Book Review : The Iron Widow

This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Book Review : The Iron WidowIron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Published by Penguin on September 21st 2021
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction, General, Diversity & Multicultural, Girls & Women
Pages: 400
Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Bookshop.org
Find on Goodreads
half-star

An instant #1 New York Times bestseller!
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.

Hearing the hype about Iron Widow, and loving the idea of the story, which marketing boldly proclaimed is Pacific Rim meets A Handmaid’s Tale, I picked up this young adult novel. To put it bluntly, Iron Widow, and books like it, are the very reason I have mostly stopped reading young adult novels. In a nutshell, Iron Widow reads worse than some Wattpad stories, and despite having a good core idea has horrendously poor execution and lacks subtlety, decent character development, and world-building. To make matters worse, Iron Widow features a main female protagonist who is supposed to be a feminist, but seems to hate women and being a woman more than most men, and is ultimately more murderous villain than actual heroine.

 

Zentian, the eponymous Iron Widow, grows up in the frontier to a poor family. Somehow, Zentian manages to become an extremely aggressive feminist. Sadly, Iron Widow is written in first person, and readers are constantly subject to her very long and angry diatribes about how much men and society suck. Where she learns to hate the society that has bound her feet and left her handicapped is never explained to readers. This is a pretty glaring problem, for how would she have first learned to recognize that what is ubiquitously socially acceptable is toxic and wrong? Regardless of how she forms her new ideals, when Zentian learns that her sister has been killed by her co-pilot in the war against an alien species, Zentian vows revenge and signs up to join the war effort—something that equals being sold to the army as a concubine. Luckily for her, she is conveniently and immediately chosen as the co-pilot of the very man who murdered her sister. She quickly gets her revenge. 

 

But not before Zentian considers sleeping with the murderer of her sister right off the bat, because he’s attractive, not that mean, and it’s expected of her as a concubine. First of all, how does one conveniently forget this is the man who murdered her sister? Second of all, how is it feminist to give up one’s ideals the very first time its more attractive and convenient to stick to what society wants. Regardless, after this unexpected loss of zeal, Zentian then turns around later and murders this same pilot after all.  Zentian’s confusing behavior is enough to give me whiplash because it doesn’t make any sense even when reading from her perspective and being privy to her thoughts.

 

But what truly puzzled me regards the conflicting narrative surrounding the death of Zentian’s sister’s. At the beginning of the novel, Zentian proclaims that her sister was not actually even killed in a mecha, but murdered by the bare hands of the pilot, but later on she completely changes her tune. When Zentian actually enlists and meets the pilot who killed her sister, we learn that the woman being drained dry and killed by him in the prologue, was in fact, apparently Zentian’s sister. This is in direct opposition to what we read earlier, which said Zentian’s sister didn’t make it into the mecha and that her parents didn’t even receive the traditional compensation that they were owed for her sister’s death due to the circumstances of it. 

 

Take a look at these totally conflicting excerpts: 

 

“That’s the way I feared Big Sister would die when our family forced her to enlist under a Prince-class pilot, the second most powerful rank. But she never made it to the battlefield. The pilot killed her the traditional, physical way. For what, I don’t know. Our family only got her ashes back. They’ve been devastated for eighty-one days now…because they didn’t get the big war death compensation they were banking on.”

 

Versus:

 

“’Don’t pretend like any of you saw me as anything but a tool!’ I go on. ‘You were all fine with selling me as a concubine to Yang Guang, who really did murder Big Sister, by the way. I shared a mental link with him—I confirmed it! None of this would’ve happened if you had just cherished us, so the consequences are yours to deal with!'”

 

This is a huge inconsistency and I honestly don’t understand how the editor missed this massive contradictory claim over the entire catalyst for Zentian’s revenge. It just goes to show how unimportant every other character besides Zentian is, even her elder sister whose death inspired her to take action. Clothes are given more description and traits than the side characters. I think we hear her Big Sister’s name literally once, and we definitely don’t learn anything else about her throughout the course of the novel. It would’ve made sense if Zentian’s older sister was the one who was a feminist and taught Zentian all of her ideals or at least if she was an important figure in her younger sister’s life, but the novel just couldn’t be bothered to develop anyone but Zentian.

