Yooooo. I love any book with an unapologetically, righteously angry female lead and this one did not disappoint! Also, Zetian is a disabled heroine who kicks ass! I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such positive disability rep, which is partly on me but, let’s face it, mostly on publishing. Add to that the Asian aspect and I was already hugely predisposed to loving this, even before I laughed and cried and empathized my way through reading this terrific speculative fiction novel.
Wu Zetian is a frontier girl on a mission. After her beloved older sister dies at the hands of Yang Guang, a male ace mecha pilot, Zetian decides to enlist so she can assassinate her sister’s killer. She knows that doing this not only condemns the rest of her family but also forsakes the guy she’s been secretly seeing for the past three years, rich city boy Gao Yizhi. But vengeance is more important to her than anything, even love.
It’s something of a surprise to arrive at training and discover that her spirit pressure, the ability that allows people to pilot and transform the mechas, is high enough to immediately qualify her to partner with Yang Guang. But it’s only her iron will and murderous intent that allow her to climb out of their mecha later alive, the sole survivor of a process that usually takes the lives of the female concubine-pilot while leaving the male pilots unscathed.
At first, the army is scandalized, especially since Zetian staged her survival as a triumph, entirely out of keeping with the docility expected of women in Huaxian society. When she refuses to back down, they partner her with Li Shimin, the most powerful pilot in the army but also a boy with a reputation as a savage patricide. Zetian is fully ready to kill him too if she has to, but discovers a surprising kinship between them. As the pair slowly bond over the abuse they’ve each suffered, they begin to fight back against the suffocating restrictions and expectations placed on them both, in the process uncovering fearful truths about the world they live in.
This book is so fast-paced and so filled with twists and turns that I only figured out something that should have been glaringly obvious to me from the beginning at about the 80% mark! I mean, Xiran Jay Zhao audaciously gives the game away from the very start, in one of the slyest acts of misdirection I’ve ever seen. The world-building is incredibly smart, and the characterizations, particularly of Zetian, deeply felt. I totally empathized with Zetian’s teenage desire to burn the world down, and appreciated how intrepidly she evaluated the costs and made her choices. Her difficult relationships with almost everyone — while still acknowledging that the lessons they were teaching her were all valuable — was an intelligent if possibly unpopular authorial choice. I felt it was in keeping with the amount of anger and bitterness that not only Zetian but also so many of the people surrounding her were using as they fought for their physical survival, never mind the psychological will to self-determination that was constantly under threat by a milieu that promoted conformity in a way that trampled on women especially.
And hello, wow, did I love the inversion of a love triangle into a polyamorous throuple! There were certain parts where it did feel like the romances were fast-forwarded, but given the physical and mental bonds the trio built and the pressures they were under, I’m not surprised that they all fell in love so quickly. I was absolutely crushed by what Shimin did in the final battle, and I’m completely on tenterhooks to see what happens next!
I really hope Zetian holds onto her righteous fury in the next book, and doesn’t have it stupidly doused or diminished as in one of my most disappointing sequels of the past few years. But I have faith in Ms Zhao’s ability to hone in on the morally correct while challenging the corrupt, hypocritical systems that view certain people as “lesser” and thus expendable in the pursuit of maintaining society. There were so many excellent little lessons in Iron Widow on the value of rage and empathy both. It was SO GOOD and I can’t wait for more!
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao was published September 21 2021 by Penguin Teen and is available from all good booksellers, including