Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Iron Widow #1

Iron Widow

Rate this book
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.

391 pages, Hardcover

First published September 21, 2021

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Xiran Jay Zhao

3 books10.3k followers
i'm in a cow suit because 7 years ago i made a promise to my friends to take my author photo in it if i ever got published and i'm sure as hell not backing down

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
28,201 (45%)
4 stars
19,158 (31%)
3 stars
9,375 (15%)
2 stars
3,520 (5%)
1 star
1,495 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 14,406 reviews
Profile Image for Lexi.
483 reviews186 followers
March 16, 2022
Okay, I need to preface this by saying I enthusiastically requested this arc because Xiran is one of my all-time favorite influencers. Their commentary, videos, etc, I love them. But this book is bad.


-Feminist story
- Alt love triangle (MFM poly it seems?)
- Scifi/alt-history
- Chinese history inspired
- Big robots
- Bisexual rep

Back to the book itself, the tagline is Pacific Rim meets Handmaid's Tale (It does rely a lot on Pacific Rim) Zetian is a young girl who offers herself up to pair with a mech pilot after her sister is killed in battle ( a normal occurrence, as girls are more or less used as sacrifices in these battles to power the robots) She intends on getting her revenge.

If I could describe this book in any way, it would be blunt and thoughtless.

They are fighting against aliens, but most of the time this conflict isn't really explained, nor is the technology used to fight them. There is a twist at the end, but its not done with much care, and the plot is literally just recycled from one of the most famous scifi books of all time. The gender politics are also super weird and confusing with limited explanation ...I still have no idea what any of the world politics are, though they have a pretty gosh darn big impact on the world. We will get into this a little later.

Zetian's journey is like BOOM revenge BOOM I'm at the story location BOOM I'm actually more mentally strong than anyone else here. It's all cliff notes. We don't really get time to marinade in the universe or time to understand it or the people who live in it. She doesn't really connect with people, do any introspection, or develop in her world. It's a lot of telling and not showing- and I assume part of this because the author so deeply wants you to LOVE Zetian that they are basically forgoing any true development or storytelling that could take the focus off of glorifying this character.

Iron Widow is a frequent blast of the author telling you someone is the strongest, the most powerful, the most dangerous, the hottest, etc. It's a modern mary sue tale, where the main character isn't traditionally "flawless" but the author is doing everything they can to beg you to like that character and always be on her side. She's cool and and edgy and kills people- and it's framed with the nuance and detail of a child's essay on why Batman is the best superhero. Zetian's every action is cool, justified, sexy as hell, and designed specifically for you to not just root for her; but for you to see her as an undeniable badass. She is edgy yet perfect, the Celaena Sardothien of the story if you will. Sure, she has flaws, but they are all framed in the context of making her look cool.

Look no further than Zetian's brand of feminism (which has all the depth of 90s girl power, Zetian is the exception and all of the other women in the story are ~dumb weak idiots~) We know the policies of the world are abusive to women, but the biggest conversations we have about it are "someone says something sexist, and Zetian responds with a cool, feminist thought"- and yes, she always has a cool, badass feminist response to everyone despite absolutely no context for how she became outspokenly defiant in a world that treats women so poorly.

Theres no explanation to how her family reflected the same values as the rest of society, yet she is deeply empowered with no character development to unapologetically strike back against sexism to the point where she's verbally sparring with people who could murder her on a whim. Take a moment to ask yourself how this character became so cool and liberated and strong and it all falls apart.

The "why" doesn't matter. The context is irrelevant. Reading Iron Widow is a journey of taking every line at face value and never giving yourself a second to question things like character motivation/development. The structure of the world they are in. This book is a list of an author's favorite tropes with no attempt to pull them together in a meaningful way.

There isn't really a lot of world-building. There isn't a lot of character building unless someone gets a monologue where they explain their entire motivations. The romances are both instalove, so feel free to ignore anyone who tells you there is much here in the way of enemies to lovers. There is supposed to be a poly romance in the story as well, but its really just two bland dudes with minimal personality outside of their relationship with Zetian worshipping her and then shrugging their shoulders and going "okay yeah lets make it a threesome". There isn't so much a romance as there is two men acting as set dressing to prove how cool and sexy the main character is.

The writing is also very surface-level. It reminded me a lot of my own prose as a teenager- it comes off extremely childish and simplistic. It's embarrassing "how did this get allowed to be published" bad. Remember "My Immortal", that Harry Potter fanfic where the angry goth girl is constantly listing her outfits to the audience? Think a few steps above that. If the author wasn't famous, it probably wouldn't have. The prose was probably 40% of my issue with the story, but it was a big one, and it bleeds all over the text.

Ive seen this book defended because it's a "popcorn novel", but the marketing, author advertising, and the book itself, and its "cool girl feminist" concept entirely too seriously to be a parody. Make no mistake, Iron Widow was written in earnest.

So I've given the book some business. I do want to praise it for having a cool idea for the romance in terms of poly rep. I did not like Zetian's relationships with either love interest and felt that they were rushed, but the whole idea of poly romance is still extremely rare, and very exciting and daring on the part of Xiran Jay Zhao.

I could tell they put a lot of heart into this book, and I really try to be honest when I review things. I do hope it finds success so they will make a ton of money, but I was very surprised with how many more objective issues I had with the book itself.

I would recommend this for people who really liked Pacific Rim, folks who love all books with queer rep, and anyone who wants a Chinese inspired world.

EDIT: Some of my friends have been harassed on other platforms for their negative reviews of this book, which also makes me incredibly uncharitable towards it. If you like this book, someone saying it was bad is not going to hurt you. Keep liking it and leave people alone.
Profile Image for anna (½ of readsrainbow).
588 reviews1,790 followers
December 2, 2021
rep: Chinese-coded cast & setting, disabled bi mc, bi mcs, polyamory
tw: gore, murder, torture, mentions of rape, threats of rape, misogyny, femicide, suicide ideation, abuse, alcohol addiction

Review also on Reads Rainbow. ARC provided by the publisher.

Irow Widow is the feminist agenda, actually.

It’s almost impossible to pinpoint one single thing that ensures Irow Widow is such a spectacular novel, and that’s because all the ingredients are equally amazing. Let us start, though, with arguably the most important part: the characters. The three of them are what carries the story, and they could not be more different from each other, while still sharing some of the same goals & values. Those goals? Vengeance. And possibly world peace, so to speak.

First of all, we have Zetian, a truly groundbreaking protagonist. The whole book only happens because Zetian wants to avenge her older sister’s (pointless and predictable) death. But the author doesn’t simply let the readers know that this is Zetian’s heart’s desire; instead they spend a lot of time explaining the circumstances, making sure that the readers realise it’s misogyny that killed that girl.

Frankly, misogyny as a concept, embodied by some of the most powerful men in Irow Widow & by the core principles on which its world is built, is the real villain of the story. Some of those misogynistic principles are boldly borrowed from actual Chinese history (like little girls getting their feet bound so they can’t walk and thus remain completely depended on their husbands; and also “beautiful” in their eyes), some are only grown on the echoes of it (like the pilots seats, inspired by the philosophy of Yin and Yang but taking it so much further, to create something ugly).

Villains can be defeated, though, and Wu Zetian takes great pleasure in cutting every impersonation of misogyny down, both in a literal, physical sense & by breaking societal norms. No spoilers, but every chance she gets, she spits in the face of power built on suffering of marginalised people. It’s no exaggeration to say she takes everything the society has taught her about how women should behave, she takes her own disfigured body & she molds it into a great weapon to fight injustice with, to avenge her sister and countless other girls.

But Wu Zetian is only one part of the trio that every reader will surely become obsessed with. There are also two boys, absolutely nothing alike. A scholar and a pilot; a civilised man on whom people place hopes & dreams and a brute warrior who shouldn’t be thought about too long. But of course, like with almost everything in Irow Widow, those are just the appearances.

In reality, just like Wu Zetian, both Li Shimin and Gao Yizhi will fight to the death for what they believe in. It’s no wonder then that all of them fall in love with each other. And it’s not simply a case where we get a polyamorous relationship at the very end, just to avoid a love triangle. Instead, it all happens naturally. Each of the characters falls for the other two at their own pace, and even more importantly: they talk about the implications of loving more than one person. There is no jealousy, but instead one boy gently explaining how Wu Zetian loving someone else as well, doesn’t mean she loves him any less.

Their love isn’t a separate entity, running alongside the main plot. On the contrary, their love makes them stronger, in a very literal sense. Their love allows some of the main events in the book to unfold. Their love is the center of the story, in some ways.

There’s also something to be said about the very evident gentleness of Gao Yizhi who still, when the time calls to defend/avenge Wu Zetian, can be absolutely ruthless, even to his own blood, compared with Li Shimin being perceived by everyone as a feral dog while actually being the living incarnation of that one Richard Siken line (“We have not touched the stars, \ nor are we forgiven, which brings us back \ to the hero’s shoulders and the gentleness that comes, \ not from the absence of violence, but despite \ the abundance of it”).

And, of course, no review of Irow Widow is finished before mentioning the ending. The story does a complete 180 spin in the most exciting and satisfying of ways, and creates the setup for a sequel of monumental proportions. If you have ever read Ender's Game, then you might have some idea of what kind of a mind-fuck we’re talking about here. (Not that I’m recommending Ender's Game.)

Irow Widow is, to quote the classics, absolutely unhinged. Which is to say it’s one of the very few novels out there that allow their female (nonbinary?) protagonist to gain full ownership not only of her body, but of her destiny; to be merciless and vengeful, and cold-blooded; to kill people in order to achieve her goals. All that ensures that reading Irow Widow is an experience unlike any other, and even months later you will still want to scream about it at the top of your lungs.
Profile Image for Sofia.
258 reviews6,491 followers
February 18, 2022
I'm upset that a book marketed as a feminist breakthrough only portrays feminism as something extremely violent, which is actually a harmful stereotype that this book, which prides itself on breaking stereotypes, perpetuates. It's supposed to be this revolutionary feminist book, but it just preserves misogynistic ideas under the guise of being empowering. For all of its sweeping talk about breaking barriers and supporting women (which I do love, just not paired with what actually happens in this book), it's surprisingly shallow. Every female character besides Zetian either a) dies, or b) is a vain, man-obsessed, conceited misogynist. I really dislike how Zetian is supposed to be some savior to open the eyes of the world, only to keep saying how much women annoy her and how much she hates being a woman. And she also kills a woman for the reason (one we're somehow supposed to support?) that she was protecting her family.

How come Zetian is the one who's a girlboss when she was raised the same way as all the other women and had no exposure to any different ideas? Realistically, she should have the same mindset, but she doesn't. Why? Additionally, Zetian is inconsistent because she claims to care about people's lives (specifically the lives of concubine-pilots), but kills innocent people without a hint of remorse. She's a hypocrite. I don't have a problem with reading about evil main characters. It's the poor writing that's the problem. She's so concerned about the lives of these women (which makes sense, I am too), but she completely disregards everyone else and then somehow thinks she's fit and has earned a position of power. This isn't some sort of nuance in Zetian—it's just lazy characterization.

Annihilate every center of power, so everything will collapse into chaos and people will have no choice but to obey the new most powerful thing—me.


Zetian justifies everything she does with her incredibly frustrating internal dialogue.

It is not me who is wrong. It's everyone else.

She tells herself she's going to save women, only to belittle, look down on, and kill women for whom she doesn't have a good first impression. This... is supposed to be empowering.

The entire reason the plot even started is because Zetian wanted revenge for the death of her Big Sister. But who is her sister? What is her sister like? The bond they have is described very, very briefly, but there's really no reason given for why Zetian wanted so badly to avenge her death.

