Book Review: Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Publication Date: September 21st, 2021
Pages: 400, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

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.

Iron Widow has a solid premise and, unfortunately, not much else.

I wanted very badly to love this novel, as I enjoyed all of its comp titles and I like what I’ve seen of Xiran on twitter. But Iron Widow feels a bit like a first rough draft where the writer was just getting the general beats down and not overly paying attention to anything else such as the world building, characterization, or pacing, or even making certain the characters’ dialogue doesn’t sound exactly the same.

Even accounting for the fact that English isn’t Xiran’s first language and the differences in storytelling norms between English and Chinese, the writing simply isn’t good. It’s very blunt, and while maybe that was the point as the novel is entirely in Zetian’s POV and she’s not a subtle person, I can’t be sure about that. We’re given no time to really pause and reflect on certain scenes or emotions, which leaves it all feeling shallow. Even Zetian’s relationship with her Big Sister, who’s the entire driving force behind the events of the novel, barely gets any mention. We’re told everything and shown nothing.

It really seems as if the author only had a few scenes crystal clear in their head but had no interest in building the rest of the novel around those scenes in a way that made sense. There are a few bits of the novel that really shine, while the rest are hastily put together and shoved to the side so the author could get to the stuff they actually cared about. I couldn’t really tell you a thing about the worldbuilding except that it’s a Chinese sci-fi world where boys and girls have to fight aliens called Hunduns, and the girls are basically batteries for the boys and die in the process of the fighting.

Which brings me to Zetian’s story: I could not, in any way, believe her arc because it made no sense. Where she ends up at the end of the novel is unbelievable; at several points in the story, she should have been stopped simply because she’s about as subtle as a trainwreck on a boat and, frankly, not entirely smart about her plots. Readers looking for a character who manages to play the game intelligently and with subtlety should look elsewhere, because that’s very much not Zetian’s style, and while I understand that’s what Jay Zhao was going for, it doesn’t work. At all.

In a way, I think Iron Widow would have benefited incredibly from not being a YA novel–being an adult novel focused on teenage characters instead–and having multiple POVs. Zetian is limited in a lot of ways (including physically–she has bound feet, though at times it seems like Jay Zhao forgot about that, given that it doesn’t overly impact Zetian’s ability to do things that much) and the middle drags because we can’t see how other pieces are being moved, if they’re being moved at all. Given how the novel was written, I sort of doubt it; the characters come in when they’re needed, do what the plot/Zetian’s characterization and arc require them to do, and then leave, as if they don’t exist outside of their on-page appearances or have an impact on the world outside of them.

And now my final, biggest issue with the novel: For all that it touts itself as a feminist novel, and for all that Zetian claims she wants to save girls, neither Zetian nor the novel seem to actually like other girls that much. Zetian is a prickly person, so I get that she wouldn’t get along with everyone, but the novel itself doesn’t treat girls other than Zetian that well. There’s a difference between your character having some internalized misogyny issues and the writing backing her up on it by having every female character she encounters either be an enemy or get killed by the end of the novel. I don’t require Zetian to never have a bad word to say about other girls or for the novel not to have antagonistic relationships between them, but her scenes with other girls are so scant and overwhelmingly negative. If feminism means only One True Awesome Girl, it’s not one I’m interested in.

I did like the way the mecha functions, and I like that the love triangle resolves itself into an actual poly relationship. I wish the rest of the novel had been as good as some of the scenes inside, but unfortunately, it wasn’t.

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