Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is an amazing new sci-fi fantasy. Zetian is out for vengeance, and she’ll get it no matter what it takes.
All quotes are from an advanced reader copy, and may or may not reflect the published edition.
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.
“Be their nightmare, Wu Zeitan.”
Iron Widow is one of the most fantastic sci-fi fantasies I’ve read in a long time. Our main character, Zeitan, is not just morally grey- she’s out for vengeance. This book tackles the patriarchy head on with teeth bared and claws out. The pacing of this story is fast, without a moment of lull between plot points. You watch as Zeitan continues to convince the people around her to take her seriously. Along the way, she has her two boys – “my killer boy, my sweet boy”, which developed into something interesting. The gentle attraction of the three characters developed slowly, and realistically. I loved the character development for our trio. None of them set their morals aside, nor do they take the “easy” route of privilege. I find in semi-“dystopian” stories that is occurs a lot, and it’s frustrating. Zhao does not choose to do this, and it worked amazingly.
“Redemption story, they said? There will be no redemption. It is not me who is wrong. It’s everyone else.”
I found the author’s note helped immensely with the world-building and my expectations. That aside, though, it unfolds itself gracefully. There were times the spirit armor felt confusing, but it almost always was explained through showing and not telling. This kept the pacing of the book fast, and entertaining. Considering this book is a debut, I was floored by the merging of culture, sci-fi, and fantasy aspects. It was all incredibly well done.
“But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance.”
Generally, I am the first one to hate a cliff-hanger of an ending. However, Zhao cleverly wrapped up the plot and set us up well for the next book. This has me highly anticipating it, while still feeling satisfied with what I got. This was hands down one of the best books I’ve read in 2021, and I can’t wait to see more from this author.
“We can live for more. We can live for justice. Change. Vengeance. Power.”
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.