Review: Iron Widow

Written by Xiran Jay Zhao

From Xiran Jay Zhao‘s website:

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.

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.

Read this book if you love:

  • fiercely damaged warrior heroine that fights the patriarchy
  • a primal scream of a read that makes you say “hell yeah!”
  • Sci-Fi Pacific Rim style battles that weave in Chinese traditions, good and bad.

My Review

What I loved.

This book was exactly the book I needed and wanted to read right now. It is violent and cathartic as it screams at the injustices of the traditional Chinese patriarchy in a dystopian future. Xiran Jay Zhao weaves elements of Chinese history into a Pacific Rim styled future where couples must pair to power defence mechas. Imagine having your feet bound to limit your movements in a future where there are wild aliens that attack your borders regularly. Then discovering that your sister was killed by her copilot, beaten before she could defend the walls at all. It is enough to understand the rage of the central character Wu Zetian.

But it is not just the rage the author installs in Zetian that makes me love this book. Zhao masterfully layers the violence throughout the book, weaving it into an insidious tapestry of control and subjugation that every victory Zetian has feels makes the reader want to fist bump and scream “£u<# yes!” at the top of her lungs.

Or at least it made me.

Combine that with the tenderly sweet moments scattered in rare moments throughout this book and I was on an emotional roller coaster that was exciting, delightful, and cathartic.

It also loved the elements of history woven into the story. This is a retelling of the only Chinese Empress, with a futuristic sci-fi bent, and though it is not wholly accurate, how could it be in this new world of Hunduns?

I have highlighted more quotes in this book than I have in a long time. And I have already pre-ordered the sequel.

What I didn’t love.

The action and intrigue in this book are amazing. But because of the book’s fast pace, illustrated early on within the second chapter, I found that the section on “Way of the Snake” slower simply because there is a pause in the action to truly understand the history and provide more information to the reader and heroes. It contains all the politics of the day and loses the action in favour of mystery and intrigue. It is necessary, but just a touch slower than I wanted. I set the book down for almost a week here because of it.

Though the sex is implied and never described I was still a little surprised that this YA book owned its sexuality throughout. It shouldn’t have surprised me though. The term concubine is used accurately, so many girls are being sacrificed to the men who run the mechs. Sexuality and dominance, including rape and torture, are a part of this book’s culture, misogyny, and patriarchy.

I don’t recommend it to readers where these scenes might be triggering.

My Analysis


1st, close past, Wu Zhetian.


External: Action – Adventure: Rebellion
Global Values: Death / Life
Core Need: Survival
Core Emotion: Excitement

Internal: Status – Adminration
Global Values: Failure or Success
Core Emotion: Respect
Controlling idea:  Sometimes you need to push back against the unfair systems set by your leaders.

“Redemption story, they said? There will be no redemption. It is not me who is wrong. It’s everyone else.”

Xiran Jay Zhao, Iron Widow


Violence: high, mechanical and in person, implied and witnessed.
Gore: medium-high.
Romance/Sex: kissing, implied sex, rape.
Series: Iron Widow, first in series.
Reality Clover: Sci-Fi.

Reference Info:

Twitter: @XiranJayZhao
IG: @XiranJayZhao
YT: @XiranJayZhao