Book Review: “Iron Widow” by Xiran Jay Zhao

Cover of "Iron Widow" by Ziran Jay Zhao
Cover of “Iron Widow” by Ziran Jay Zhao

I’m back with another book review, and this time I’m reviewing “Iron Widow” by Xiran Jay Zhao!

Here’s a quick summary so we know what it’s about:

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.”

Content Warning:

This book contains lots of violence and death, alcoholism, attempted and actual murder, sexual assault, suicide ideation, torture, and toxic family relationships. If you are uncomfortable with any of this content, please be careful when reading this book or skip it entirely.

Plot Development: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I’m aware that this book is very loosely based on Chinese history, and when the author said it was loosely based, it really is loosely based. The author encourages readers to look at more accurate sources further, which is nice, and I also appreciated the content warnings given.

The plot was fairly fast-paced at the beginning, but I felt that it slowed down too much in the middle thanks to focusing on fleshing on the worldbuilding. It’s understandable since Zeitan and the reader learn more about the depths of the world they’re stuck in for this book, and much of the later-revealed worldbuilding is part of several plot twists. However, I wish there was some way the author could have paced out those plot twists a bit better so they all weren’t smashed into the latter two-thirds to the last third of the book alone.

Worldbuilding: 4 out of 5 stars

The world that Zeitan and the rest of the characters live in is extremely misogynistic. Women are extremely restricted, they have “maidenhood” tests, and many girls are often offered up or sold as concubines to die by powering up Chrysalises for the male pilots. It gets even worse with the more Zeitan and the reader learns about the world, especially in the latter half of this book. I wish I could say more about this section, but I would be giving major spoilers so I can’t. However, this was the strongest aspect of the book save for a few loose ends created by the ending.

Character Development: 3 out of 5 stars

As a reader, I’m mixed about how I feel about the main character, Zeitan. Zeitan is very angry throughout this book for justifiable reasons -she’s angry at the world that constantly sacrifices girls for the sake of powering up Chrysalises and her sister died through this same method. The more Zeitan learns about the world around her, especially with how the pilot and concubine system, made her even more justifiably angry at how the world is specifically built up against girls and women. It’s hard not to at least sympathize with Zeitan’s anger and desire for vengeance, considering her circumstances.

However, some of the things Zeitan did not always consider the most strategic ways to survive. For instance, screaming “Welcome to your nightmare!” upon killing Yang and walking out of the Chrysalis carrying his dead body for everyone to see was probably not the best way to cover up a murder, if she wanted to get away with it. Then again, killing Yang was her sole goal until she achieved it (albeit somewhat by accident) at the time. Half the time, actions like how she executed the aftermath of killing Yang made me wonder “why the heck hasn’t anyone else successfully killed her off yet, other than plot armor?” The way she acted was fairly reckless and could easily get her killed if she wasn’t the main character.

It also did not help that at least half the time someone tried to kill her, it always took someone else (typically another male character like one of her love interests) to save her. Zeitan never got the chance to actually save herself. Then again, Zeitan also has little self-defense experience and her bound feet make it difficult for her to walk, which would make defending herself physically even harder.

Another issue I had was that Zeitan never develops any positive relationships with any living women in this book. The only good relationship between her and another woman was presumably with her sister, who is already dead by the current events of the book. Everyone else is either straight-up abusive to Zeitan or sees her as nothing more than a man-killing Iron Widow. Considering that the book is set up to have a sequel with the cliffhanger ending and a second book confirmed to be in progress, I hope that this situation changes in the sequel.

There is also a polyamorous relationship that occurs between Zeitan and two other characters in this book, but I’m not sure if it was the best executed. The relationship is not necessarily healthy, especially considering the worldbuilding-based dynamics surrounding these three characters and how it affected them and their behavior, but it’s so minor that one could mostly ignore it existing except for the last third of the book.

As for the rest of the characters, many of them felt underdeveloped or one-note to me. Many of the men lack depth except for the two love interests, and the women aren’t any better-developed, either.

Overall, I’m rating this book 3.5 out of 5 stars!

This book gave me the same vibes and atmosphere as Suzanne Young’s “Girls With Sharp Sticks” did, so fans of that book will likely enjoy reading this one.

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