‘Iron Widow’ is an ambitious, Chinese history inspired, YA fantasy with elements of sci-fi, romance, and social commentary. It packs a lot into its 400-odd pages, and while it tells an entertaining and fast-paced story, it does at times struggle with trying to do too much.
Huaxia has been at war with the mecha-aliens beyond the Great Wall for generations, with their best means of attack the giant Chrysalises – giant transforming robots powered by a powerful male pilot and a female concubine. The fact that the female often dies is a necessary sacrifice. Zetian, however, will never forgive Huaxia for her sister’s death – and when she enlists as a concubine-pilot, it’s purely to assassinate the male pilot responsible. When she achieves the impossible – overpowering the psychic link between them and ensuring he is the one who dies instead – it rattles Huaxia to the core. In revenge, they pair her with the most controversial of their pilots – Li Shimin, powerful and renowned for murdering his entire family. However, Zetian is not giving up her new power so easily – and by leveraging their combined infamy, she’s determined to bring the entire misogynistic system to its knees.
Zetian is fierce, determined, and full of anger and vengeance. She’ll stop at nothing to bring down her sister’s killer – and once she’s done that, to turn the entire system on its head. Her motives are admirable – she clearly loves her sister, and hates that most women simply accept being mere vessels or batteries for male power – but gradually, as her influence grows, she also starts to crave power for power’s sake. It’s subtly and cleverly done, and even when Zetian doesn’t seem to be doing the right thing its difficult to stop rooting for her after growing so attached.
Li Shimin is a more nuanced character, kept a mystery for a large amount of the book. There are horrors in his past, and its difficult to know whether to pity or revile him. However, as more is revealed, it’s clear his story is a more complex one than first meets the eye. He provides a good counterpoint to Zetian.
The other major character is Gao Yizhi – Zetian’s only friend from her original village and the son of one of the richest and most influential people in Huaxia. Unlike Zetian and Shimin, Yizhi always comes across as a genuinely nice and supportive person – not perfect, but a breath of fresh air amongst the darkness. Yizhi clearly adores Zetian, and their dynamic is always excellent.
‘Iron Widow’ is one of the only mainstream YA books featuring a polyamorous relationship, and this is exceptionally well handled. The chemistry is authentically written and the characters have some wonderful open discussions about polyamory.
The worldbuilding is solid, although clearly not the novel’s main focus – this is a plot and theme driven novel rather than anything else. The system behind the Chrysalises and the origins of the aliens is one of the most intriguing parts, and from the ending its apparent this will be delved into much more in the sequel. The ending, again, is strong, satisfying but leaving plenty open for the next chapter.
The main issue is that so much is explored that none of it can be explored to its full depths. Feminism is a key theme, but there’s minimal delving into the origins of the current patriarchal system. Power is another – but again, while this is explored, it doesn’t feel entirely satisfying. Admittedly, this is the first book in a series, so it has to leave itself revelations for the sequels – but after reading, little of the book lingers, which is a sign it didn’t quite have its intended impact.
Overall, ‘Iron Widow’ is a fun, fast-paced read, audacious in scope and solid in execution. It might have benefitted from an extra hundred pages to help it go slightly deeper into its subject matter, but if you’re looking for an action-packed YA fantasy this should fit the bill.
Thanks to NetGalley and Rock the Boat for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Rock the Boat
Hardback: 7th October 2021