The writing is juvenile. There are many mistakes. The plot twists are told through rhetorical questions. Action scenes are vague and confusing. The plot relies on deus ex machina and characters with no other purpose than to help the MCs. There's too much telling and not enough showing. The metaphors and descriptive writing are... odd:

Dread hollows through me.
I smell a whiff of fear in the temperature-controlled air.
A sharp breath lances up his nose.

I liked the creative resolution of the love triangle. That was a great twist and I appreciate how it bends tropes. But... I really didn't feel anything about the romance itself. There wasn't any buildup, there wasn't any real chemistry. Zetian is awful to Shimin for the entire book until the end when she kisses him despite having a bullet in her back and all of her ribs smashed. Convenient.

There were too many descriptions of hairstyles and basically no descriptions of the actual core conflict of this book and the reason it exists: Hunduns. What do they look like? Why are they fighting humans? What is the process of turning a Hundun into a Chrysalis? I'm not sure the author knows, really, because I got this feeling that this idea was never fleshed-out. There's a disproportionate lack of imagery when it comes to Hunduns.

This book has no nuance whatsoever. Subtlety does not exist. Zetian goes on long monologues telling us word for word the message of the book. She takes topics with great potential to be explored further and with more depth and punches them repeatedly, basically. She removes any profundity and pretends to be a savior while actually hurting women more than she helps them. She has no long term vision and it makes me want to cry. Zetian is deranged and delusional, but she's being promoted as someone we're supposed to support.

Feminism is cool. Feminism is great. I love it. It's awesome. The world needs it. But this is not feminism, and pretending it is just undermines the movement.

1 frustrated star
Profile Image for Xiran Jay Zhao.
Author 3 books10.3k followers
March 26, 2022

The Iron Widow cover with a duel disk edited onto Zetian's arm

PS You can find more pretty art, memes, and the mecha designs on my website! 😛
A series of three artworks featuring Zetian, Shimin, and Yizhi

Been seeing some confusion about this so thought I'd clarify here: this book is not historical fantasy or alternate history! It's a story set in a totally different sci-fi world with characters who are only inspired by historical figures from across Chinese history (not just the Tang dynasty). Lots of creative liberties were taken for thematic purposes, so the characters only resemble the historical figures in personality and general vibe. Kind of like comic book adaptations/elseworlds where they play around with the iconic characters' backstories or place them in radically different life circumstances. All historical references should only be seen as Easter eggs instead of attempts at accuracy, since there's no specific era to be accurate to 😂 But if you want to learn the actual history of Empress Wu's life, I've made some videos going into detail about it!

Serious PSA: When I wrote this book, I was told by multiple people that I would encounter resistance at every step (publishers, reviewers, libraries) because I'm letting the protagonist enter a polyamorous relationship instead of forcing her to choose between two love interests, and they have basically never seen that done in YA before (though there actually ARE a few! Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, for example). There's no doubt that my journey would be a lot easier if I had cut the MFM triad into a standard YA love triangle. But, I persisted. Because barriers will not come down unless you BREAK THEM. Only by publishing more poly books can it be normalized, and future authors writing it won't have to go through the same struggle.

That being said, if you see any people anywhere slamming this book because of the polyamory, please do NOT engage or harass them. Likely, you cannot change their minds. Please do not start witch hunts in authors' names. Just keep supporting us, and we can ride it out!

Because of the harassment and slander that I've received on Goodreads, though, I will no longer be checking this page. I'll still be supporting other books, but if you have any questions about mine, please reach me at my Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or the email on my website! I literally won't see your question otherwise.

Please think critically about what you read. I have never engaged directly with a reviewer, and I never will.

Non-Serious Bonus Summary for Weeb Eyes Only:

Under siege by monsters beyond the Great Wall like that shitty Matt Damon movie, except the monsters are Cybertronian-like sentient machines, a society that has the fashion, social customs, and beliefs of Ancient China but futuristic tech fights back by pulling a Neon Genesis Evangelion and rebuilding their very invaders into giant mecha. A boy-girl pair in their teens, because of course they have to be teens, pilot the mecha Darling in the Franxx style, except in a much more sensible position (he hugs her from behind). Under command of human pilots, these mecha take on forms inspired by East Asian myth creatures and transform like Transformers through Digimon-esque evolution lines that get more humanoid as you go on. The pilots physically embody them, so it's more Attack on Titan than Gundam. Oh, and they blast qi attacks, so the battles honestly read like a bunch of furries engaged in a Dragon Ball Z fight, and that’s no one’s fault but mine.

Catch this in your local bookstore Fall 2021.
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,172 reviews98.2k followers
November 16, 2021

ARC Provided by the Author & Caffeine Book Tours

"This world does not deserve my respect. It is not worthy of my kindness or compassion."

I’ll be completely honest, when I read the author note at the start of this book I knew I was about to fall in love with a new story. Xiran Jay Zhao lets the reader know that you are about to get a love letter to Chinese culture, Chinese history, and the only female Chinese emperor! The author does not shy away from the ugly things, but always shines such a powerful light on all the beauty, and truly crafts such an inspiring tale of a girl who will rise up the ranks and become more powerful than anyone ever let her believe or dream, including her family, her country, and even herself.

This story is Asian, queer, and all about abolishing the patriarchy and gender roles that every society tries to make people fit with their judgement, expectations, and laws. “Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid's Tale in a polyamorous reimagining of China's only female emperor” is the perfect tagline for this book! And this story is truly so powerful, so beautiful, and so high on my recommendations lists for you all!

Okay, on to the giant transforming robots and what the story is actually about! In this world, Huaxia is trying to protect the Great Wall against Hunduns and their alien mechs (who have already developed and established their own society and way of life on the other side of the wall And Huazia has modified versions of these robots that they call Chrysalises, and constant waves of battle are happening and being broadcasted for the people to watch and be entertained by. The pilots of these mechs are able to transform them into East Asian mythical creatures, and sometimes they are able to gain more special abilities under very specific circumstances when two pilots are able to bond together, weave their qi together, fight stronger together, and have a big adventure in battles together. But there are so few bonded pilots in this world.

But in Huaxia, young boys are hailed as heroes for piloting these machines, but it always takes two pilots, no matter how much society wishes to forget about the evils of the other seat. Young girls are given up by their families to serve the army and have their qi tested to see if they would be able to help pilot alongside a powerful boy. The thing is, most times the boy completely invades, using a psychic link, and uses up every ounce of lifeforce the girl has, killing her during battle.

"I wouldn’t live and suffer for anyone else, but I would die to avenge my sister."

➽ Wu Zetian - our main character, who is ready to enlist herself in to the army, to the same pilot who her big sister was enlisted to, but only her ashes were given back. On a mission of pure vengeance, and being sick of being held back because of the gender she was assigned at birth, she finally wants to reclaim some semblance of power for her sister, even if she has to pay for it with her life. But when she gets into her first mech as a concubine-pilot, the world is not ready for the power she truly has to offer, even if it could change the war for once and for all. She also uses a cane and sometimes a wheelchair because of the seriousness and pain of her footbinding.

➽ Li Shimin - the Iron Demon, pilot of the Vermillion Bird, and the scariest and most powerful pilots of them all. Not a single girl has made it out of his mech alive during battle. Was on actual death row for murder because his qi power was tested and noticed and now he is forced to endure another type of prison. He also is bisexual and half Rongdi. He is also struggling with alcoholism and immense trauma and grief. (unrelated, but I would give my life for him this very second.)

➽ Gao Yizhi - son of a powerful man who controls many of the social and public relations standards of Huaxia. Yizhi would sneak out and meet Zetian once a month in the forest of her village and help teach her things and just be a good friend to her. When I tell you I would die for this character. I also feel like the author really gave him some 11/10 one-liners. He is also bisexual and really does such a beautiful job teaching Zetian about polyamory. (yes, these three end up in a relationship together, even though it is not the central plot, it is perfect and I hope we are able to see more stories in the future normalize polyamorous relationships in the seamless way this one did!)

"love isn’t some scarce resource to battle over. Love can be infinite, as much as your heart can open."

But we follow (and fall head over heels in love with) this trio, while they attempt to dismantle the patriarchy and different types of oppression these people have been facing since even before Zhou fell. I know I just gave you a lot of information, but I promise you the author does so much of a better job immersing you in this story and world. Their writing is actually the best writing I’ve read in the past few years and the amount of highlights my eARC has is actually sickening.

I also just deeply loved the themes of feminism and how sometimes things can feel exceptionally heavy when you have been raised your entire life to honor your elders and trust that they know best, when we still have so many systems (and corrupt governments) to dismantle in our world today. I’m typing this review in 2021 where you are still unable to get a divorce in the Philippines that isn't an annulment, and how living in the US means constantly seeing powerful men make laws that take away women’s rights to their own bodies.

"I close my eyes, picturing myself taking command of a Chrysalis, towering over buildings and smashing the earth with my colossal limbs or luminous qi blasts. I could crush anyone who’s ever tried to crush me. I could free all the girls who’d love to run away."

Overall this was just the Asian, queer, polyamorous, feminist sci-fi story of my dreams. The layers were so haunting and deep, the themes were so loud and important, the writing was pure perfection and genius levels of lyrical, and the characters were completely and wholeheartedly unforgettable. And I truly believe that book two, and the conclusion to this duology, will be even better come 2022.

Also, this author is just really cool and creates really amazing content on youtube and their blog. I truly think they are just so inspirational, and I believe one day they will have a few stories written about them and the hope and happiness they are giving to so many, including so many Asian kids all around the world who are feeling so seen and feeling even more pride in their cultures.

Also (lastly for real), this book being published on September 21st, the Mid-Autumn Festival in China, and celebrating another story about a woman, a rabbit, and their sacrifices brings actual tears to my eyes. Very galaxy brain of this author and pub house and just a really beautiful final touch.

Iron Window will for sure make my best books of 2021 list, and I am so truly proud and honored to have been on the blog tour for such a powerful story.

Content + Trigger Warnings: murder, death, torture, violence, gore, human sacrifices, thoughts of suicide, a lot of abuse (including domestic abuse and parental abuse), talk of sexual assault, extreme alcohol addiction, lots of consumption of alcohol, lots of depictions of blood, lots of depictions of trauma, depictions of depression, anxiety depictions and panic attacks, many mentions of needles, forced body modifications including footbinding and stolen organs, humiliation, misogyny and sexism, talk of disease, themes of colonization, and war themes

Blog | Instagram | Youtube | Ko-fi | Spotify | Twitch

The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

(i'm the worst) buddy read(er) with May
Profile Image for Ayman.
202 reviews76.6k followers
November 4, 2021
this book was badass. literally i felt so powerful reading this. Zetian has such a strong and ruthless personality which was so refreshing to read about. she’s morally grey, need i say more?

the characters in this book are the best part. i wasn’t invested in the plot but these characters were relatable and fierce which made up for it. between the 3 main characters, there were such cute moments that made me all giddy and happy inside. they have my whole heart.

there was romance in here but it was definitely a sub-plot. the main focus was Zetain’s badassery. but polyamory in YA ?!? wow that was refreshing 🤩

Profile Image for Chloe Gong.
Author 13 books19.6k followers
May 31, 2021
Absolutely epic. This is the historical-inspired, futuristic sci-fi mash-up of my wildest dreams. Iron Widow charges headfirst into a world of giant mechas and uncompromising characters. The brutal beauty of Xiran Jay Zhao’s writing kept me glued to the page from start to finish.
Profile Image for literarylesbian.
226 reviews2,447 followers
November 29, 2021
Screaming, shaking, shitting my pants, crying, and losing my mind over this book. I came for the polyamorous and stayed for the absolute mind blowingly crafted world that is the Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,535 reviews32.6k followers
October 17, 2021
i had no intention of reading this - it just didnt sound like a story that would work for me. but i kept seeing all of the 5 star reviews and i ultimately caved into the peer pressure. but i should have listened to my gut instinct saying this wouldnt be for me.

i objectively can acknowledge all of the aspects that have made this book successful so far - an interesting sci-fi premise, characters inspired by chinese history, the visibility/representation, and prominent feminist themes. all great stuff and, on paper, sound like my type of story.

but again, that gut feeling i had after reading the synopsis and authors comment. the best way i can describe my feelings is this is too edgy for me personally. that makes me sound like a total wimp, lol, but my gentle soul prefers more subtlety and nuance in my stories and this book is a rebellion forcing you to look at it while it screams in your face. its no doubt effective, but just not the kind of storytelling for me.

truly a lot of great content in this, i just didnt click with the delivery of it all.

