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e-ARC provided by publisher through NetGalley in exchange for review
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
Content warnings will be included at the end of my review.
This book was amazing. A futuristic sci-fi retelling of the only female emperor of China, Iron Widow took an already fascinating story and elevated it even further. Before I get into my review, I want to point you towards the author’s YouTube channel, linked here. Not only are the videos well researched, they’re all wonderfully scripted and I’m in awe of Zhao’s ability to weave in sponsorships from other companies as well as hype for this book.
So, as mentioned before, Iron Widow is a futuristic sci-fi retelling. Though a number of liberties were taken with the story I loved seeing how Zhao laced historical tidbits into the larger futuristic setting. There were Chrysalises, giant robots that are powered through a psychic link, that are used to fight off mecha aliens. But on the flip side, there is a stinging commentary on the harm of a patriarchal society. The story touches on things like the practice of foot binding and the dangers that young women face in terms of purity. It was scathing and heartbreaking at the same time.
Zhao wove together a fantastic narrative that balanced all of the complex elements perfectly. Looking back, I can see how hints about the finale were sprinkled in though in the moment I was so absorbed in finding out what happened next that I was shocked I hadn’t seen it coming. Without potentially giving anything away, I will just say that I absolutely can’t wait to get my hands on the second book.
Now a huge portion of why I loved this book was the characters. They were spectacular. Morally grey and scheming I think that if I ever started writing fanfiction it would be for this book. Wu Zetian is our narrator and at times she seemed to run solely on spiteful fumes but in the grand scheme of it all I was amazed at what she was capable of. Bitter and intent on avenging the death of her older sister, Zetian volunteers to be a concubine to a pilot of one of the Chrysalises. By surviving killing the man who murdered her sister, she ends up being paired with Li Shimin, a pilot known as the Iron Demon, as both punishment and test.
By surviving her link with Shimin, Zetian becomes something more powerful than the pilot system has seen before. This pair spent so much time dancing around each other that I really appreciated the addition of Gao Yizhi, a boy that befriended Zetian in secret when she lived in her family’s home. I think that the three of them ended up working together in such an unexpected manner I was surprised by how their personalities ended up differing from what I imagined them to be.
I have a lot of respect for how Zhao crafted these characters. Each one struggled with trauma in their own way and it was well shown that they have a lot to learn about not only themselves but each other and the greater world. And yet even with all of that, I adored watching the three of them come together. Zhao has marketed this as a book that steps away from the standard love triangle and instead ushers in a polyamorous relationship and I have to say, I think that this should be the new standard. No hurt feelings over sides being picked and I think that the representation of a relationship like this, especially in YA, is something that adds new depth to the genre.
Iron Widow was a dark and gripping narrative that kept me on the edge of my seat. It was unique and powerful and a spectacular book overall. I rated it 5 stars and I highly recommend this.
Content Warnings: murder, death, torture, violence, thoughts of suicide, a lot of abuse (including domestic abuse and parental abuse), talk of sexual assault, alcoholism, depictions of trauma, anxiety, depression, mentions of needles, forced body modifications including footbinding and stolen organs, misogyny and sexism
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