Iron Widow is a tense, dramatic tale of overcoming war, disability, and patriarchal oppression set in a fascinating world filled with giant robots and monsters.
The first marketing I saw for Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow claimed it was like Pacific Rim meets Handmaid’s Tale. Pacific Rim because of the giant robots, of course, and Handmaid’s Tale because of the patriarchal oppression. But that comparison fell far short of describing the depth and breadth of Iron Widow, and I wonder if the marketing staffer who crafted it has even read the book.
18-year-old Zetian is a young woman living in a fantasy future world loosely based on Chinese history and mythology who becomes a concubine-pilot for a Chrysalis, the powerful machines Huaxia uses to defend itself from extraterrestrial invaders. Zetian has endured a lifetime of hardship at the hands of her family and society. Zhao spares the readers no mercy describing the character’s pain. But the pain drives her, as does the death of Zetian’s older sister at the hand of a male Chrysalis pilot. Zetian wants revenge, and not even a horde of killer alien monster machines will stop her.
Zetian’s slow-rolling Sisyphean quest swiftly transforms into a fast-moving avalanche. Think Indiana Jones running from the giant boulder in the tomb tunnel. The plot moves along at a break-neck pace, rarely stopping to allow the reader to catch their breath. And Zhao’s prose is sharp-edged and terse, reflecting Zetian’s prickly, revenge-fueled anger. Many of the usual YA tropes are found within the book. But, like the spirit metal machines the characters pilot, Zhao twists the familiar elements into things unique and special to the story. What could’ve been a dull training montage is a spirit realm fight for your life. What could’ve been a run-of-the-mill love triangle is a risky, racy attempt at polyamory. And all the while, the reader is reminded that the strong female character started out broken in mind and body. The feminism in Iron Widow wields a sharp knife, and it’s not afraid to cut you.
This book contains mentions of physical and mental abuse, loss of a family member, disability and ableism, and descriptions of violence, rape, and death.