2.5 stars
Profile Image for Rebecca Roanhorse.
Author 60 books7,635 followers
November 5, 2021
I've been watching a lot anime lately with my teenage daughter and this YA novel, self-described as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, felt like spending time in some of the best anime. It's a thrilling, heartbreaking, raging rollercoaster of a book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is probably not one of those crossover adult books; the writing style and characters feel squarely YA to me, and that's just fine. The book need not appeal to adults, as it has its own merits. One of them being a no-punches pulled heroine (Zetian) who is a towering pillar of female rage, and thank god because I loved it. No backing down, bad decisions and all, just like a teenager. I've rarely see a YA author really commit to the dark side like that (or, frankly, write a teen that felt like a teen). Zetian earns that title of Iron Widow. A fun (and hot!) supporting cast in her two male love interests and frankly probably my favorite love triangle in YA. Polyamory ftw! I will say the worldbuilding was a bit confusing and uneven - the mixing of the ancient and modern didn't quite work for me, and the prose tended to be workmanlike, although there were a few lovely metaphors that surprised me. All in all, a great debut.
Profile Image for Althea ☾.
623 reviews1,952 followers
January 28, 2022
*ARC sent by the publisher -Penguin Teen/Penguin Random House Canada- for review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.*

You know what… the most accurate analogy for this book really is Attack on Titan but it make it mecha Sci-Fi set in a dystopian era inspired by historical China. By that, I mean the vibe with how vulnerable it can be but also violent, and how the lore is made to be.

I do think the writing style could have been a tad more whimisical and nuanced because this one really is in your face with the themes it tackles. Not saying that it's bad but those are just my preferences. There is more telling rather than showing and in the end, it did bother me a bit even though I enjoyed a lot of other aspects in the book. It does focus more on Zetian’s journey and her own development than the romance.

“He will not kill me. He does not get to make me a statistic.”

as a uni student that is endlessly tired, this flew by way too fast (in a good way). the amount of things that happened in the span of 50 pages is just crazy. we're also going to pretend that this didn't take me 3 million years to start reading because I got the ARC 5 months ago.

The nuances played into the plot (specifically, not in the book as a whole) were well-done in my opinion. It never felt like it was dragging or lagging at any point in terms of the plot progression. It’s fast-paced and just my vibe. I thought it was going to be all fun and games… but Xiran Jay Zhao has guts….. and you know what, we respect the grind. If you know, you know.

It does get gritty and violent so fair warning.

Zetian and the Poly Power Trio are the Kings and Queen of being morally grey. She definitely is that kind of character that you need to get used to at first because she’s so undeniably herself in every page. But after that moment passes, you realize that this, THIS is that badass female character we all needed. I could see Zetian, Shimin, and Yizhi raising debates about morals again though.

”The only utterly good people in the world are either naive or delusional.”

It’s not too heavy on the Sci-FI (don’t worry, friends) but still great on the world-building and details. Which I think was a strong point of the story. I am so IN LOVE with the way the society was set-up and the “magic system” or whatever you like to call the way the technology works, it was perfectly mixed in equal parts magical and scientific. Which was what made it perfect for my taste. I say with no exaggeration that it was a lot more thought out than I expected it to be. You can really see that the author knew what she wanted to do with the world-building and it was executed effectively in my opinion. It’s safe to say that the tech system might be my favorite aspect.

”The entitled assholes of this world are sustained by girls who forgive too easily.”

I always say that dialogues can make or break a book for me and although there were lines that were smooth (like butter hehe) there were some that were just too cheesy. I feel like the character relationships could have been more flushed out or arranged to be more satisfying. Especially since the poly relationship was one of the biggest reasons I read the book, I can’t ignore it.

I do wish we got more build up towards her relationship with Yishi and Shimin before things happened but I get that, in a way, it gave way to the world-building. I just wished that there was a balance between the two and the character dynamics is the biggest reason for my lowered rating even though I enjoyed the book. You should also be aware that most of the romance doesn’t really play into it until after the half-way point. It would have been nice to see more background with the Iron Widow-Iron Demon dynamic because I really would have loved more. I do have to say….. that when it happened, it was still worth it even just for a millisecond (we are so starved of healthy Poly relationships lmao). It just makes my feelings about the ending that more all over the place and makes me both anticipate the next book and have mixed feelings about the character relationships in this one.

“Perks of refusing to play by the rules: you don’t have to choose between the boy who’d torture a man to death with you and the boy who welcomes you back with pastries.”

I just…. wow. I really did not think XJZ would actually go with that ending. I acknowledge that it objectively has its imperfections but I also do not care about them.

Recommended if you want some Mecha Attack on Titan style Sci-Fi that’s a little dark and with some morally grey but vulnerable and strong characters. And a Poly Power Trio on the side. ↢

I rest my case.

— 3.75 —
content warnings// misogyny & femicide, mention of rape, violence, sexism, sexist microagressions, murder, torture, interrogation, physical and emotional abuse, alcoholism, suicidal ideation, blood and gore depiction

⤜ pre-read review ⤛

my heart is in pieces and my mind is somewhere else and my emotions are everywhere. thoughts incoming in a few hours.

4/27/21 update: i also found out that this is historical fantasy or historically inspired... if I wasn't already in before, I am 100% in now.

pilots and pacific rim. those are my key words when it comes to sci fi books now i guess.


ohmygosh she has 2 boyfriends and those boyfriends are also boyfriends. I'M SO INTERESTED. I NEED THIS.


12/03/20: I'm reading this. I'm claiming it. Do yourself a favor and anticipate this east asian mecha story with some healty poly rep with me
April 11, 2022

Instagram || Twitter || Facebook || Amazon || Pinterest

So I think I've developed a reputation on this site for being a bit of a hard-ass, but when I pick up a book, all I really ask for is to be entertained. To me, if an author can't deliver on that one note, they deserve to get a low rating. I was a little leery about picking up IRON WIDOW, even though I really liked the author's YouTube videos, because the YA fantasy genre has basically been serving the disappointment as regularly as an Amazon delivery truck. So ironically, when I saw that this had such mixed reviews among the people who usually five star all the books I hate, I was like HMM.

I actually disagree with a lot of the criticism that this is not a feminist book. Zetian, the heroine, is oppressed, and she lives in a world that actively oppresses women, but it doesn't really feel sensationalist. Foot-binding happens. People do put out propaganda and fake news about what women can and cannot do. People treat women like they're not worth more than the sum of their parts. So to see a fantasy novel where the female protagonist actively smashes the patriarchy, was really fucking cool. After being forced to swallow down heroines like Calen't-pronounce-her-name Sardothien for years, who spent most of the series being a slut-shaming idiot in a dress, this was so refreshing.

The summary of IRON WIDOW is basically this: put Hunger Games, Power Rangers, Edge of Tomorrow, Ender's Game, and Mulan in a pot, stir in a pinch of polyamory and a hefty dose of "no fucks" and then light the whole thing on fire while stirring vigorously. That's what you get in IRON WIDOW, a book that is set in a China-inspired country where men pilot these Zord-like metal things powered by qi called "chrysalises" and have female copilots that usually end up dying from, like, qi overload. Either you get conscripted into sacrificing your mind and body to the chrysalises and the boys who fly them, or you end up as a baby maker and the cycle continues. Zetian thinks that's a big fuck no, and decides that if she's going to die, she's going to kill the boy who murdered her beautiful older sister. So she does that, but it ends up-- uh, not going as hoped.

The rest of the book kind of feels like a big middle finger to THE HUNGER GAMES series in the best way. Why should the heroine have to choose in a love triangle? Why not both? Zetian gets her Peeta (Yizhi) and her Gale (Shimin), and lucky her, they like each other almost as much as they love her. The romance doesn't overshadow the plot at all and it feels pretty mature considering some of the other romances I've seen in YA books. I also liked how Zetian was pretty emotional (as you'd expect from a teen) and ended up succumbing to her unwiser impulses more often than not, although they frequently ended up becoming a learning lesson for her, and she ended up growing from her mistakes, rather than making the same stupid face-slap-worthy mistakes over and over and over again.

So yes, I liked it a lot. The only downsides for me was that the beginning felt a little clunky and took a while to get moving, whereas the end felt slightly too drawn out. Still an incredibly fun book, though, and I seriously can't wait to get my hands on the sequel. YAAAASS.

4 to 4.5 stars
January 10, 2022
| | blog | tumblr | ko-fi | |

“But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me.
I choose vengeance.”

Xiran Jay Zhao has written an ambitious debut novel that should definitely appeal to fans of Pacific Rim & The Hunger Games. Iron Widow is likely one of the most creative books that I've read this year (which is saying something given that atm my read count is around 150+) as it presents readers with a unique blend of genres and concepts: fantasy and sci-fi elements are incorporated in a dystopian yet recognizably historical Chinese-inspired setting. Alas, while I liked the commentary and ideas that are at play in this novel, its execution left me wanting. The Not Like Other Girls mc and girl-hate got to me too.

“It takes a monster to slay a monster.”

Way back when I used to be quite a fan of mecha anime (fyi my faves were: macross, code geass & eureka 7) so I was rather looking forward to seeing this subgenre translated into book form. The robots in this novel are called Chrysalises and operated by a psychically linked male/female duo in order to fend off aliens invaders called Hunduns. The male fighters are celebrities, their fights broadcasted to the whole of Huaxia. The female fighters, 'concubines', often do not survive these battles, as the boys more or less use them as their own energy bars. The way the girl fighters are treated definitely brought to mind the tributes from The Hunger Games. They are sacrificed without any care or regard, their certain death is deemed necessary for the ‘greater good', an honour even.

“If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”

Our narrator, Zetian, has grown up in this extremely misogynistic world. She has been mistreated by her family her whole life, her feet were broken and bound at a young age, and she basically has no freedoms whatsoever. When her older sister dies after being forced into becoming a ‘concubine' Zetian seeks revenge. She wants to kill the male pilot responsible for her death.
Zetian does indeed succeed but in doing so reveals to the world just how powerful she is. After earning the title of ‘Iron Widow' she’s paired with Li Shimin, 'Iron Demon', a male pilot with a dangerous reputation. Forced into working together Zetian and her new partner discover more about their abilities and the Chrysalises themselves.