 

Anyways, the army is horrified by Zentian’s murder of one of their top pilots, who was absolutely key to the war effort, so they deal with her by pairing her with the absolute best pilot, Shimin. Shimin happens to have murdered his whole family, and is known for killing every female co-pilot assigned to him due to his insanely high spirit pressure. Does Zentian recognize that she is now also a murderer and think perhaps maybe Shimin had reasons for killing his family? No, she’s extremely judgmental of him, loathes him, and doesn’t see even a sliver of her own hypocrisy. 

 

“A funeral?” I say with mock casualness. “Did the attendees know he died like a girl?”

 

As the two learn to work together, which somehow entails figure skating (even though Zentian can’t even walk due to her bound feet), and putting on sexy outfits for the cameras broadcasting to common people who worship the pilots as celebrities, she learns that there’s more to Shimin than meets the eye. Sadly, Zentian is absolutely incapable of learning this of other women. Quite literally all of the other women she encounters are basic and awful, and she constantly remarks about how stupid she is for possibly thinking women could be better than men. The first other concubine candidates she meets fight with her over a hairpin, the other famous co-pilot she meets calls her a bitch and tells her to get out of her pilot’s thoughts in a jealous rage, and the other tries to save her children by destroying Zentian and Shimin, something Zentian has absolutely no sympathy for whatsoever (even though family is the whole reason she joined the army in the first place). Later on, Zentian also has zero qualms about killing her own family, something she spends approximately 75% of the novel looking down on Shimin for. This character has no compassion or empathy for anyone, let alone fellow women trying to save their families or to operate within the societal norms.

 

But what really drives me up the wall more than Zentian’s hatred of women and her own raging hypocrisy, which quite honestly reads more like a villain origin story than that of an empowered woman becoming empress, is how the characters in Iron Widow speak. It’s quite obvious that the author has spent a lot of time on Tumblr (something I have since confirmed), because the characters speak like stans summarizing and raving about their favorite young adult book and characters. I physically cringed when Zentian referred to her two love interests completely unironically and seriously as, My killer boy, my sweet boy.” The novel tries to subvert the love triangle trope by having the three main characters enter into a polyamorous relationship, but it fails to realize how unbelievable it is that even one person on this planet could fall in love with someone as truly awful Zentian.

 

It’s also painful how badly Iron Widow wants to be “woke” by offering this forced throuple relationship. Zentian randomly tells us something along the lines of, “oh yeah, Yishi always expressed attraction to men way back when we first met” at one point, as if that makes up for the novel never actually showing us this attraction ever actually happened. It’s only told to us when it’s suddenly convenient as a plot device to show how feminist and progressive Zentian is for not limiting herself to one sexual partner. Plus, Shimin, doesn’t even get as much explanation, he just suddenly likes Yishi, even though he used to be hopelessly in love with his last co-pilot, and tried to drink himself to death after she died. Other characters also point out how gentle and soft Shimin is towards women, and he encourages Zentian to be with Yishi time and time again, but suddenly, like the flip of a light switch, Shimin likes both of them. Again, it’s obvious that this relationship is to push the narrative of how progressive Zentian is, even though she has to get the idea for this throuple relationship from a man, Yishi, in the first place.

 

“’Cheating is deception. He and I have talked about this. He’s secure enough to know it’s not a competition. That any feelings I have for you don’t cancel out the ones I have for him. He’s okay with however close you and I get.’

‘He’s just saying that.’

‘No. There’s something he told me: love can be infinite, as much as your heart can open. And my heart is open to you, Shimin.’

His face goes blank. He just stares at me.”

