*I received an e-ARC of Iron Widow in exchange for an honest review. A big thank you to Penguin Books Canada for giving me the opportunity to read this book early!
TW: Alcoholism, child mutilation (foot binding), femicide, misogyny, mentions of sexual assault, murder, familicide
I grew up a huge fan of Gundam and any other sci-fis with giant battling mech suits, so when I first heard about the plot for Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao, I was so excited to read about massive epic mech suits literally smashing the patriarchy. So when I got approved on Netgalley for an e-ARC, you can imagine how excited I was to read it! Unfortunately it wound up being added to the list of highly anticipated books that ended up being a let down.
Iron Widow is set in Huaxia, a country inspired by historial China which faces constant attacks from hostile aliens. To fight these aliens, boys are paired with girls in massive mechs that can transform based on the pilots’ mental strength. The only problem is – the girls are often killed in battle due to the mental strain of piloting the mechs. When her sister is killed by a celebrity male pilot, Zetian decides to become a concubine pilot herself in order to avenge her sister’s death, becoming a much feared Iron Widow. To try and control her, she is paired with Li Shimin, the country’s strongest male pilot and convicted murderer. Together, they decide to combine their strength to try and end the deaths of female pilots.
The good: I really enjoyed the first half of the book and started off really liking Zetian’s character. I also loved the polyamourous rep! This is the first book I’ve read that has polyamourous rep and I felt that it was really well done. I do wish there was more tome put into fleshing out the relationship(s) more, though I do think that the book’s main focus wasn’t the romance.
I also couldn’t help but imagine the aliens (called Hunduns) as looking like the Ohmu in Nausicaa. I’m likely wrong in how I imagined them, but there are a lot of similarities between the Hundun and the Ohmu….and I adored them in Nausicaa.
The bad: Reading this book felt like a fever dream. Some parts made sense, but other parts I would have no idea what was going on and really made me wonder what the heck I was reading. After the first half I really had to push myself to finish the book, but did wind up putting it down to read something else.
While I did initially like Zetian, she did get repetitive pretty fast. The pacing also felt really off. I felt that it switched between dragging in some parts while jumping around in others in the second half which made it confusing and a little discombobulating. The biggest let down for me was the ending. It felt really rushed and like it was stumbling around from one place to another just to wrap things up quickly.
Overall, I do see this being very popular with sci-fi-loving feminists, it just wasn’t the book for me. If you liked Pacific Rim, you might really enjoy this book. Thank you again Penguin Books Canada for letting me read this!
Iron Widow is out on September 21, 2021 and can be pre-ordered from you favourite retailer. I also heard somewhere that it *may* be featured in a popular book box, so if you’re subscribed to some book boxes, you might be seeing a fancy edition of it soon!