The story is very action-driven and has an ‘edgy' feel to it that will definitely appeal to many other readers. While I did enjoy the author’s take on mecha, their take on Yin/Yang, as well as the issues & realties they touch upon (because of her bound feet our mc’s has difficulties walking and often experiences pain), I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed this novel.
This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel shitty for not liking a book as much as I wanted to (the last time it happened was with lindsay ellis' axiom's end).
Because I really love the author’s content on youtube I am not too happy about critiquing their debut novel so I will just list the things that prevented me from liking their book without going into that much detail and without spoiling anything for anyone. Also, I feel the need to say (or write) that I don't want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. I wish the author the best and I do think that they have the potential of becoming a really good writer. They are definitely creative and throughout their novel there are some visually stunning scenes that attest to this (this is the kind of book that should be adapted to the ‘big screen’) as well as some neat-sounding lines that brought to mind the work of Rebecca Roanhorse.

But, alas, here are the things that did not work for me:
the writing felt simplistic and certain words/expressions (‘ugh’, ‘duh’, ‘wow’, ‘yup’) pulled me out of the story; quite a few phrases had this ‘edgy YA' tone to them that didn't really do it for me either; personally, I would have preferred it if the story had implemented multiple povs or at least had been told through a 3rd person perspective as Zetian's inner monologue struck me as extremely simple and the constant questions she asks herself got grating, fast, (“what's happening? how did i get here? who am i?" “how could i have forgotten him? what does he mean to me?" ); I would have loved more detailed descriptions about the characters' surroundings or their different environments (and maybe less about their clothes/hair styles); I also think that the world-building would have benefitted from being more firmly established earlier on...we get some crucial lore way too late in the narrative & quite a few aspects remain unexplored; the romance (something i was rather looking forward to) also did nothing for me...the relationship between the boys seemed rushed and it struck me as...I don't know, I just would have believe in their relationship more if we’d been given their perspectives (their relationship to mc also was kind of meh); while the story was certainly fast-paced my interest waned early on in the story (there were a lot of repetitive and not-so-clear-cut sequences); all of the characters would have benefitted from some more depth; last, but not least, Zetian...I hoped she would be someone a la Zhu from She Who Became the Sun or like Lada Dracul from the And I Darken series (ruthless, knows what they want, may not be 'physically strong' but they are certainly intelligent)...but Zetian was low-key stupid and annoying, she had this vague OP/Chosen One/Not Like Other Girls/Badass Girlboss quality to her that I find really off-putting...also, for all her talk of girls supporting girls, the majority of the interactions that she has with other women (there are very few) gave me girls-hating-girls vibes (she has one token female friend). I also didn’t like how she behaved when it came to her li’s sexualities (a straight girl watching bl’s dramas).

There are a few other things that I didn't like but I won't go into them. I think this novel has a lot of heart and I'm sure that over time the author will hone their writing skills.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Ambs.
10 reviews30 followers
August 21, 2022
TLDR; Welcome to your Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss nightmare.

If there’s anything Iron Widow succeeded in doing, it’s filling me with feminist rage. Feminist rage over how very little feminism (on top of a multitude of other things) this book had promised but delivered so badly. I cannot recommend this book to anyone in good faith.

The brutal truth is—Xiran is very fortunate their YouTube career took off and subsequently aided in their book’s success because this book is so poorly and thoughtlessly written, its success can only be driven by and will continue to depend on their internet fame.

The biggest irony is that this book and their character, Wu Zetian, emulates almost every single element Xiran criticized about the live-action Mulan (the YouTube video that launched their internet fame and propelled their book's sucess), most notably: 1. Chinese culture used for superficial embellishment, 2. meaningless character deaths/cannon fodder, and 3. a series of completely illogical events.

When you hate something deep enough and then manifest the very thing you hate.

Anyway, if you want a book that’s ACTUALLY rich in Chinese history, eloquently written, has sophisticated worldbuilding, and is led by a complex, nuanced, and empowered badass antiheroine, read REBECCA KUANG’S THE POPPY WAR series.


The short version: My biggest gripe with this book is how baffling the writing suffers from poor narrative technique. In the most objective way possible, Xiran's writing direly needs practice and a better set of editors/critiquers.

(1) Style/Prose
* This book is oversaturated with purple prose that it reads like a middle school assignment on how to use similes. There are a lot, and I mean, A LOT of confusing verb and adjective choices for imagery that simply does not make structural sense:

“Yizhi looks at me like a beautiful immortal who’s floated down from the Heavenly Court, only to stumble upon the concept of cannibalism.” (Wh… what does this mean?)

“His chains rattle in what sounds like a motion of jolting up.” (Who is her editor??? Because whoever they are, fire them.)

* Very expository storytelling—to the point where the worldbuilding, character developments, and plot suffered in the process. Relies too much on dialogue to propel the narrative forwards.

(2) Plot
* Overly ambitious storytelling that Xiran’s writing is simply not strong enough to tackle in large part because of their narrative issues: 1) Hundun invasion, 2) Zetian’s rise to power, and 3) .

* The author tried to incorporate as many superficial Chinese elements as they could while relying too heavily on borrowed ideas (i.e. Pacific Rim, Darling in the Franxx, The Handmaid's Tale, The Hunger Games, Yu-Gi-Oh!, etc, etc). It is very difficult to conceptualize how the world works without some level of knowledge for Chinese history and mecha anime.

* Absence of relevant backstories and flashbacks necessary to nurture Zetian’s character development, particularly her romance with Yizhi and complicated family dynamics.

* There is no emotional dynamic between Zetian and her deceased sister. Considering that her sister is the catalyst for spurring Zetian’s call to adventure, we are given absolutely nothing about the sister’s character. Her own family does not talk about the sister. Her sister doesn’t get a backstory or flashbacks to show why she was so important to Zetian or why Zetian was willing to risk everything just to avenge her death.

* It is difficult to ascertain why Yizhi likes Zetian so much because we were not provided a solid backstory of their relationship. Yizhi was willing to risk his entire inheritance, face disownment by his family, protect her, swear fealty to her, and commit treason out of devotion to Zetian but… why? Zetian misconstrues every good deed Yizhi does for her as coercion or subjugation and has made it clear that she is not willing to do anything that inconveniences her.

* Extremely convoluted plot, especially in Part IV and V’s story arcs; there were too many plot reveals shoved towards the last few chapters of the book.

* For a story centered around the endangerment of the human race by an alien species seemingly determined to wipe them out, there is never any sense of imminent danger. There are continuity issues about the war between Huaxia/humanity and the Hundun.

* Character deaths are treated as cannon fodder. There were so many thoughtlessly written, anticlimactic, and irrational pilot deaths on the war front because half of the Chrysalis battles were not even against the Hunduns, but Zetian murdering other pilots for undermining her “authority”.

(3) Setting/Worldbuilding
* Casualties of war and societal implications are overpowered by Zetian’s convoluted political agenda. There is an excessive amount of sensory overload for scenes that should have either been cut out or condensed.

* Inharmonious elements of Chinese history + 21st-century technological advancement + mainstream vernacular and aesthetics (e.g. Zetian wearing cleavage-baring cosplay outfits for one too many celebrity photoshoots).

* Understandably, YA language should be digestible for its intended audience… when it is actually done properly. However, this book is so haphazardly inserted with TikTok/Gen Z memes at inappropriate periods that it comes off as lazy and cringy writing.

"I flexed some connections."
"I was collectively rising above that bullshit."
"You’re the baddest of bad boys. The ultimate alpha male." (Kill me now.)

* Very little to nonexistent worldbuilding for the country of Huaxia, the Hundun species, and the pilot/Chrysalis program. What is written is hard to conceptualize, again, due to poor writing.

- No background context for Chrysalis program: How did Zetian pass the test with such significantly high marks in concubine history, as someone who is illiterate and from a poor uneducated background? What exactly does the Crysalis test comprise of? How was she able to solo operate a Chrysalis despite having never stepped foot inside a Chrysalis or done simulation tests?

- No explanation about the Hundun origins and a surprising lack of imagery when describing the Hundun or what they look like: The characters mostly refer to Hundun by their hierarchical power rankings (e.g. Prince class, Emperor class) but how do they look like? What constitutes an Emperor class, a Prince class? How are Hundun husks made into Chrysalis armor?

* Geopolitics and religion superficially explored. The author mentions different dialects and interrelational conflicts between provinces in Huaxia but does not offer any insight into the geopolitical systems.

* Considering that Xiran has made a career out of writing about Chinese history and mythology, the lack of meaningful cultural elements in this book was genuinely disappointing.

(4) Portrayal of feminism
* For a book that notoriously markets itself as feminist rhetoric, Iron Widow perpetuates a lot of feminist stereotypes that undermine the actual movement.

* The women in this book are incredibly poorly written and reduced to sexist tropes:
- Xiuying’s character suffered a great injustice. She was the one person in the book with justifiable intentions who becomes wrongly vilified by the narrative.
- Zetian’s sister and Wende exist as nothing more than fridged plot devices.
- Qieluo is reduced to the typecasted jealous female rival.
- Xiao Shufei and Yang Guang’s concubines are portrayed as vapid and simpering weak women desperate for male validation.

* She treats every female character as a common enemy, even though she provokes the other women first. She gives Xiao Shufei attitude for Shufei just offering her harmless advice about her hairpin and when Zetian is called out for her rudeness, Zetian accuses the concubines of ganging up on her out of spite.

* Zetian harbors an unusually strong resentment towards the patriarchy and milieu in a very black and white manner. This makes her perception of the patriarchy not revolutionary but anomalous. Other than Yizhi’s occasional tutelage, Zetian hasn’t received any formal education, is illiterate, has restricted/limited access to media coverage, doesn’t interact with anyone with shared viewpoints, and doesn’t have access to resources for her to develop such profound and skewed views about the fundamental flaws with her society.

* She generalizes beliefs about male behaviors and refuses to correct her way of thinking when it is challenged. Zetian is genuinely bewildered by Shimin’s respect towards women and continues to invalidate his opinions and PTSD because “male pilots all think alike” and “how could he care about the girls when no one else does?”. Yet, she gets upset when her viewpoints as a woman are challenged.

* She carries a lot of self-hatred towards being a woman; she associates all areas of emotional weaknesses with being female and constantly refers to backward-thinking sexist insults (e.g. “he died like a girl”, “[I] immediately hate myself for how Hopeless Wife I sound”).

* She wants women to be respected but doesn’t respect them in turn. She is very contemptuous of women acting in accordance with society’s way of life and looks down on traditional female roles such as motherhood, housewives, maidservants, and concubines, frequently describing them in negative connotations.

* She scoffs at women for fixating on physical appearances (accusing Qieluo of pandering to her male partner) but also prematurely judges women like Xiuying for looking too plain and conventional to be considered a concubine. Zetian boasts about weaponizing sexuality to subjugate men but then also proceeds to lecture Xiuying for using makeup to please men and cover up her bruises.

* How are we supposed to champion Zetian to liberate women from tyranny and dismantle the patriarchy when she internalizes and perpetuates so many of the patriarchy’s beliefs?

(5) Portrayal of polyamory
* The polyamory in this was grossly oversold. This was not polyamory. This was a glorified love triangle, one in which both male love interests are inexplicably subservient to Zetian. The dynamic between Zetian, Shimin, and Yizhi as romantic partners is at best, awkward and at worst, lacking communication.

* Shimin and Yizhi have no motivations outside of serving and enabling Zetian. This is not how a healthy relationship works. There is no compromise involved because the two male love interests are so enamored with Zetian that they do everything and anything she wants without questioning her behavior. They have no opinions for themselves. Yizhi has been unfathomably servile to Zetian from the start. Shimin loses all his character development as soon as Zetian allows him to enter a romantic relationship with her.

* Zetian displays polarizing and artificial affection towards both love interests: she is equally combative towards and possessive of Shimin and Yizhi. She frequently contemplates killing either or both of them if they no longer serve her interests.

