Pub Day + ARC Review: Iron Widow

Happy Tuesday, everyone! I’m going to be honest here – I wasn’t sure if I was going to post this review. This was drafted months ago when I received the eARC from NetGalley and since then, I’ve only proceeded to become more confused about my feelings. Frankly, I’m questioning whether I read the same thing as everyone else since all I’ve seen are stellar 5* reviews for Iron Widow and mine is about to be…less than glowing. But I suppose I have to share the good and the bad, don’t I? I hate not liking a book but here we go…

Goodreads synopsis:

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.

My review:

Overall rating: 2/5
Pages: 400
Genre: Science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy
Pace: Fast
Read if you loved: Gild by Raven Kennedy, Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim, These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
Content warnings: Misogyny, femicide, mention of r*pe, physical and emotional abuse, murder, alcoholism, torture, gore

I sat with this book for far longer than I normally do before writing a review. My feelings around it were so complex that I almost didn’t want to give it a star rating because I think it’s important to break down the multiple factors that went into my experience with Xiran Jay Zhao’s debut novel Iron Widow. Conceptually, this book has absolutely everything I could ask for – a unique blend of historical and science-fiction, a badass heroine looking to smash the patriarchy, and much needed representation in YA fiction (a polyamorous relationship instead of the tired love triangle??? Sign me up!). Sadly, while there were some parts of this book that I did enjoy, the execution felt devastatingly lacking.

Let’s start with the good because I do want to give credit where credit is due. This book felt refreshingly unique and the premise is too tantalizing to ignore. Zhao clearly has an incredible imagination which becomes more apparent with their world-building and development throughout the novel. It is also very fast-paced – it only takes a few pages before readers are thrown into the action – and these action/fight scenes are some of the best in the book – making this a very quick read. Finally, there are critical themes that permeate throughout, and powerful ways in which they are explored. Zetian is the raging feminist we all want, and she is so much more compelling because of everything she has endured. From feeling discarded by her family due to her gender to being reliant on a cane due to the brutal practice of feet-binding, she packs so much power as a main character. The disability representation was one of my favorite parts of the book as it had the level of depth that I wish the rest of this novel achieved as well.

Alright, now time for some brutal honesty. The writing in this book is juvenile at best. It took me a while to identify what felt off and ultimately I think it was childish and trying too hard. Lines that were meant to be funny felt flat and cringe-worthy, descriptions were superficial, characters were hardly explored beyond their one or two key personality traits that then seemed to remain unchanged. If they did experience any growth, it was rapid and unexplored, which left me unattached and uncaring for the most part. Then we have the polyamorous trio – something I was so absurdly excited for but was left completely disappointed. There was absolutely no chemistry between any of them and we hardly saw any of the relationships develop in a convincing way. If anything, I felt most drawn to the MM relationship but since this book is written through Zetian’s POV, we get limited insight into their journey, and instead get hit in the face with a seemingly sudden attraction between the two. It all just felt very black and white in a book that begged for nuance. I’m so sad to be writing this because this was a book I really wanted to love.

I would still recommend this book because ultimately, my review is just my opinion, and Iron Widow still feels revolutionary in its genre. It’s worth a try. I will also be picking up the second book because the ending was pretty incredible and I think Zhao has a lot of room for improvement – this is their first novel and they clearly have good ideas, so I am hopeful for the sequel. Thank you so much to NetGalley, the publisher, and Zhao for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Iron Widow is out today!

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