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Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (Out 9/21/21)

Genre: Science fiction
Audience: YA
Series?: Iron Widow #1

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: Darling in the Franxx, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Pacific Rim, The Hunger Games, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Chinese harem dramas, angry bisexuals who don’t flinch when they kill their enemies

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to spoil this book any more than the author has on social media, but if you’d prefer not to know what happens at all, please come back when you’ve finished Iron Widow!

Here is everything I knew about Iron Widow when I requested it from NetGalley: It’s a reimagining of the rise of the only female Chinese emperor written by the person who made those Mulan videos. I expected historical fiction, political intrigue, and maybe some family drama.

Iron Widow is nothing like I expected. If I had to write an elevator pitch, I’d say it’s a dark mecha anime with an MFM throuple that makes only minor concessions to YA conventions. There’s a makeover, a love triangle, and a homecoming, but there’s also so much violence The Hunger Games looks like a game of touch football.

It also isn’t a retelling in the sense I imagined. It isn’t set in ancient China, but rather a non-earth sci-fi world inspired by the culture and geography of ancient China. In this world, all girls are raised as sacrifices. They’re sold to wealthy husbands or to the army. Either way, their lives are cruel and rigidly confined by both their patriarchal society and their own internalized misogyny.

Wu Zetian’s older sister was sold to the army, where male pilots use girls as fuel sources to power their giant mechs in battle against the mechanical aliens beyond the Great Wall. Girls often die in battle, but Zetian’s sister didn’t even make it that far. Her pilot strangled her to death.

To her parents’ relief, Zetian finally agrees to join the army, but she doesn’t intend to die in battle either. She plans to kill her sister’s murderer. She knows she and her entire family will be executed as a result, and she believes she’s prepared to die for her vengeance.

However, before she can act, the pilot takes Zetian into battle with him, and two unexpected things happen. First, the pilot dies in her place. Second, Zetian discovers she wants to live.

Iron Widow continues my streak of LGBT books that are so delightfully fanfic-y (Queerleaders, The Calyx Charm) they make up for the fact that they’re also continuing my streak of books that are thematically heavy.

It reads like a wildly creative AU for some mecha anime I’ve never seen. (Confession: I have never seen any mecha anime.) Partially because of, you know, all the mechs, but mostly because there is so much here that I’ve only really seen in places where writers don’t have to contend with publishing gatekeepers. In a YA novel!

The MFM throuple is a fun subversion of the love triangle trope. While I’m more invested in the enemies-to-lovers pairing than the others, I was impressed by how clearly Zhao handled them all. They felt inevitable. All four of the relationships (each character with each of the others, and then all three characters together) had ample on-screen development time, including the relationship between the non-POV characters.

I had no choice but to love Zetian, who is angry, bisexual, and traumatized. That’s everything I want in a protagonist. She even gets some shit from other characters about her weight, though the cover model is thin and it’s hard to tell if Zetian is intended to be read as fat or if this is just another example of the patriarchal scrutiny she lives under.

I also loved the plot structure, which reminded me a bit of Six of Crows. Pop writing advice says that protagonists have to fail and fail and fail again until they succeed. Each challenge they fail raises the stakes, until they’re in an impossible position with the entire universe depending on them, and only then can they succeed.

Only, it’s actually much more fun to read about protagonists succeeding occasionally. In both Iron Widow and Six of Crows, we have characters who are smart and clever and good at what they do. They encounter obstacles, strategize, and then overcome those obstacles in ways that both raise the stakes and move the plot forward. Often, Zetian succeeds in ways that only end up getting her into more trouble, but at least we get to see that she truly is remarkable, instead of just being told how Special she is.

This is also my only real complaint: Zetian is Special in a way that I feel somewhat undermines Iron Widow’s feminist themes. I have no problem with Zetian spontaneously deciding to resist her patriarchal upbringing, which seems like a matter of self-preservation more than anything. I also don’t mind how much internalized misogyny influences Zetian’s perception of other women. My problem is how the narrative reinforces Zetian’s perception.

Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, other women in Iron Widow essentially fall into 3 categories: tragic victims, catty bitches, and the tragic-victim-catty-bitch Venn diagram overlap of victims who eagerly sacrifice other women.

Zetian does occasionally think about how there have to be other girls who are as remarkable as she is, and sometimes she’ll mentally challenge her internalized misogyny. I interpret that to mean later books in will contain more nuanced female characters. I’m still disappointed by their absence in Iron Widow, but I think Zhao has done enough to merit optimism for the rest of the series.

Content Warnings

From the author: “Please be aware that this book contains scenes of violence and abuse, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture.”

Disclosure

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Penguin Teen
Hardback Page Count: 400

Xiran Jay Zhao is “on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture.”

You can support your local independent bookstore by preordering BOOK on Bookshop.org, or on Amazon.

Published inBook Reviews

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