* Up until the last 60 pages of the book, the dynamics were mostly:
- Zetian and Yizhi, consisting of page-long awkward makeout scenes and reassurance of his fealty to her.
- Zetian and Shimin, consisting of Zetian debating whether or not to trust or kill him and Zetian gaslighting Shimin for his PTSD and alcoholism. Shimin was the third wheel for a significant portion of the book.
- In short, there was never any genuine romantic chemistry explored with all three of them together.

* The Shimin and Yizhi dynamic was lazily shoved in at the last minute with the most awkwardly written kiss ever, one in which Shimin looks to Zetian immediately for approval (“Shimin’s gaze pours over Yizhi’s features, but jumps to me with a flash of guilt. I roll my eyes, make a triangle with my fingers, and nod”). In the end, they only accepted each other romantically because that’s what Zetian wants and expects.

* The only implications that Yizhi and Shimin might be attracted to each other are:
- Them blushing one time at each other.
- Shimin commenting that Yizhi has nice skin.
- Shimin, in a state of delirium from alcoholic withdrawals, confuses Yizhi for the woman he is still grieving and clearly suffering PTSD over.

* Bottom line–don’t market something as polyamorous if you can’t fully deliver it.

(6) Zetian’s character development
Last but not least, Wu Zetian herself.

* Zetian is a hot mess—all the essential character development the audience needs to root for Zetian as a protagonist are missing. There is so much to unpack about Zetian as not just a character but as the protagonist of her own story. A protagonist doesn’t need to have likable or relatable qualities. What they should have are depth and complexity. Sadly, Zetian has neither.

* Her actions contradict her motives. Zetian, or rather, Xiran can’t decide if they want Zetian to be a villain or an antiheroine. Zetian has a major savior complex, perceiving herself as the liberator from male tyranny and an advocate for all women, but everything she’s done in this book has never been for the sake of challenging the patriarchy and protecting women. It has all been for the sake of liberating herself and eliminating anyone who challenges her authority.

* Zetian harbors a lot of unwarranted and misdirected rage, towards society, towards her family, towards her love interests, towards essentially... everyone. Why is she so angry??? Where did this anger manifest from? There is not enough context given as to why this anger is so deeply ingrained into her cognizance.

* She conflates murder with justice:
- Has a disturbing obsession with murdering people.
- Constantly fascinates about whom to kill next.
- Shows no remorse at the idea of killing either of her love interests should they betray her.
- She kills anyone who doesn’t agree with her way of thinking regardless of their gender or intentions.

* Zetian has an extremely juvenile and emotionally immature personality. When things don’t go her way, she throws literal temper tantrums and pulls the gender card to garner sympathy (e.g. crying when Sima Yi brings up that concubine duties include rearing children, a fact she was fully aware of and prepared to face when she was first matched with Yang Guang). Outside of her rage, mistrust and violence, any passages of her exhibiting sympathy or compassion come off in an unusually erratic way contradictory to her character.

* She is very indecisive and sways under different influences, most notably in the last arc of the book when Xiuying and Qieluo both offer her polarizing advice about her family. Zetian cannot actually formulate opinions for herself.

* She has such bizarre misogynistic preconceptions for helping others and being helped in turn that it would have been funny if it wasn’t so concerning. Clearly, Zetian has never genuinely helped anyone before in her lifetime:
- When Shimin falls ill from alcoholic withdrawals and she is nursing him back to health, she claims that her “subconsciousness” is “determined to serve the male master the world appoint[ed] for [her]” and not simply because… maybe… that’s what a decent person would do for someone who is sick????
- When Shimin becomes forcibly inebriated against his will and Zetian has to help support him, she laments that she’s becoming a “Hopeless wife”.
- She gets genuinely upset when Yizhi pushes her wheelchair for her and attributes this to having to rely on a man but she was okay with the maidservant pushing her wheelchair. In the very next scene, she is crying for one of her boys to come and rescue her because she’s stuck in her wheelchair, and Yizhi’s evil father is being evil. WHAT DO YOU WANT, ZETIAN?

* Other than the fact that Zetian is just not rationally sound of mind to rule a country, let alone pilot massive destructive machinery, Zetian doesn’t even have the qualifications to make a potentially believable ruler. She has no concept of warfare, politics, military strategy, or long-term political goals. How is she possibly going to dismantle the patriarchy? ~Feminist rage~ can only get you so far.

* Even with Yang Guang, her plan was extremely simplistic and naive. She originally intended to stab him to death with a hairpin but the plan quickly and logically falls apart because Zetian cannot physically overpower a full-grown, able-bodied man, something she–for some reason–didn’t take into account despite her constant bitching about how much she despises her feeble, weak, female body.

* Zetian relies on the power of deus ex machina to work in her favor; every instance of her succeeding against an antagonist or external obstacle was due to someone (aka one of her boys) or an actual coming to her aid, not of her own accord.

* Zetian’s character arc is rooted heavily in victim complex, most notably in her perception of her family. Zetian paints herself as the victim of abuse within her family, but we are given so little family dynamic to assert this, other than the understandably painful foot-binding her grandmother made her undergo. On top of that, Zetian is portrayed as neither a respectful nor filial daughter. Zetian not serve her family in any way. Rather than doing chores or taking care of her family, she was constantly running off into the woods (to rendezvous with Yizhi), something her family never stopped her from doing. She openly belittles her mother for being timid despite her mother doing her best to show affection towards Zetian and talks back to her supposedly temperamental father with no direct repercussions. She kicks her entire family out of the house to have a private conversation with a boy they have never met before and instead of challenging or punishing her, they heed her wishes.

* Yes, Zetian’s resentment towards being abused is valid, but it is not justifiable grounds for what she ends up doing to her family.

* There is so little of Zetian’s character to validate her credibility as a protagonist + the savior of her country. The worst part is that Zetian being an unreliable narrator is entirely unintentional. You’re meant to root for Zetian. You’re meant to see society through her eyes, support her journey, and commend her for her feminism. But she is such an irrational, contradictory, and poorly developed protagonist in her own story that you want her to and pray that she ultimately fails.
Profile Image for Lia Carstairs.
409 reviews2,202 followers
December 9, 2021
I got some Skyward vibes from this and I just loved it so much.

Also Zetian, please marry me.

The Hunduns who are dangeous creatures and are trying to destroy society which lies in the Great Wall ~ the Krell who are also dangerous and mysterious creatures trying to destroy the human race/

Fighter pilots who use Chrysalises (aka mechas) to battle against the Hunduns to defend their home ~ Pilots who use fighter jets to battle the Krell and defend their land

Society is against this one girl who managaes to kill one of their pilots and has too much power ~ society is against this one girl whose father was branded as a coward and now view her as one too.

Seriously, if you loved the plot of Skyward, then I definitely say you'll probably love this too! The similarities I saw sdfgsdfs it was so cool but I have to say that the idea of giant mechas was even more interesting than what Skyward had. And like the fanart designs??? THEY LOOK EPIC.

Design by Setodra

Design by Gio Manning

I will say that the only reason this didn't get five stars was because of that I was a bit confused in the beginning with the information given but that could just be me and my dumb brain and some pacing issues throughout the story but other than that !! EVERYONE MUST READ THIS.

"But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me. I choose vengeance."

So before reading this I actually had no knowledge of footbinding, so finding about it here in this book... oh god. Just shows another way with how cruel society can be to women istg. And seeing Zetian with this disability and not letting it define her?? I love it. Of course, there were still moments where she did admit to needing help due to her feet and she wasn't embarrassed about it at all, not being stubborn about the whole situation which made me respect the queen even more.🔥

"If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force."

The way Zetian had men fall at her feet (literally) made me cackle in delight. They all had it coming and deserved so much worse <3 Xiran created such an amazing female protagonist like I would fall at Zetian's feet gladly all day, every day. SUCH A QUEEN.

Also can I just say how much I wheezed reading so many scenes where this book made fun of other typical cliche tropes?? yes, i say this liking said cliche tropes I loved it so much pleasee. A glimpse:

"Do you honestly expect me to believe you're some misunderstood, secretly sweet guy?"

*wheezing* now isnt that the case always?? and i love that trope

"Yes, because love doesn't solve problems. Solving problems solves problems."

oh how other YA protagonists wouldn't agree

"You'd better not be tangled up in a love triangle."


Anyways, Xiran is such a legend and if this is only just their debut, I can't wait to see more of their books!! AND THE WAY THEY ENDED THAT BOOK- THAT IS ILLEGAL HOW DARE YOU, XIRAN. You'll be paying for my therapy bills if I think what happened at the end actually truly happened 🔪🔪

ALSO CAN I JUST SCREAM ABOUT THERE BEING A POLY RELATIONSHIP???? I LOVE THEM ALL SO CUTE UGH. Yizhi and Shimin are such cinnamon rolls sdfdsgs plus Zetian the queen, I swear they're perfect it hurts. And the fanart I've seen on Xiran's page isn't helping at all😩

Zetian and Yizhi by 辞客ck

Shimin and Yizhi by Guilu

Zetian and Shimin by 妄猫Sama

All I feel is pain, please give me book 2 right now. *sobbing*


Thank you Penguin Random House Canada for sending me an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review!!
Profile Image for Elle.
587 reviews1,316 followers
December 1, 2021
Now a Goodreads Choice finalist in Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction!

Iron Widow is utter insanity. I couldn’t get enough of it. I haven’t seen Pacific Rim, but if it’s anything like monster Transformers beating the crap out of each other while tiny humans operate them from the inside, then yes. Yes, that’s exactly what this was.

Zetian has a plan. It’s not a particularly well thought-out plan, but it’s the one she’s sticking to. It’s all really pretty simple; she will volunteer as a concubine-pilot, get paired with the same pilot as her sister….and then murder him. Kill him as savagely and unflinchingly as he did to her older sister months before. The world Zetian and her sister have grown up into is not a kind place to be a woman or girl, and this final act by Zetian will be one small return on investment for a societal practice rooted in cruelty.

Though if everything went according to her plan, this would have been a much shorter story, wouldn’t it? Instead of getting the chance to intentionally slay her sister’s killer, Zetian inadvertently does while hooked up to his consciousness in the Crysalis, aka the device used to control the giant, fighting robots. The result is seemingly unprecedented, and as a punishment for her lack of subservience she is paired with the only Crysalis pilot not beloved by the citizens of Huaxia, convicted criminal Li Shimin. A transparent attempt to cow her or kill her all together, Zetian will have to gather all of her inner power to overcome a deck so monstrously stacked against her.

I think the biggest concern I had beginning this book is that it would be too sci-fi for me to follow. Though it definitely qualifies as science fiction, fantasy readers don’t have reason to be afraid! It reads like a fantasy novel, albeit set in the future and with pseudo-technology instead of enchantments and curses. There is a good amount of magic present in the story as well, with pilots and concubines’ spirit pressure, aka the measurement of each person’s qi, being what powers the Chrysalises and lends each individual their abilities.

It was so fascinating to see the blending of new and old, technology and mythology, especially within a specific cultural setting. Huaxia is a society set centuries in the future, with pieces of historical and modern China pulled together into a hybrid dystopia. Things like the retired practice of foot-binding was present, and like most current and previous human societies, a deeply misogynistic, patriarchal structure dominated nearly every aspect of their lives. It’s been probably over a decade and a half since I’ve read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I can’t say reading about foot binding has gotten any easier since then. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that every society on this planet has done terrible things to its people, especially to the vulnerable members of it.