 

Quite honestly, I was unable to form a connection with any of the characters and I could care less what happened to any of them because they were more tropes than actual fleshed out characters. Any tragedy that happened in Iron Widow was met with my indifference and further desperation to get to the end of the novel and put it behind me. And then to make matters worse, Iron Widow abruptly ends with a huge twist that is so obviously trying to be edgy and shocking that it fell almost comically flat. I honestly feel I should be given a refund for reading this debut book, which should probably be on the internet for free somewhere, and certainly not lauded as a revolutionary and impactful YA novel on the shelves of book stores. 

 

More than anything, Iron Widow displays that just because it is 2022 and we are all desperate for some much-needed diversity in our media, we should not mistake what little scraps of diversity we are given as automatically rendering the media we consume as “good” or in Iron Widow’s case, “well-written.” Diversity should simply not excuse poor writing. I’m honestly bewildered that a novel with such poor world-building (where do these aliens come from? Who made the first mecha to combat them? How was it discovered that they needed a male and female pilot to balance qi? How does the entire elemental qi system work and where does it come from? Is the entire planet made up of Chinese culture?), abysmal character development (characters can easily be summarized by killer boy and sweet boy or the nice female co-pilot and the bitchy one), and rampant telling versus showing, not only received such rave reviews, but also was even published in the first place. 

 

And quite frankly, I’m concerned at this portrayal of feminism that is being praised so resoundingly to the masses, especially to the youths. Zentian is a murderer with zero redeeming qualities. The only people she is even remotely kind to are her two love interests, Yishi and Shimin, who only get dragged down by their contact with her. With her influence, Shimin engages in torture with her, View Spoiler »showing once and for all that the queer love story was a simple plot device to easily be discardedand Yishi kills his dad with her approval. Isn’t love supposed to bring out the best in you? Their downward trajectory of their lives by their connection with Zentian speaks volumes about her character alone, her lack of compassion and consideration for anyone but herself says the rest.

 

Yet despite all of her countless flaws, Zentian is heralded as the only possible savior for women in her society. Yes, she wants to overhaul the entire pilot and concubine system, but she is willing to destroy anything and everyone to do it—including the other women she supposedly wants to save. Zentian’s not a feminist and she’s using the movement as a scapegoat for her villainous actions.  She doesn’t empower anyone but herself. How is this any better than the system she wants to overhaul? It’s not.

 

“Annihilate every center of power, so everything will collapse into chaos and people will have no choice but to obey the new most powerful thing—me.”

 

The novel ends with her naming herself as Empress (apparently based on a real-life historical figure who is probably rolling over in her grave at present), to some random Emperor she cures from some arbitrary disease that has only ever been mentioned in passing. I did not feel the triumph I should when a protagonist is about to implement widespread change and to accomplish her goals after overcoming obstacles, but I sure felt plenty of dread. It’s obvious that Zentian will be a harsh and unsympathetic dictator. She was already capable of so much destruction and damage to those close to her, what will she do to those who matter nothing? Someone who has no concern for her fellow woman is not a feminist, someone who murders her family is not a good daughter or sister, someone who drags her lovers down with her is not a good girlfriend, and a person who destroys everything that gets in their way is not a hero, but a villain.

 

Iron Widow completely misses the mark on everything it sets out to accomplish: feminism, a heroic rags-to-riches origin story, a revenge story, and a queer love-story. The novel is an example of a great idea with extremely poor execution, even worse character development, and practically non-existent world-building. Though it’s refreshing to see authors pushing diversity in their works, it’s concerning when these subject matters are not only written about with reckless abandon, but are grossly misrepresented, especially when marketed towards the young and impressionable.

 

half-star
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Book Review : Iron Widow - Blogging with Dragons

Posted January 17, 2022 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Tags: ,

13 responses to “Book Review : The Iron Widow

    • honestly confused how you got some of these ice cold takes

      Did we…read the same book?

      I was in the process of writing out a long detailed reply with quotes pulled out of the book (actually in context! What a concept) but I figured that you wouldn’t read that either.

      • Hi. Glad you enjoyed the book, I’m aware many people did, but it didn’t work for me. I know that there are countless glowing reviews of it on the internet for you to read, if you’re looking for like-minded invidiuals.

