Iron Widow Review: Robot Mechas, Queer Pilots and a Chinese Patriarchy

April 9, 2022 by Jeann @ Happy Indulgence | 5 stars, Books, Reviews

Iron Widow Review: Robot Mechas, Queer Pilots and a Chinese PatriarchyIron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Series: Iron Widow #1
Published by Bloomsbury, Bloomsbury Australia on September 21, 2021
Source: Publisher
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
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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.

If there’s anything that we love in YA, it’s definitely stories about fighting against the patriarchy. Iron Widow certainly gives us that – and it gives us a good does of anger, rage and female empowerment at that.

Add in some giant fighting mechas, Chinese culture and history, with a queer, polyamorous relationship as a norm between a female co-pilot and her male suitors. And there you have Iron Widow – it may sound quite bizarre, but the author definitely pulls it off.

Zetain is a heroine who could be described as ruthless – she constantly questions everything that is thrown at her, including the unfairness of favouring male pilots over females, her power level is off the charts, and she’s also in it for revenge. I love a strong, intelligent, rage-filled heroine whose anger you can feel off the pages, with no apologies shown.

What you have to know about Zetain however – is that she also has a disability that causes her constant pain. Highlighting the ancient Chinese custom of footbinding, Zetain’s feet are also bound and she uses a cane to walk. Zetain’s constant agony that she experiences due to her disability is described in the pages, and it definitely highlights how inhumane this self-inflicted practice was in the past.

Central to the world of Iron Widow are giant robot mechas that transform into mythical creatures. They are piloted by a male and female pilot, who use their combined qi (power) to bond with one another behind the wheel. These giant robots are used to defend the Great Wall against Hunduns – or aliens that threaten to overtake their world. The battle scenes are exciting and well thought out – and I love how it also brings the male patriarchy of the Chinese military into questioning.

Male pilots, including Li Shimin, who Zetain has been paired with – are highly celebrated in China, as they win battle after battle. Unfortunately, female concubine-pilots very rarely come back alive, as they are often overpowered by transferring their qi while piloting the Chrysalis’s. Despite the high risk of the battles, families in China still send their daughters off to partake in the process, as it’s seen as a honour and privilege. The story is centered on Zetain not only pursuing vengeance for her sister – but also identifying the source of the oppression behind the misogynistic military and also fighting for a better life.

In Iron Widow, there are also two male leads who are both bisexual. Li Shimin is cocky, famous, privileged – but he’s got demons in his past that he is constantly dealing with. There’s also Yizhi, the boy who brings her baked goods back home (sound familiar anyone)? And I loved what they both offered Zetain. The story features a polyamorous relationship for the three of them as the norm, which is the first time I’ve seen it normalised in YA.

Iron Widow is an intelligent, rage-filled debut about a heroine piloting a giant robot to fight aliens while opposing a male-dominant patriarchy. It’s a story of female rage and gender empowerment with a powerful female lead behind it. It is inspireid by the story of the first female Chinese emperor, and it’s an absolute must read.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for sending me a review copy! 

Trigger warnings: misogyny, mention of rape, suicide, murder, torture, blood & gore, alcoholism and addiction, physical and emotional abuse

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Jeann is an Aussie YA blogger and mum who loves to read and recommend books! You can usually find me fangirling about books on my various social media channels including Twitter @happyindulgence, Instagram and Youtube.

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