Reading this was such a trip, and I was constantly having to slow myself down so I didn’t completely tear through it. Especially since some of the action scenes moved pretty quickly and I would get a little lost. Between that and having a only middling understanding of the different kinds of qi and how they work, I think this book could have benefitted from a little more explanatory portions along the way. Still, I wouldn’t say any of that took away from my overall reading experience since I still was raving to people about it after I finished.

Iron Widow is an incredibly inventive fever dream of fantasy, science, history and polyamorous bisexuals, and a challenge to a genre that at times feels overrun by the exact same kind of story over end over again. I haven’t quite read anything like Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut before, and I’m extremely excited to read more set in this universe after that insane twist at the very end. Please provide more of this soon Penguin Teen !!!! xoxoxo 💋

*Thanks to Penguin Teen Canada for an advance review copy!

**For more book talk & reviews, follow me on Instagram at @elle_mentbooks!
Profile Image for Irina Kermong.
235 reviews18 followers
May 16, 2022
Update: It hasn't happened to my knowledge, but here's a quick disclaimer: please do not send this review to the author. These are my own thoughts, on a book reviewing site, which are NOT meant for XJZ, and I don't claim to know any better than them - I'm just a clown on the Internet.

Before I start the review in earnest, I want to make the following clear: this was one of my most anticipated new releases for 2021. I’ve been a fan of Xiran Jay Zhao and of their content ever since they reviewed the 2020 Disney live-action Mulan, and I was more than eager to read their debut novel, especially with several of my Goodreads friends getting ARCs and giving it all 5 stars. I went into this book in good faith and expecting to love it. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, because I would have given this 2 stars… if it wasn’t for the last part of the book, which not only made the feminist message of the story come crashing down for me but also pissed me off, which made me lower my rating to 1 star. I’m writing the following in part to vent, but also because I’ve heard people who left critical and/or negative reviews of the book have been bullied, so I’d rather go into detail as to why this book didn’t work for me, and make it clear, to avoid getting unfair assumptions about me.

With all that being said, I do encourage people to read their book and make up their own mind about it. A lot of people have appreciated it and even loved it, so it might just be a “it’s just not for me” kind of situation. I for myself will continue to engage with XJZ’s YouTube content since I’ve always enjoyed it, and I will give the next book in the series a go, since this was after all a debut novel and there’s a lot of potential for improvement. My rating would have been probably higher if this book had better editing and maybe an extra 100 pages, so I have good hopes I’ll enjoy the next book more.

So, I’ll start with the positive right off the bat: the concept of a futuristic China with Imperial China aesthetics, where mechas fight evil aliens is extremely interesting. The visuals described made me really want to see an anime adaptation of this to be able to see it on screen. While it’s not a historical alternate universe of sorts, there are many Easter eggs regarding Chinese history and famous historical characters, which makes me want to research about them in earnest and learn more, which makes me appreciate XJZ’s excellent work in presenting them to us all the more. I also like the fact a positive and central representation of a F/M/M trouple has made its way into a YA book, even if they didn’t have nearly enough development, and while XJZ has received a lot of flack for doing so, to the point that it seems it was the reason why they stay away from Goodreads, I want to make it clear this was not my issue with the novel at all. This isn’t one of those reviews, and I will not tolerate any kind of comment that tries to bash the novel for that aspect.

As I mentioned, the plot takes place in Huaxia, a futuristic Imperial China that’s under constant threat from the Hundans, a bunch of Evil Aliens from space, and that’s pretty much all you’ll ever know about those guys. Huaxia fights them using Chrysalises, basically “dead” Hundun mechas that are repurposed so Huaxia can have a fighting chance. However, in order for the Chrysalis to be piloted and since Huaxia is a misogynistic af society, since it works on a Yin and Yang basis and depending on the pilots’ level of “qi” (which, I guess you could say that’s this universe’s take on magic? It’s hard to explain because qi is never really explained properly apart from the fact it’s linked to the five Chinese elements), it needs a male pilot, but also a female pilot who’s more of a helper and who is referred to as a “concubine-pilot”. What happens more often than not is that during combat, the mental strain that comes from the concubine-pilots’ help is so strong that they die as a result of the effort. That leads to several problems regarding the worldbuilding, as I’ll enumerate below:

- Zetian herself mentions that there are population problems on the border, which the region where she comes from, since a lot of the girls are recruited to become concubine-pilots, which leads to a lot of boys remaining unmarried and gives way to population problems. That’s… literally mentioned once at the beginning, and is never brought up again. And keep in mind there are 329 active chrysalises at the time the story is happening, and pilots have several concubines assigned to them. We’re talking about thousands of girls who come and go. Which leads to me to wonder that sure, this is obviously a very misogynistic society, and yes, the families get a big compensation from their daughters becoming concubine-pilots and also another one when they die, but people *would* worry at such a threat being leveled at their communities’ survival, no matter how little they actually care about the girls’ wellbeing (which also depends on whether childbirth is as dangerous as it was in the past, which, again, would fit into the worldbuilding that we’re going for here, but I digress). And mind you, this isn’t Gilead where things are relatively recent and came thanks to a revolution, this is a system that has seemingly been going on uninterrupted for CENTURIES.
- Obviously, I’m not going to put into doubt the fact that a misogynistic society will view women as expendable, because that would be dumb, right? The concubine-pilots being viewed as expandable *does* make sense when you look at it at the surface level, and I get what was the intention, namely that it’s not so different from viewing women as wombs vs. using them as sacrifices to defeat the Hunduns, but given the aforementioned population problems, the last thing the government would want to do is give the population some incentive to revolt against the fact that they’re pretty much doomed to disappear? Especially since this misogynistic society, like so many others, outright declares that women are valuable in part because they bear children? All that to say, I can’t help but think there was a real missed opportunity to explore a new version of the Madonna/Whore complex, where dead concubine-pilots are glorified and presented as “saintly”, where all they did was getting their lives sucked out while the pilots they had to serve get to live and gather all the glory, which makes their glorification pretty pointless, in retrospect. Which would also give Zetian all the more incentive to rebel against that concept (i.e. “Yeah, that’s bullshit, my sister isn’t a saint, she’s just dead and those platitudes won’t bring her back”).
- So, with all that in mind, shouldn’t there be… some sort of criteria on whether someone becomes a concubine-pilot, and who ends up marrying to keep the population afloat? Something? Which, again, there are plenty of opportunities right there to highlight the rampant misogyny even more.

(Also, maybe this is a cultural thing and I apologize for my ignorance, but the fact Zetian’s big sister is mentioned in name just *once*, that I don’t remember her name after all this and that Zetian only ever refers to her afterwards as “Big Sister” does make her feel a lot more nebulous than she should, which is kind of a problem given what the story’s message is about. Maybe it’s custom for older siblings in Chinese culture to be referred to as “Big Brother” or “Big Sister” rather than by their names, so if it’s the case, I apologize.)

The story focuses on Wu Zetian, who’s an dystopian AU version of the famous Empress who was also the only woman in Imperial China to rule in her own name. In this novel, her incentive to become a concubine-pilot is to kill the guy (Yang Guang) behind her sister’s untimely death. Which, so far so good, except that while Zetian was planning to kill Guang the good ol’ fashion way of the stabbity-stab-stab, she ends up overpowering him while piloting, because she has a very high level of Qi compared to the pilot. The general belief in Huaxia is that all women have lower levels of qi than men, which goes on par with the misogynistic society it’s presented as. We discover later that the Chrysalises are rigged for them to drain the girls’ qi in order to spare the boys as much as possible (since Yang, the female counterpart in Yin-Yang, is considered “passive”), since girls in that society are viewed as expandable. That being said, that leads to the plot hole that Zetian is the only woman with a high enough level of qi to overcome that rigging, which leads to unfortunate implications, since that rolls on the principle that Zetian just wasn’t “passive” enough to get drained from her power, that being instance 1 of Zetian being “not like the other girls” (and I thought we’d all agree that trope was better left behind back in 2012?). Like, none of the girls with high levels of qi ever had anything close to survival instincts, if not feminist rage? Ever?

On that note, where do Zetian’s feminist ideals even come from? Like it or not, people “are” influenced by their environment, whether they like it or not, which Zetian actually acknowledges at some point… except it’s of course to point that all women are brainwashed to be mean, vapid and stupid by the patriarchy, except for Zetian, apparently. Our heroine believes that women are as oppressed as they are not because they’re given very little chances of standing up without retribution thanks to the patriarchy, nope, they’re just basically too vapid and stupid to know what’s good for them, and that includes her own mother, who’s basically the walking stereotype of the battered wife and who, for all her shortcomings, *does* try to be a good mother for Zetian, except that leads to very little sympathy for her plight on Zetian’s side. And while I could understand Zetian hating her mother at the beginning of the story, she never comes to a realization that her mother is a victim just as much as so many other women are, and we’re even meant to realize that she had her own untimely death coming. It just reeks of victim-blaming, I’m sorry.

Outside of her sister (who never has any development as a character beyond “she was kind and obedient, and she died”) and another concubine-pilot, Ma Xiuying (I’ll come back to her later), literally any woman Zetian meets ends up having actual catfights with her, for really petty reasons, and it’s always forced and contrived every time, because it’s the good ol’ “the patriarchy is a thing because women are too vapid and stupid to care lol” argument again. Even though, ironically, Ma Xiuying and another concubine-pilot by the name of Qieluo are much more complex female characters than Zetian ever is, not to mention they’re unironically the best characters in the whole book!

I’ll admit I sighed in relief when Xiuying showed up – FINALLY, we’re getting the concept of sisterhood in this book! But I guess that was too good to be true, because Xiuying ends up “betraying” Zetian during the final battle, and when Zetian confronts her about it, she admits she did it because the lives of her 2 kids were threatened, and Zetian kills her… because I guess Xiuying should have put a girl she doesn’t even know that well before the lives of her kids? It doesn’t matter that they’re boys here, we’re talking about basic maternal instincts and no matter what the book wants me to believe, I’m pretty sure she would have done the same if her 2 kids were girls! And of course, Zetian goes “Lol, sucks to be you” and kills her, while thinking it’s a typical woman move (how *charming*, our feminist empress, people!) because I guess that whole thing can’t be used as an incentive to take over the government so Xiuying doesn’t ever have to betray someone in exchange for her kids’ safety.

Oh yeah, and Zetian becomes Empress in the end because she manages to find the Chrysalis of the former Emperor (because she always needs Yishi, Shimin and now the Emperor to save her ass, #feminism), and she takes over Huaxia in full villain mode, killing her family so they’re not used against her like with Xiuying (and she has zero regrets or struggle with that), while Yishi who’s presented as the Soft Boy is fully enabling her and not having any objections about it or her methods.

I can buy Zetian wanting to get at the top of the mountain despite her gender being a barrier for that, but what I don’t buy is her wanting to help other women at the same time, because given not only Zetian’s surroundings but also how she interacts with other women, it comes off as tacked on more than anything else. I find it interesting this book is based off The Handmaid’s Tale, because I’ll give Margaret Atwood this: the reason why her novel is as timeless as it is (and how, incidentally, the TV series did a very good job at developing) is because it takes care to present different types of women and how they react in the face of oppression. Yes, there are women who take advantage of the fact they’re as high as they can get to oppress other women (Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia), but there are also other women, like June, or Moira, or Emily, who stand up against the regime despite their circumstances being awful, and who support each other and other women no matter what.

