by Xiran Jay Zhao
Penguin Teen, 2021. 394 pages.
Review written January 27, 2022, from my own copy sent by the publishers for the 2022 Cybils
2022 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction
Iron Widow is about an angry young woman who starts out seeking vengeance and moves on to destroy the patriarchy. It’s set in a completely different world, but with a culture reminiscent of elements of Chinese history.
Huaxia is besieged by aliens called Hunduns, made of spirit metal. But pilots can fight them, using their qi to control giant Chrysalises to battle and destroy the Hunduns. But pilots can’t channel all that qi alone. They need a pilot-concubine in the cockpit next to them, contributing qi and helping to channel it. There’s one major problem: More often than not, the concubine can’t handle that much qi and dies.
Zetian’s older sister was sold off by her family to be a pilot-concubine, but she didn’t even live long enough to die in battle before the pilot, one of the biggest celebrities in the country, killed her. So now Zetian is determined to enlist as a concubine — and kill him. But before she has the chance to carry out her vengeance, the alarm goes off and they’re pulled into battle. And it turns out that Zetian’s qi is so strong, the one who is overwhelmed and ends up dead is the pilot.
But that’s not the end for Zetian. Next, the army matches her up with the Iron Demon, a man who murdered his family before he became the most powerful pilot of them all. And he is not what Zetian expects. But the more involved she gets, the more she finds out about the pilot system and how it treats girls as disposable.
Zetian herself has bound and broken feet, so it’s always painful to walk. Her feet were broken by her grandmother when she was five years old, so that she would be refined and acceptable to men.
This book has a love triangle with a rich boy Zetian has known for years, but the love triangle has bonds of love (and off-page sex), rather than jealousy, between all three. I tried not to think about whether it would be likely that all three would feel that way about each other. We do see Zetian learn to see and understand more deeply than externals.
Much more disturbing for me, there’s a scene where the main characters torture and kill someone. This person has tortured many others and deserves whatever he gets, but I’m from the Don’t-Sink-To-Their-Level school of thought. I think an atrocity is still an atrocity, even if the victim has committed multiple atrocities himself.
That scene does highlight how horribly the people currently in power are using their power — and that Zetian will do absolutely anything to fight back. She goes from wanting vengeance for her sister to wanting to topple the entire system and save more girls from being sacrificed to the system. And she’d like to win back the province of Zhou from the Hunduns as well. She does an amazing job of defeating the bad guys, and you can’t help but root for her.
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