Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is a YA sci-fi/dystopian that will be published on September 21st. In this world, a China-inspired world uses Chrysalises (giant transforming robots) to fight the Hunduns, a non-human force that came to take over hundreds of years ago. A boy pilots each Chrysalis, the size of it depending on his spirit pressure, with the power of his mind. To give extra power to the Chrysalis, each boy is paired with a girl who serves as a concubine and a co-pilot. These girls are often killed during battles from mental strain.
The story follows Zetian who volunteers to be a concubine-pilot to avenge her sister’s death. After their first battle, it is the boy who dies and Zetian who survived the mental link. As punishment, she is paired with the highest-ranked pilot (and therefore most dangerous to his concubine-pilot), Li Shimin, who is notorious for being snatched from death row for killing his family. Zetian and Shimin are hated by everyone for their strength but Zetian doesn’t back down. She uses every opportunity from her notoriety to expose and damage the patriarchy.
Wow, I really loved this. It has all of the feminist power it promises plus a really great world, story and cast of characters. I gave it 5 stars without hesitation.
Zetian is an awesome main character. She’s well developed and has clear motivation for her place in the story. She ends up in a bit of a love triangle but doesn’t let it define her or stop her as is often the case in YA books. She’s a morally grey badass and it’s wonderful to behold. In so many YA books, the main (especially female) character ends up being a leader or important because of a matter of circumstance or even by accident. However, Zetian volunteers to be a concubine to take one man down and does have a bit of a matter of circumstance where it gets to be more than just one man but still, she’s not a reluctant hero, she embraces it even when it seems everyone is turned against her.
Shimin and Yizhi are great characters in their own right and well developed and used. I liked how different they were and how not stereotypical love triangle their relationship was. Really the entire cast of characters were incredibly well done, I hated some and loved others right along with Zetian.
The sci-fi portion of this book was also really cool. I think sci-fi is the best genre to put it in but really the technology is there but it doesn’t dig into the science behind it. The idea of Chrysalises and the Hundun was really interesting and described in a way that was really easy to picture exactly what the author intended but still didn’t feel info-dumpy or drag on.
The Chinese setting and culture portions were also done really well. It’s definitely an important part of the story but manages to compliment the rest of the story rather than overpowering it. The ying and the yang is a thread throughout the whole book. Chinese culture and mythology is not something I know much about and also not something I have a huge interest in, but it was done such that it made sense and wasn’t so all encompassing that it felt like a Chinese culture lesson.
This book seems to be getting marketed as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaids Tale. Now, I don’t know much about Pacific Rim but I did read The Handmaids Tale and I didn’t love it so that almost scared me away. This is like The Handmaids Tale in the best possible way. It has a similar gender narrative but it actually has a plot. It actually gave me more Hunger Games vibes with a stronger main character and fighting against patriarchy instead of an overall dictator.
Overall, I really loved this and would have immediately started reading the next one if it was out. I highly recommend it. I’m still amazed this is a debut, it was really well done and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
*I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.