In Iron Widow, there’s none of that, unfortunately. All of this would have been better if Zetian was a Villain Protagonist, or if she was an Anti-Heroine who’s led to a darker path as the story advances. This is what I was expecting going into this book and I was looking forward to it – I’m not being harsher with Zetian on the basis of her being female at all! The problem is, we’re supposed to see Zetian’s vengeance, her anger, and her acts as righteous feminist fury, rather than the villain origin story that it actually is. And ultimately, that just makes Zetian’s feminist beliefs come off as… trite. Because she just hates everyone except her love interests. Her wanting to save women from an oppressive society ends up becoming an excuse for her own climb to power, and for all of her being angry at women becoming tools of the patriarchy in order to end up in a position where they can wield some sort of influence, you have to come to the unfortunate conclusion that the apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree.

I will say, in conclusion to that part of the review, that I understand what XJZ was trying to do – there are some thoughts about how women are portrayed and how the public views them that have a lot of merit, for instance. I also think they intended to write a feminist revenge fantasy, which is a valid story, since some of my favorite films of all time are exactly that. However, I do think that they were trying to do too many things at once, which might have made them lose insight about certain aspects of the story and not think certain elements of it through, which sacrificed the nuance that is necessary to handle such themes. It’s also the reason why I can’t just dismiss it as a summer blockbuster flick with mechas, because this was clearly meant to be a serious book.

I guess this is the point where I have to talk about the plot… which I don’t know how to do, because it was honestly all over the place, and it felt like a bunch of random events put together, so I’ll just go with the things that annoyed me.

- The prose… really reminded me of The Hunger Games. And not in a good way. Like, those inspirational quotes spread around still need a lot of work. And I never want to read the expression “nipple eyes” ever again. Ever.
- Also the character motivations are all over the place, with Zetian being the worst offender in that regard, but I’m not even going to go into everything because this review is like 3k words already
- So, Zetian becomes a viral sensation when she overpowers Guang, which, I *could* maybe buy, except that when people go in to see why Guang isn’t responding, Zetian basically comes out of the Chrysalis dragging his corpse, putting a foot on it, saying a badass line, and cackling like a maniac. Which sounds cool in theory, but when you remember that this is a very misogynistic society that will have her executed since you could very well say in court that she admitted to murdering the guy, that she’s perfectly fine with her entire family dying because of her (which, granted, she hates her family, including her mom who, as I said, does her best, but she doesn’t feel any remorse for that part of her plan once), and, most especially, THAT SHE FACES ZERO CONSEQUENCES FOR BEING SEEMINGLY RESPONSIBLE OF THE DEATH OF ONE OF THE BEST PILOTS, and not even used as some sort of example/cautionary tale, you really start putting the plot as a whole into question.
- Oh, and the reason why her big sister die? Guang just kills women for no reason. Which makes him a serial killer, basically, even if Zetian never calls him that specifically. Now, yes, there are serial killers and mass shooters out there who will specifically target women (the sad events at Polytechnique in Montreal come to mind), but it’s not treated with the gravity nor the attention such a serious issue warrants. It just feels like it was thrown in there for the sake of shock value.
- She meets Yishi again when… she’s being sexually assaulted by another pilot and he comes in just in time to save her. And yeah, it’s fucking pointless.
- I’ve mentioned it above, but the romance is unfortunately really underwhelming. So are the two love interests Yishi and Shimin, and there’s a problem when the story does more to make you sympathize with their plight (which I’m not trying to dismiss, by the way) than any female character that isn’t Zetian, especially when it’s supposed to be a feminist book.
- Oh, and the final plot twist everyone has been raving about? I actually said “I. Don’t. Care!” out loud when I read it. I was that annoyed.

In conclusion, I will say once again that I’m not trying to discourage anyone from reading the book – as I said, a lot of people I know loved it and are giving it 5 stars, so it might just be a me thing. Go ahead, and make up your own mind about it, and hopefully you won’t be as angry about it as I am. As I said, I will give the next book a chance since the overall quality can only go up from here, and I sincerely hope it will.

EDIT: The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the release of this book was rushed due to Xiran Jay Zhao going viral on the Internet and the publishers wanted to capitalize on their popularity as soon as possible. That does make me hope they'll spend more time on the next book given they're more "established" now, because as I said... I really don't see how this could get any worse, lol.
Profile Image for theresa.
294 reviews4,314 followers
May 26, 2022
Iron Widow is an explosive start to a new scifi series which draws on Chinese history and combines it with a futuristic world and technology to create something truly unique. With queer characters and a polyamorous relationship at its centre, a morally grey main character and a feminsit narrative within a patriarchal society, this book is right up my street.

I have been highly anticipating this book since the deal was announced years ago and although it has not become a new favourite as I predicted, I still thoroughly enjoyed my time reading it. The action was explosive and constantly moving the story forward, the fight scenes with the Chrysalises well written and engaging. I enjoyed the politics of the world of the pilots and the focus on the glorification of the pilots and battle online. I would have liked a bit more worldbuilding, however, as I felt like I really didn’t know much about the world.

My main reason for picking this book up was the romance and although it played a smaller role than I imagined, I still really enjoyed it. The characters were all so different but worked so well together and I adored their scenes. Zetian’s relationship with each of the boys was well developed but I would have liked a bit more focus on their relationship as a whole to make certain plot beats hit harder. I enjoyed Zetian’s journey and how her character developed, especially as she leaned further into her own villainy. I’m excited to see where the sequel takes us and how her story will conclude.

I had two main gripes about this book, the first being that some of the language used just didn’t fit the story and drew me out of it at times. In particular, some of it was very internet-y and some sentences could have been lifted from a Wattpad novel (and not a good one) which had me cringing. This doesn’t even make sense within the context of the story as Zetian, as a woman, is not allowed internet access. In particular, the language our main character used and how she described herself.

Which leads me onto my next point: Wu Zetian is not like other girls. This book falls victim to one of my most hated tropes and to see it in a book trying so hard to be feminist was disappointing. She is the only woman to see society for all its issues, the other women written off as too weak and demure. Even the other two female pilots we meet don’t compare to our main character in her view. In fact, what disappointed me most in a novel with such strong feminist themes: Zetian is the only significant female character. The feminism itself seemed rather surface level and Zetian struggled to sympathise with other women who were just trying to get by in a society that hates them. There was no care or understanding given to the other women of this world, and many weren’t seen as having their own agency. Which makes sense with Zetian’s character to some extent but I did find it annoying.

Overall, Iron Widow was not the new favourite I hoped for but still a good book. If you want something with charged battles and a fast moving plot, a morally grey narrator and a polyamorous relationship at its centre, I recommend you pick this book up.
Profile Image for Lucie V..
974 reviews1,797 followers
May 18, 2022
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley (thank you Penguin Random House Canada). All thoughts and opinions are my own.

✅ Characters
✅ Romance (very mild, it does not take much space in the story but it is well done)
✅ Polyamorous relationship
✅ Pace
✅ Plot
✅ Unexpected ending
✅🆗 World-building
❗️❗️ Trigger warnings: mentions of rape, emotional and physical abuse, and alcoholism

This book is really entertaining and gripping! It's a great story about the ugliness of misogyny at its worse, taking your place in the world and fighting for what you want and deserve. There are also hints at a bigger picture with the whole aliens have invaded the land, and there is more information about that particular part of the plot in the epilogue that promises a kickass sequel.

"Female. That label has never done anything for me except dictate what I can or cannot do. No going anywhere without permission. No showing too much skin. No speaking too loudly or unkindly, or at all, if men are speaking. No living my life without being constantly aware of how pleasing I am to the eye. No future except pushing out son after son for a husband, or dying in a Chrysalis to give some boy the power to reach for Glory.

What's remaining of the Asian population has been at war against Hunduns for hundreds of years. Pilots are men with very high spirit pressure resistance that can control Chrysalis with their mind and their qi. However, a pilot cannot control the Chrysalis alone, he needs a concubine only so he can use her qi and drain her. A concubine is not expected to survive her pilot and when she does, it means that she is a "true match" for the pilot, and the pair becomes an icon of hope and strength (and also a media's dream way to make money really fast).

This is it, the supposed pinnacle of female existence. What I've been taught to wish for, what so many little girls dream about. I have been permitted to share a pilot's glory, instead of merely dying to fuel it.

Wu Zetian, 18 years old, has lived her whole life under the thumbs and rules of men. Her only value is the money her family can get if they sell her as a bride or the monetary compensation they will get if she enrolls in the army as a pilot's concubine and dies in battle. She is not happy to be treated as a mere possession and wants to be free to do what she wants. When her family sells her to the army to become a concubine for pilot Yang Guang, Zetian plans to kill him while he sleeps as retribution for him killing her older sister. What she was not expecting was to be forced into a battle on her very first night as his concubine, and to not only survive the battle but to kill him during the battle and take control of his Chrysalis, making her what is called an "Iron Widow". Having an unbelievably high spirit pressure, Zetian is then forced to work with Shimin, the Iron Demon that everyone fears.

Some of us were born to be used and discarded. We can't afford to simply go along with the flow of life, because nothing in this world has been created, built, or set up in our favor. If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.

I enjoyed the writing a lot, there are a lot of metaphors, but it was well done. The plot is intriguing and you get sucked in quite easily in this book. The pace is also constant throughout the book. It is a good mix of politics, fighting, and romance. The unfair way women are treated is the main theme of this book, and it's what drives Zetian. Every decision she makes is to bring her closer to her goal: showing the world that the women are being exploited and treated as objects in an unfair way, and showing women that it can be different, that they don't have to smile and accept every unfair treatment.

The world-building is also well done, but I would have like to have a little more details about the history or the status of the rest of the world. I was left with a few unanswered questions, but it did not prevent me from understanding or enjoying this book.

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.

Wu Zetian is a great main character. She is strong, resilient, very determined, and
feminist, but considering her life it's 100% understandable, (I'm telling you, I felt like -almost- all men deserved to suffer and rot in hell while reading this book). She has been treated like shit by her family because she has no value except the money they can get for her, and as a result, she does not really give a shit about them once she leaves her house. She is hell-bent on saving the concubines and destroying the toxic system the army is using to promote women as an accessory meant only to serve men and sacrifice themselves. she's hot-blooded, yet cold and calculating and I LOVED IT.

"You need to make sure he doesn't misuse those this time," Sima Yi says, leering at me.
"How do you misuse glasses?" I scoff.
"Well, supposedly, you smash the lenses, sharpen the biggest fragment on the floor of your bunker, hide it in your collar, and try to slit a soldier's throat with it."

The other important characters in this book are Li Shimin, the Iron Demon, and Gao Yizhi, Zetian's only friend (on who she also has a crush). Shimin was sent to jail for the murder of his brothers and father until he showed unparalleled spirit pressure. The army removed him from prison, only to put a collar on him and force him to fight even though he didn't want to and as the story progresses, we can see that he is actually grieving for all the concubines he's killed.

"All right, let me make this clear: Wu Zetian, you inspire me. Whenever I lose hope that the world can change, I remember you. I remember how you fight for what you want, no matter what anyone says, no matter what stands in your way." He draws me into his arms and murmurs into my hair. "You're my polar star. I'll go wherever you guide me."

Yizhi is the sweet and empathetic friend that decided to follow Zetian anywhere she went because he believed in her and knew that what she was trying to do was the right thing. He is a great character, and even though he does not seem as important as Zetian and Shimin at first, he holds a key role in the story and in the Iron Widow and Iron Demon dynamic.

The romance was surprising, I was expecting some romantic feelings to develop, but I was not sure where this was all going until the last part of the book. I was kind of dreading a typical love triangle between Zetian, Shimin, and Yizhi, simply because I really liked Shimin and I didn't want him to be cast aside. I don't want to give too many details, but I'll just say that I was pleasantly surprised with the way the relationships between those three developed. . Keep in mind though that the romance is not the focus of this book at all, it is present, but it is also very mild.