        If by some chance, this was your attempt at changing my opinion on the book, I recommend actually giving your own opinion and sharing what worked for you in your reading of the novel, so that a discussion can be had!

        Color me confused on how any quote from the actual book in question being reviewed could be “out of context,” as you say, but I would certainly be interested in reading the ones you view as “in context.”

        Happy holidays.

    • Dal

      Piggy backing off another commenter.. I don’t think you read the book, more like skimmed it. “Reads worse than Wattpad”, seeing as I was there circa 2012 and actively writing for Wattpad at the same time, I can stomach Iron Widow. I can’t almost anything else at this point.

      “She tears down other women”. She doesn’t. Zetian cries out against the placement women are put forcibly, and consistently tries to put concubines in battle in situations to live. The only time we see her have any kind of shade towards another woman is Dugu, and that’s because her partner has been lusting.

      To reiterate, what did you read, cause uh, I don’t think it was a real version of the book, or you’re buried in Tumblr and anything that isn’t fanfic isn’t stomachable to you.

      • Hi.

        So let me get this straight, you’re saying you can stomach Iron Widow because you’ve spent a lot of time on Wattpad, which implies the novel, does in fact, read like a Wattpad fic and that you agree with me.

        Second, as I put in my review, she uses the phrase “like a girl,” as a derogatory remark, which is nothing if not tearing down all women. I don’t even have to address how Zentain sizes up and judges every woman she encounters. Maybe you skimmed those parts.

        Third, you both say I read only fanfic and also that I can’t stomach fanfic. Which is it?

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  1. Adrian

    I feel like 90% of what happened in this book just… went over your head. Did you actually read it, or did you just gloss over pages and read some spark notes?

    Like there’s not liking a book. And then there’s just creating a false narrative about something you didn’t really read.

  2. Love all these comments that suggest you haven’t read the book when you quote specific passages to make your points… which I notice that no one who disagrees with your review has done. If your review/opinion is so awful, I’d love to hear why they think so.

    Personally, I agree with your sentiments – I was also horrifically disappointed in this novel. I’m open to other expressions of feminism, but I fail to see how a) having zero other positively portrayed female characters, b) zero positive interactions between Zetian and any other female characters, and c) zero other feminist ideals represented by any other women in the entire novel makes it a pro-feminist narrative in any way. Like, imagine if Zetian’s sister had taught her about ~feminism~ It would make a lot more sense as to why she missed her sister so much, and why she felt the way she did about her patriarchal world. Or if her mother quietly supported her. But no, all the women are awful instead. The love story is barely developed, and is shallow as all hell. The world building and backstory/history is also given the bare minimum attention. Dialogue throughout is just yikes. The book doesn’t do anything particularly well, and the points that it tries to make are so horrendously skewed. I kind of want to read the sequel to see where this circus goes, but I barely got through this one, it was such a slog. Great review 🙂

    • Thanks for taking the time to write such a courteous and involved comment, Meghan!

      I am also genuinely interested to hear the reasons why this novel and its portrayal of feminism (which I found to be lacking), worked for fans of the book, but it doesn’t seem that any of them (or at least the ones I’ve had the distinct pleasure of encountering), are interested in having a polite or constructive discussion, or at least one that doesn’t devolve into insults. Unfortunately, if their goal in making these kinds of comments was to make me like the book more, they’ve sorely failed. And if they’re female commenters, they certainly are not displaying the type of feminism I believe in, which is supporting other women.

      I am glad to hear that I was not the only person who wanted to like this book, but found that she was regrettably unable to do so. I had a lot of the same issues with the novel as you. I especially wish, like you, that there were other developed female characters in the novel (even better if they had some sort of an actual positive relationship with Zentian), and Zetian’s sister had taught her about feminism. It would have made the death of the sister hit harder and given Zentian’s beliefs and actions a much deeper meaning.

      If you do end up reading the next book in the series, please let me know what you think!

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