Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
Iron Widow is the first novel in the series of the same name. It has been described as “Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale” for the main story set-up and it definitely fits. One thing to be aware of is that there is a MFM triad for the romance. The story does not have the main character follow the usual love triangle where she must choose one and instead she has both. The two males also form their own connection with each other. Together they make a sweet polyamorous couple. If this type of relationship is not for you, then I would suggest skipping this series as it is a part of the story. For me, the relationships that formed added a heartwarming layer to an action packed story and I could not imagine the novel without it as I love all three characters as individuals and together.
Wu Zetian is an 18-years-old frontier girl and ready to finally start her plan for revenge. Her older sister was killed three-months prior during her time as a concubine piolet for Yang Guang. Before this plan takes place, the story explores Zetian’s home life and sets-up the treatment of females in this time period. Even in her own family, she is disregarded in favor of her brother, Dalang. Females in this time were drowned in pig cages if they disgraced their families and they bind their feet to create a more “desirable” lotus shape. While Zetian is a very strong personality that seeks to destroy this way of life, she knows she needs to be strategic and it is not a simple matter of only speaking up. The way this novel is written makes it clear of the world that these characters live. Zetian does have an ally in Huaxia, as she has been friends with the son of the richest man, Gao Yizhi for the past three years.
Through a series of obstacles, Zetian finds herself the pilot of the Vermillion Bird, one of the Chrysalises. These mechas are war machines where the pilots control them with their minds. Female concubines are there as support for the male pilots and sometimes end up killed in the process. This is one of many elements that Zetian wishes to change. Her male pilot counterpart is 19-years-old, Li Shimin, the Iron Demon, who killed his own family when he was 16. With Zetian’s stronger personality, it is not an easy pairing and the two needs to find a way to work together. Together they have high Qi and are a powerful pair. Each character is neither good nor bad and both are morally grey. This was one aspect that I loved with the characters as they did not lean too much towards right or wrong and instead straddled between them. Even Yizhi initially seemed only good, but he slowly started revealing some greyer aspects of himself.
The story is told from Zetian’s perspective so the reader follows along her journey as she navigates the complex political system and the war-filled battles. The characters around her may initially seem mysterious or more simplistic, but they become more and more complex as Zetian gets to know them. This is the case especially with Yizhi and Simin as a lot of their backstory and thoughts become more apparent as the story moves forward. At times I do wish that the story had three points of view just to get further inside their heads, but, at the same time, I do not think I would actually make the change. Zetian’s story is full of perils with added obstacles of being a female that the story would become cluttered by trying to add in one more aspect of multiple perspectives.
Overall, the author did an excellent job balancing the intense elements and the softer elements. The story goes through a lot of death, violence, and assault, yet still has moments of softer characters through the connections they form. The novel crosses many genres while not quite fully aligning with one in particular. It is historical based on the time period, but mixes multiple real historical periods and figure inspirations together. It also takes a bit of science fiction and fantasy; however, if I were to place this in a book store in one place or the other, I would lean towards science fiction. It is a well done mix of genres and I am very curious to see the direction the sequel takes. Not only do I look forward to seeing more of these genres come to life, the ending of this novel makes me very excited to read the next one and 2022 cannot come fast enough!
**I give a special thank you to Netgalley and the publisher, Penguin Teen, for the opportunity to read this enjoyable novel. The opinions expressed are completely my own.**