The ending was unexpected, and a great overture for the next book, and I will definitely read it when it comes out.

Follow me on Instagram 🙂
Profile Image for may ➹.
481 reviews1,952 followers
April 5, 2022
Zetian is so terrifying and merciless and maniacal…… and I think she’s very cool for that!


Lowering my rating from 4 to 3. Iron Widow was quite a fun book to read and I flew through it—its fast pace kept me on my toes, and I was fascinated by Zetian slowly becoming more and more maniacal. Unhinged women are my favorite types of characters, and she was no exception! The writing was also easy to read (if a bit too simple at times), and there were parts that made me actually laugh. This is a very unique and refreshing book to see in the YA scene, from its inclusion of polyamory to how it breathes new life into historical figures in a sci-fi world.

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.

Unfortunately, as more time has passed, I’ve realized that this was too fast-paced for me, even though I’d enjoyed it at the time. I didn’t like how quickly the romance developed, and some of the characters had no chemistry (or an interesting personality...), in my opinion. And while I love how fiercely Zetian fought against patriarchal expectations about her and other women, I do wish that there had been more insight into how such a mindset formed when she grew up surrounded by an intensely misogynistic society. This book overall could have used a lot more depth, in both its characters and themes—but it still makes for a highly enjoyable read. Is the content of the book very memorable to me? No, not really. But I’ll surely remember the fun time I had while reading it.


:: representation :: Chinese-coded cast, bisexual main characters, polyamory (f/m/m)

:: content warnings :: murder, death, torture, violence, gore, alcohol addiction, abuse, mentions of rape, mentions of suicide, misogyny, femicide


// buddy read with melanie!!

Thank you to Penguin Teen for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review! This did not affect my opinion in any way.

All quotes are from an advance copy and may differ in final publication.
Profile Image for Cindy ✩☽♔.
1,000 reviews782 followers
January 16, 2022
All the stars in the world!!!

This book might be everything I've ever wanted in a YA book. EVER.

I always tend to be annoyed when books promise me darkness and bloodshed but fail to deliver. This book, on other hand, lives up to its promises. Zetian is a determined, fierce, young woman with a vendetta. She is not tied down by what society deems as appropriate or the morals and shame they try to force upon her. For all their attempts to oppress her, they only make her more determined to break free.

She enlists in the army to kill her sister's murderer and she does exactly that.

She is the sort of young woman I would hope I could be if I was forced under the same circumstances. Zetian is not a monster. But she is angry. And she has every right to be. Society deems her less than. Her family treats her as lesser than. Her sister was murdered and her death left unavenged. Rather than break down and fall apart over all of these injustices, she hatches a plan for vengeance. And she succeeds.

But when she learns of the injustices that have been wrought upon young women such as herself for generations, of the lies created and perpetuated to keep them down, she resolves to overhaul the entire misogynistic system. And through all that, she also finds love and a sense of self. Zetian comes to understand through her relationships that true love is infinite and given freely with no conditions. Something she never experienced with her own family.

She is a true queen in the making, and I cannot wait to see her rise even further.

It's been a long time since I've praised a book this much. But what can I say, I love this book. And I hope it gets the love it deserves.

Hats off the author!

I cannot wait for the second book.
- - -
On another note, I read the author's post on here about how she was met with resistance over the fact that she included a polyamorous relationship in this book. To which I say, I AM GLAD YOU PERSEVERED. While I can truly only speak for myself, I do not think I am alone in thinking that traditional love triangles are so overrated. And if everyone in the relationship is happy, which is in fact the case here, why does it matter how many people are in it? No one is forcing you to take part, just let people be happy. It harms you in absolutely no way whatsoever.

I received a free ARC copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Huge thank you to Penguin Teen Canada for providing me with a copy!
Profile Image for Shealea.
441 reviews1,203 followers
December 4, 2021

✨ Inspired by East Asian mythology?
✨ Pitched as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid's Tale?
✨ A young woman trying to smash the patriarchy with her own two hands?
✨ A love triangle that ends with a healthy, polyamorous relationship?
✨ Revenge-driven plot?

This book is so queer and Asian, and none of us is ready for the flavor it's about to bring to the world.


Iron Widow to the straights:

Profile Image for Jon.
70 reviews39 followers
August 2, 2021
Thanks to Netgalley for providing this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Wow, what a ride. So many thoughts on this that I'm not even really sure where to begin.

First and foremost, I want to preface: I walked into this book already a fan of Xiran Jay Zhao (having watched and loved their youtube videos for quite some time now). I am also a massive fan of Pacific Rim, The Handmaid's Tale, and Attack on Titan, and have a strong interest in Chinese culture (being mixed myself). This book was pitched as hitting all of those interests- I was, in no uncertain terms, stoked as fuck to read this. It almost seemed too good to be true.

In hindsight, I think walking in with such high hopes did more harm than good, and can safely say that after a few chapters my expectations had been adjusted, which made the rest of the book a much more pleasant read.

I'll start with things I liked, because there were actually a lot of them!

- Overall concept: This book's premise is a banger from the get-go, and it genuinely does deliver on its promise in the synopsis. This is definitely a mix between pacrim, chinese history, and the handmaid's tale. It's fresh and ambitious and definitely not like anything I've seen before. I admire the risks taken.

- Pacing: There was never a point where I felt like I had to drag myself through a chapter or put it down for a break. I honestly could have finished this in one sitting; It's fairly short and easy to breeze through.

- The handling of the love triangle:

- Overall branding and art direction: The author really does have impeccable taste when it comes to the visual accompaniments for this book. The cover is absolutely stunning and all of the official art is beautiful.

- For lack of a better word, Vibes: This book is cool! Truly and undeniably cool! I actually stopped multiple times throughout the story and audibly said "woah, that's so cool!" because it is! There's a lot of stuff in here that really satisfies my inner 10 year old boy who is obsessed with transformers. Definitely the same vibe as Pacific Rim (aka "don't think about anything too hard, just enjoy the coolness")

- Zingers. Zetian had some baller retorts in this book that definitely made me crack a smile.

Onto the issues I had with this book. Some are objective and some are just personal preference.

- Infodumping: The "show, don't tell" rule is thrown out the window here. The exposition is so heavy and shamelessly infodumps. This is the worst at the start, and evens out somewhat later on, with smaller infodumps throughout the rest of the book.

- Prose: The writing is objectively bad. I think there's often confusion between what's 'accessible YA writing' and what's genuinely bad writing, but I am certain this is the latter. This might not bother some readers (I know several people who don't care about the quality of prose at all and are character or story driven only) but it was a major issue for me. The dialogue felt especially stilted and there were parts that I had to stop and laugh out loud at because they sounded so corny.

- Unreliable morality of protagonist: I honestly have no idea what Zetian's morals are. One moment she was alright with

- Lack of character building in general: Zetian's relentless feminism feels a little strange because we don't learn how she came to this belief system or why she believes in it so strongly. I would have loved more backstory on her breaking free from societal indoctrination. With regard to the male love interests, both were developed enough that I cared somewhat about them, but still fit pretty neatly into fanfiction character tropes (bad boy w/ a heart of gold and sensitive softboy).

- General weak worldbuilding.

- Just... general plot holes? This is one of those books that you can't think about too hard. Honestly just unplug your brain and enjoy the vibes and it becomes 300% better.

Overall, I can tell that a lot of love was put into this book and had a lot of fun reading it. I always do my best to be as honest as possible in my reviews, and it may be that I simply wasn't the right reader for this book. There is no doubt in my mind that there is an audience out there that will adore this book, and I truly hope it will be very successful in that market.

Do I think it's an objectively great book? No. Did I enjoy reading it? Hell yeah I did. Is it a feminist revelation? No. But would I recommend it to a friend who needed a fast, fun read? Absolutely.
Profile Image for Chantaal.
956 reviews93 followers
February 5, 2023
Iron Widow came to my attention because it sounds pretty damn great. Who doesn't want a book about giant mech fighting based in Chinese fantasy with "400 pages of feminist rage"? It's Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid's Tale! Hell yeah! I was so down for it.

Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot much more to Iron Widow.

The story is pretty straightforward: in this world based in Chinese culture and myths, boys pilot giant transforming robots to battle aliens beyond the great wall. Unfortunately, to pilot the mechs, the boys need to pair with a concubine to help use her mental energy and qi...and most of these girls die after one battle. Our hero Wu Zetian becomes a concubine on purpose, in hopes of pairing with the pilot that killed her older sister.

From there, it's discovered that Zetian has a very high spirit energy, and in this universe that means she could possibly match with a pilot, instead of having the pilot kill her. But she kills the pilot she intended to, earning the name Iron Widow, and is paired with another much stronger pilot that always kills his concubines. Surprise surprise, she survives her next battle with him.

Zetian gets to know the tragic backstory of the pilot Shimin, and somewhere along the way her childhood friend, a rich boy named Yizhi, finds his way back into her life and becomes an integral third part of their pilot process.

As all this is happening, we get treated to the 400 pages of feminist rage that keeps being promised. While the rage is there, the writing is just so simplistic that there is nothing else to Zetian. She's angry and lashes out or kills a pilot, then she's punished. Sexist men say something sexist to her, so she says something angry and feminist back, and she's punished. Someone else says something sexist to her and she feels beat down mentally, but then 2 paragraphs later she says F THAT, I'M MORE THAN WHAT THEY SAY and she thinks some great feminist thoughts that make for amazing blurbs but are completely boring when it's the 50th time she's had the same thought. Rinse and repeat for 400 pages.

This is such simplistic Telling and not Showing writing. I'm no writer myself, I can't claim to know what the writing process is like, but I know what I feel as a reader. And as a reader, this got old super fast. I wanted more from Zetian than just spitting rage and cool feminist lines. I wanted some more depth and nuance.

I suppose there's some attempt at depth when it comes to the romance, and this is where I thought Iron Widow would really have its chance to shine in the sun and stand out on its own. Bisexual rep! A ménage à trois! Hell yeah!

The romances are instalove. Just pure instalove, on all sides of the triangle.

There's maybe some build up for one side of the triangle, but the other two just sort of happen. When the three of them finally come together as one, its with a couple of paragraphs about damning society because society doesn't give a damn about them, etc etc. There's just no nuance to the writing at all. Maybe if the taboo of a male/male romance or a throuple romance hadn't been hinted at in the text, then the simplistic coming together would have worked. Instead, we have Zetian thinking about how they love each other and society can go fuck itself, and so they're now together. That's it.

As for the actual plot line, that was mostly a muddle and served only to provide waypoints for Zetian's story to move forward, simply because she had to move forward to advance the story. There are lots of gross sexist pigs, there are terrible military people who don't care about women or those beneath them, there are people in power who make decisions without caring about women or those beneath them...it's the same simplistic ideas over and over again. There are no moments to take a step back and breathe in this world, to let the history and society and culture of the world building really settle in. It's ZETIAN MAD and FEMINIST RAGE and CHRYSALIS SMASH -- which is all fine and good if that's what the book wanted to be! But no, Iron Widow wants to be a novel that is fun but also hulk smashes the patriarchy, and while it does that, there's nothing else to it.

I won't go too much further into the rest of the actual plot (what little there is) because it'd involve spoilers and, quite frankly, I hated the ending. This writing and the very shallow world building did not deserve that ending at all.

With all that said, did I actually like this book?

...sort of. When I could turn my brain off and just enjoy the wish fulfillment that Zetian represented, I had a better time of it. But the writing and world building simply wasn't good enough for me to truly enjoy this world or the characters.

(Thank you NetGalley for providing an e-book copy for review.)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 14,406 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.