TW: discussion of rape, alcoholism, torture, suicidal ideation, violence, foot binding, emotional abuse, needles (mostly for acupuncture, but there are enough of them that if you are phobic you’ll want to read with care).

Iron Widow has had a ton of buzz since it came out in October of 2021. My library hold finally came through and I was just gobsmacked by this book and could not believe I hadn’t read it sooner! This Own Voices science fiction story includes giant mecha, transforming robots, aliens, female rage, feminism, a polyamorous romance, and a lot of action scenes. If you like those ingredients then you’ll like the book, pure and simple. It’s very gritty and serious and very violent, so brace yourself for that.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

The boys of Huaxia dream of the celebrity status that comes with piloting Chrysalises – giant transforming robots that battle the aliens beyond the Great Wall. Their female co-pilots are expected to serve as concubines and sacrifice their lives.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, her plan is to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But on miraculously emerging from the cockpit unscathed after her first battle, she is declared an Iron Widow – the most feared pilot of all.

Now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she sets her sights on bigger things. The time has come to stop more girls from being sacrificed.

This story takes a Chinese-influenced science fiction setting and adds some creative and unexpected elements to common YA tropes. The narrator and protagonist, Zetian, is not nice. She is ruthless with herself and with others and has no problem using violence and torture to acheive her aims. At the start of the book, she has already resigned herself to the fact that others will be punished for her rebellious actions – a moral quandary solved by the fact that her family is so awful, and indeed her whole village is so awful, that Zetian doesn’t care if they die. Part of her character growth is to be able to balance healthy boundary setting with a more systemic understanding of why her family lives the way they do.

Zetian is also disabled. Her bound feet give her constant pain and she walks with the aid of a cane. For much of the book she uses a wheelchair. When Zetian is in a Chrysalis, she is powerful because of the way that the Chrysalis functions. However, she’ve never magically cured during the story. Her constant pain and the memory of that pain being deliberately caused by the women in her own family deeply influences her character. It doesn’t launch her into the stereotype of a “disabled villain.” Rather, it is a constant reminder to her that women can be both the victims and the perpetrators of injustices within a patriarchal system. Moreover, the emotional and physical costs of her bound feet are annoying in a way that anyone with chronic pain can relate to. In addition to all the time and energy that Zetian puts into other things, she has to put extra energy into getting around and into cleaning and changing her foot wrappings.

By far my favorite thing about the book is its common-sense resolution of a looming love triangle with an honest, healthy triad relationship between Zetian, the ruthless and desperate pilot Li Shimin, and the optimistic rich guy who is good at strategy, Yizhi. It was so freaking refreshing to see this portrayed positively instead of reading about yet another YA group staying locked in a heteronomative love triangle for ages. The chemistry between the three people is powerful, and sometimes even funny, as when a particularly harrowing and gruesome scene involving Shimin and Zetian is followed by Yizhi welcoming them home with fried buns:

Perks of refusing to play by the rules: you don’t have to choose between the boy who’d torture a man to death with you and the boy who’d welcome you back with pastries after.

Zetian is so ruthless as to veer into anti-heroine territory, and yet her motives are always clear, and it’s interesting and gratifying to see her move from a desire to avenge a single person to a desire to change an entire system. There may seem to be some Hunger Games elements here in how she is forced into battle and encounters a love triangle between a hardened hot-headed fighter and a gentler but in some ways smarter guy who likes to bake, but this is much more gritty, and the setting and most of the plot are completely different. At the start of Iron Widow, Zetian’s sister is already dead and Zetian’s plan is to avenge her and then die. Also, Zetian couldn’t give a shit about being in a love triangle and just forms a triad instead, for which I adored her.

As the book goes along, it becomes more hopeful instead of less, as Zetian realizes the scope of change she could tackle. It’s hard to read some of the things that she does and it’s hard to read what she and Shimin go through, but it’s also thrilling to witness their victories. The fight scenes are creative and exciting and the world-building is phenomenal. History buffs may recognize the name Wu Zetian. However, the author, in an introduction, states that this is science fiction, not historical fiction or historical fantasy:

This book is not historical fantasy or alternate history, but a futuristic story set in an entirely different world inspired by cultural elements from across Chinese history and featuring historical figures reimagined in vastly different life circumstances.

The one thing I wish I had known before I started is that this book has, in the epilogue, a whopping cliffhanger ending. As is common in a series, I feel that my opinion of this first book may go up or down depending on what happens in future installments. For now, I loved the setting, the characters, the polyamorous romance, and the mecha stuff. I’m hoping that the next book brings deeper characterization, especially of Shimin and Yizhi. This is an intriguing, exciting book and I can’t wait for the next one.

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