Book Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Without doubt, one of the best science fiction/fantasy books offered in a long time.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Teen (September 21, 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 400 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0735269939

I’ve often mentioned that I’m the kinda guy who is drawn to quality writing. But it isn’t just the quality that attracts me. No, to truly appeal, it has to be ‘different’ in an unconventional, offbeat way that makes it stand out as special. Ethereal, like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere; Powerful, like Mike Shackle’s Last War series; unique, as is definitely the case with Tyler Whitesides’ Kingdom of Grit series . . .

. . . and as is definitely the case with Iron Widow, by cow-suit toting Xiran Jay Zhao. (Just take a look on the inside back cover of the book & on her Twitter page, and you’ll appreciate what I mean).

One of the most amazing covers I’ve seen in a long time, (and those who know me are well aware of my penchant for an eye-catching first impression); and a superb blurb make a great first impression, hooking you from the outset.

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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.

**********

Bam!

Part of me finds it incredibly difficult to write a review about this book, because there’s sooo much detail I’d like to include that it would end up spoiling the actual story arc. So, I’ll leave that part for Xiran Jay Zhao and her champion – Wu Zetian, the Iron Maiden – to do that for me. As well I should, for you’ll soon be immersed in a tale that is as action packed as it is suspenseful; as exasperating as it is cathartic; and as is infuriating as it is fully satisfying.

Why?

Because this is as much a finger-in-the-eye lesson against deep-seated prejudice and bigotry as it is about the fight against the Hundun, a relentless foe from another world out to squash the human race from existence. As the blurb reveals, mankind’s system for fighting the Hundun is bias, for females are looked on as nothing more than elemental batteries, used by the male pilots to help power the giant combat mecha machines. And once their energy runs out? Well, that’s okay. After all, there are lots of other girls to take their place. Willing or not!

Enter Wu Zetian, a young girl so neglected and undervalued by her family that they look upon her as an unwelcome millstone around their necks . . . until they can fend her off to the military to die for the cause, that is. (Her death won’t be a loss. She’s just a girl, after all, and all females must do what they can to serve society in a useful way).

Oh really?

What follows is truly cinematic in scope. Think Pacific Rim meets The Hunger Games, only everything plays out within the Matrix. And if you’re a girl, everyone is Agent Smith, out to get you.

I loved it! Zhao writes in such a way that you really connect to Zeitan, and navigate the unfolding drama as if you’re her. You embark on a personal journey of revenge and revelation; of evolving love and devolving empathy; of duty, compromise and betrayal. Most of all, you’ll find yourself refusing to bend to an unfair, unjust, and unwholesome system, by doing everything you possibly can to survive against overwhelming odds. And it’s all wrapped up in a rampaging, primal scream of an epic that will take your breath away. It really will, as there’s one hell of a twist on the final page that threatens to change everything!

(But the clues are there, seeded throughout the story if you care to look).

Iron Widow: Without doubt, one of the best science fiction/fantasy books I’ve read in a long time. And who knows, perhaps Xiran Jay Zhao will set a trend, encouraging us all to dress as our favorite farm animal?
(We’ll see. I’ll be sticking to my tutu for now)

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