. And my mother, bless her heart, is reflective of Zetian’s mother who hardly stands up for herself. My parents are not to blame; it is the system and culture that has raised them this way but while my mother is slowly dismantling her misogynistic ideals, my father is content to remain the same. Much like how the men in Iron Widow are content to maintain their status quo and the benefits they reap based on their position in life.
Feminism in Asia, much like in the Western world, is ridiculed by many and feminist opinions in public discourse such as a simple Facebook comment section as riddled with “feminazi”, “you must be an ugly feminist” and terms alike. But coupled with the Asian cultural upbringing many people refuse to confront and continue to perpetuate from fathers, mothers, uncles, aunties and the list goes on, we are far from dismantling this misogynistic system where women are the yang and men are the yin.
So, don’t go saying that Wu Zetian’s anger is unjustified; just say you cannot understand the lived experience of an Asian woman.
Did I Enjoy It?
“Since the day I was born, the world has told me I must accept whatever worth men assign me. And maybe, despite my nonstop rebellion, I did. They told me to choose between accepting their doctrine or dying, and I did. I chose death. It was the surrender that made me fearless.”
Iron Widow is a soothing balm to my soul despite its many flaws. It is so satisfying to see a strong, no shits given woman (with a sister, I might add!) take on the patriarchal values I live with every day, even though she’s in a giant mecha that is powered by qi and can transform into rather interesting animalistic and humanoid forms. Iron Widow is definitely written with a lot of heart, passion and soul; it practically leaps off the pages and I was dragged hook, line and sinker into Zetian’s world. I am so happy to share my thoughts and love for Iron Widow before its release and I cannot wait for everyone else to read it.
Finally, did I enjoy it? Yes, yes, I did.
ARC RECEIVED FROM PENGUIN TEEN CANDA VIA NETGALLEY FOR THE CAFFEINE BOOK TOURS BLOG TOUR AND FOR REVIEWING PURPOSES
Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
Series: Iron Widow (#1)
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction, Young Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Penguin Teen Canada
Date Published: 21 September, 2021
ISBN: 9780358329732 (Hardback)
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.
- POC (East Asian)
- LGBTQ+ (Bisexuality, polyamory)
Trigger and Content Warnings
- Violence and abuse, footbinding, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture
BUY NOW: Amazon
Xiran Jay Zhao is a first-gen immigrant from small-town China who was raised by the Internet. A recent graduate of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, they wrote science fiction and fantasy while they probably should have been studying more about biochemical pathways. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture. Iron Widow is their first novel.