Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao, is a thrilling joy of a young adult fantasy novel. It is set in Huaxia, a fictional land that is threatened constantly by the mindless, powerful Hunduns, machine-like aliens who invaded 2000 years prior and have terrorized the people living there ever since. In order to provide protection against them, a pilot system was set up using the husks of these creatures as war machines with male pilots commanding them. Females are forced to serve the males, and are often killed during battle because of their ‘weaker minds’, used almost like a battery to keep the machines running with their magical life substance, qi.
This is the world that Zetian (our main character) lives in, and things become even more horrendous when she offers herself as a female pilot to avenge her sister, who was murdered by a male pilot. After her swift, merciless revenge, she begins to realize that she is more powerful than nearly anyone else in Huaxia, and is dubbed “The Iron Widow,” by the media due to the impossibly high status she achieves as a female. Things go south when she is then partnered with the strongest pilot in Huaxia, Li Shimin, a criminal murderer serving in the war. Shocking truths are revealed about the unfair, corrupted world Zetian lives in, and she rises to meet the challenge, fighting for truth and equality, but things aren’t as simple as they seem…
If I were asked to write one thing I liked about this book, I couldn’t give you an answer, because there are too many things in this amazing novel to not praise. I will give you a few main reasons as to why this book has become one of my favorites (and that's saying something, I read a lot); the first being the characters. The three main characters of this book, Zetian, Li Shimin, and Yizhi, are all equally diverse and wildly contrasting in personalities, so there is at least one you are guaranteed to love. Each is unique and full of depth, full of flaws and pain, but also divergent in strengths and abilities that make them so life- like.
Another thing that cannot go unspoken in this book is the world itself: it is grotesquely intriguing, well built, and unlike anything I’ve read before, which makes it so exhilarating as a reader to understand. The horror and the layered deceit deep in its foundation is terrifying to imagine but it's what will have the reader hooked until the very last page.
The ending of the book was an absolute masterpiece as well: it was bold, shocking, powerful, and impactful, and now I’m itching to read the next one (there better be another in the making).
One last thing I loved in this novel was romance. It was not an overall romantic book, but Xiran Jay Zhao somehow managed to perfectly create a three way relationship (no, not a love triangle) that was so heartbreakingly beautiful and perfect. ("You’re not something to be kept or taken, and love isn’t some scarce resource to battle over. Love can be infinite, as much as your heart can open.” - pg 275). I am so grateful to the author for such a wonderful representation of an underrepresented type of relationship, and it has been fascinating to watch it all unfurl as it did.
What I love about the main protagonist, Zetian Wu, is... essentially everything. She is not your typical female lead role, not the strong, independent, generous and understanding girl — she is downright scary. The power she wields over the people in her life that try to silence her is inspiring, and her persistence is something to admire. Starting out in a poor village with a hostile family, she somehow rises into a mighty warrior with no limits or oppression holding her down. She has a dark side that is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, and her character develops awe strikingly throughout the course of the book. Zetian is not only a powerful, shining force of rebellion, but is also a hurting, flawed human being that wants all the things others would: freedom, love, and affection. It makes her so relatable, especially to females around the world who experience problems similar to hers in real life that are forced upon them by the patriarchal society. As a female myself, I am able to relate to her struggles and challenges that exist simply because she is female, and even though our circumstances are very different, it is inspiring to read about women like this that want to change their unfair situations, fictional or not.
Positive messages and themes occur repeatedly throughout the book that keep the reader motivated and moved. Something I found quite heartening was the underlying message to not buy into and submit to everything you’ve been told for the sake of being peaceful, but rather stand up for your rights no matter how insane it may feel at the time or how many people try to pull you down. This particular theme is very important to teens and young adults, especially with the real world falling into tumult from the slow balancing of the scales of equality. Teens are told that they are being troublesome and bothering because they rebel against everything, or that they are too emotional and young to understand real problems, but this book takes a viewpoint on that “troublesome” behavior and explains it beautifully not as “troublesome” but as “fighting for what you believe is right.” Persistence and trust are very important in this novel as well; Zetian on many occasions has to let go of some things that matter to her in order to gain some by trusting people she would rather not. Not everything needs to be fought, but sometimes it needs to be understood instead. Persistence is of course the reason she got her power: she worked hard for it, and it rewarded her, just like it does in real life.
I would recommend this amazing book to teens and young adults who enjoy complicated plot lines, action, strong, relatable characters, and lots of terrifying thrills that have you turning the pages until the book is finished. I would also suggest this novel to young women because of the strong female role, but also to young men, who can by reading get a better understanding of sexism and the problems that the opposite gender faces.
A question I have for the author would be: How long did it take to write, edit, and publish this book?
Overall, this book is an absolute literary masterpiece, and will most definitely read it countless more times. Thank you, Xiran Jay Zhao for creating such a wonderful book!
Thank you Olivia!