Book Review: IRON WIDOW by Xiran Jay Zhao

Title in white on red and orange image of a girl a surrounded by the wings of a bird
Genre: Sci-Fi
Age Range: YA
Star Rating: 4 stars
Series: yes - first book


Book cover for IRON WIDOW: title in white below a girl surrounded by the red wings of a bird

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.

Blurb taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


IRON WIDOW was one of Autumn 2021’s most hyped YA releases, and I finally got my hands on a copy to see what the fuss was all about. It is a book about standing up for equality in the face of injustice, about how the system can be rigged in the favour of one group by deliberately oppressing another group – and then normalising the oppression through creed and culture. It is very much a book that falls into the “angry feminists burn down the patriarchy.”

Zetian is absolutely the sort of person who wants to let everything burn because of the anger inside her. The fiery cover is absolutely perfect for her! You sympathise with her and cheer her on as she takes on the entire empire, with the help of the two boys tangled in her life and feelings. There is no apology for who she is, and why should there be? I did, however, like that there was an exploration of why she was so angry, and why a system that depends on women being meek and submissive and easy to cow would so vilify a woman who is angry and fierce and not about to take nonsense from anyone.

Towards the end, as memories bleed over and minds successfully merge to control the big robots, it did get a bit confusing to work out whose thoughts were being shown on page. While it helps show the effects of the mind melds in the machine, it did make it hard to work out what exactly was happening at times. Particularly in action sequences, that’s not very useful and just made it a bit hard to follow.

The book spend most of its time dancing between science fiction and science fantasy. You have the giant robots that feel like you could explain them as “magic” or “science” (the general way of distinguishing between the two genres), an advanced technological society but also monsters that can be explained with either “magic” or “science.” I always felt like the book fell a little bit more on the science fiction side, and the ending felt, to me, like very firmly placing the book on the science fiction side of things. The ending also revealed some truths and set up a cliff-hanger ending ready for the next instalment.


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