• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

I was intrigued by the Chinese folklore influences and the story's feminist leanings, although I felt bogged down at times by explanations of how the power, qi, and magic worked.

“Shame. That was their favorite tool. A tool to corrode me from the inside until I believed I could only accept whatever lot they threw at my bound feet. It didn't work. Despite their best efforts, I find myself worthy of happiness.”

In Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao blends Chinese folklore with science-fiction robots and aliens in this feminist young adult action story.

Chrysalises are giant robots used to battle the aliens beyond the Great Wall, and the girls who pilot them undergo great strain--and can unleash great power. But they're subsumed by the male-dominant battle system and their qi is used to boost the men's efforts, often at enormous cost to the women.

Zetian's spirit has been crushed by her family for years and her feet systematically broken in order to increase her potential value as a bride--in the end, to benefit her brother and raise his chances of a profitable marriage match. But she's determined to avenge her sacrificed sister's death and not to have lived in vain. She is made a concubine warrior and is expected to die in her first battle, but Zetian instead shows herself to have incredible psychic strength. She is paired with male pilots, and because of her immense power, she begins to be called the Iron Widow.

Feared and mysterious, Zetian is matched with the most controversial, deadly male pilot around, Li Shimin. But Zetian is secretly determined to use her power not to battle the enemy Hunduns, but to elevate the female pilots who have been treated unfairly for so long. And she hasn't yet exacted her revenge on those who killed her sister--or on those who perpetuate the broken, male-dominated system itself.

Zetian begins to suspect that none of the fighters know the true hierarchy of pilot qi power and believes the women's actual aptitude has never been revealed, and she even questions whether the invaders she's been set up to destroy are actually the enemy after all.

I was most intrigued by the Chinese folklore and by the feminist power in the story; Zetian's tearing down of the patriarchal destruction was satisfying to watch. Things weren't always what they seemed, and Zetian was pivotal in bringing injustices to light. And I was interested in the story's love triangle, although we got only a cursory look at the promise and potential of it.

I felt a little bogged down initially by what felt like extensive explanations of systems, the workings of qi power, and the details of necessary cooperation, and later I was a little taken aback by unexpected transformations, by what felt like frequently shifting abilities, and by some abrupt changes in how things worked--and distracted by asides letting the reader know why initial explained rules no longer applied. I didn’t mind, but some of this was hard for me to follow at times, so I just rolled with it.

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I received a prepublication electronic copy of this book courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada and NetGalley.

Iron Widow is Xiran Jay Zhao's first novel, and it's labeled as the first in the Iron Widow series, so stay tuned for a sequel.