Book Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1)
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Pub Date (Original): 21 September 2021
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy

Panda Rating:

(3 pandas)


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.


Misogyny & femicide, rape (mentioned), sexual assault, physical & emotional abuse, suicidal ideation, alcoholism, blood & gore depiction, murder, torture

TL;DR: Well, I’ve finally read Iron Widow and I have very mixed feelings. When I first started reading this, I was sure it was going to be my next 5-star read because it gave me all the tingly and excited feelings I tend to get when I’m reading something I’ll love. But the further I read, the more disappointed I became because this had so much potential and IMHO, it failed to deliver. While I’m glad that I’ve finally read it (and with one of my book besties too!), I’m pretty sad that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I do get why people love this though, so if you’re still curious about it and own a copy, I think you should still give it a try cos I found the concept unique. Plus, if you like doggedly relentless revenge-fuelled MCs that would go to any extreme to successfully stick it to the man, with plenty of giant robot battles and spirit energy magic, then there’s a chance you could enjoy this more than I did!

First, let’s take a look at what I liked about it.

This ended up being very different to how I thought it was going to be written and in a good way. If you were worried that this might be too heavily scientific or full of jargon you don’t understand, you don’t need to worry. The writing was fun and accessible and it was pretty easy to follow along with! The story was also well-paced and moved at a steady but fast clip. There was never a lull or dull moment as the author rapidly took us from scheme to scheme through to the end. As for the world-building, I liked it for the most part although I was left with a lot more questions by the end than I had at the start (which was already a lot)! This is set in a futuristic Chinese-inspired world that was destroyed by mech aliens called hunduns hundreds of years ago. The surviving population now lives behind a Great Wall and those with strong enough qi pilot giant robots called Chrysalises—they’re just like those robotic war machines in Pacific Rim and of course, Transformers. The author described the sociocultural setting and the Chrysalises really well and it was easy to picture everything playing out in my head like a movie. **Side note: I do think this is going to be made into a movie and I think it’d be perfect for the big screen, so that’s pretty exciting!** Despite being a little heavy-handed, I also liked the broaching of social issues and commentary on the treatment of girls/women in society—it’s relevant, it’s relatable and it’s real.

I actually really liked Zetian, our main character and sole POV, in the beginning. Her righteous fury and desire to avenge the death of Big Sister made sense and her feelings were so relatable that I was more than ready to root for her success. She was fiercely determined and she’s the type of character who never gives up and quite literally never stops. I wouldn’t ever want to get her on my bad side because I know that no matter what it’ll cost her, she’d exact her revenge. 😂 That said, as much as I admired her drive to succeed no matter the cost, I was also hoping that she would experience growth as the story progressed, but sadly that never happened.

That was probably one of my biggest issues with Iron Widow because that ending was… something! Even though it sets things up nicely for the continuation and it did pique my curiosity, I was extremely frustrated by how it felt like Zetian’s character regressed rather than grew.

This brings me to the elements that didn’t really work for me.

Foremost was the lack of character development in Zetian and the main side characters. Zetian had so much potential to grow into a more understanding, empathetic and nuanced character and yet, the complete opposite happened. I loved how she honed her emotions into action and how driven she was but her narrow-minded focus prevented any sort of growth she could’ve experienced. Her hatred and bitterness drove her to treat everyone so poorly and in the same way she doesn’t wish to be treated and it was a little irritating. I can appreciate an unhinged woman who simply wants revenge but also, the more she sank into her determination to mete out said revenge, the more one-dimensional Zetian became because that was literally the start and end of her personality. I think this also affected how I felt about the relationships she forms with Yizhi and Li Shimin, and ultimately their romance, too. The bisexual representation was great, I loved that it was an ‘unconventional romance’ that you hardly ever see in YA, but I didn’t connect to them or their journey together. I wasn’t emotionally invested and as a romance lover, that was disappointing.

Yizhi and Li Shimin, our main side characters and love interests, really felt like they existed simply to push Zetian’s story along—their presence was a constant but it was always on the periphery and again, I felt it was another wasted opportunity to give them more depth! Out of the two, I felt a stronger connection to Li Shimin who obviously spends more time interacting with Zetian as the Iron Demon, pilot of the Vermilion Bird, and the yang to her yin. And yet, despite that, he still managed to feel like a periphery character! That said, my heart really went out to him and everything he endured simply because he wasn’t born into the right ethnic group, and this made it easy to empathise with him. I can’t recall a character who’s more deserving of a hug than him (the guy literally deserves all the hugs!) and I actually felt he deserved so much better than Zetian because she treated him like absolute trash! 🙃

Beyond the characters, I think the lack of connection also made the whole story feel a little underwhelming, especially as we got to the plot twists and reveals, of which there were several. I didn’t find myself particularly excited about them when they came about. Some of them were great and I wanted to learn more about a few others, one brutal twist in particular, but that plotline wasn’t expanded on before being quashed.

As for world-building, as much as I enjoyed it, I simply wanted to get more backstory. I didn’t understand how this world came to be and how this society formed the way it did with all women being so subservient and seemingly all the men delighting in cruelty. How is it that no one else seemed to be questioning anything they’re fed except for Zetian? Also, how did people start utilising their qi or has it always been that way? When do people get their qi tested and what’s the process? There were times that I also didn’t entirely understand how the qi magic worked, particularly the elemental aspect of it, and I think the story would’ve benefitted from expanding on the magic some more, especially for those who might not be familiar with it. With all the twists in the end, I have even more questions about Huaxia and its history, but I do hope that the second book will come through and give us all the answers we’re looking for.

Have you read Iron Widow or is it on your TBR?

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

  1. Great review, Dini! I felt so many of the same things, which we discussed. I think that Zetian was definitely the biggest issue in this book. She was so disappointing and it was hard to look past.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed the mechs and the intensity of the protagonist. I also liked the inclusion of the throuple, but I wish it had been explored more. I agree that Zetian’s character was a bit stagnant and doubled down on her fury rather than growing because of it. I’m still curious to see where that ending takes us in the next book, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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