Robyn Reviews: Iron Widow

‘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

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Robyn Reviews: The Ones We’re Meant to Find

‘The Ones We’re Meant to Find’ is an exceptionally clever science fiction dystopia. The first half is shrouded in mystery, many elements strange and confusing, but the payoff is spectacular.

Cee has been trapped on an island for three years, with no knowledge of how she arrived or concrete detail of her previous life. All she knows is she has a sister, Kay. Determined to find her, Cee spends her days scavenging parts, trying to build a boat to take her away from the island. Meanwhile, 16-year-old science prodigy Kasey is grappling with the sudden disappearance of her sister Celia. Kasey lives a life of isolation, preferring logic to people. Her eco-city’s lifestyle – spending as much time as possible indoors, socialising using holos and regularly using stasis pods – suits her in a way it never suited Celia. However, the more she thinks about Celia’s disappearance, the less sits right with her – and she decides to retrace her sister’s last steps, solving the mystery once and for all.

Of the two protagonists, Kasey is the more initially interesting, although Cee does her best to equal her at the end. Intensely logical, Kasey doesn’t understand people. She looks at life through a lens of science and numbers, analysing situations to determine the most sensible course of action – and not understanding why everyone else doesn’t do the same. Kasey cares deeply about her sister – they’re extremely different, but Celia is important in a way that defies Kasey’s otherwise logical life. Practical but un-streetwise, Kasey can concoct a solution to any problem – but possibly not a solution that anyone else would accept.

Cee is also practical, but her emotions are bright and all-encompassing where Kasey’s are a mere inconvenience. Alone on an island – apart from her robot companion, U-Me – Cee’s only concern is to get to her sister. She’s smart and practical, but throws caution to the wind in her desperation to find Kay. Cee is easy to empathise with, and her desperation is striking. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear there’s far more to her than initially meets the eye – and it’s this complexity that really makes her character compelling.

Joan He’s worldbuilding is intricately detailed. Earth is facing ecological disaster, with pollution and climate change threatening humanity with extinction. The privileged have fled to eight eco-cities – floating cities where people live in the smallest possible amount of space, minimising their carbon footprint by leading predominantly virtual lives. Science has advanced to almost eradicate disease, and each citizen is fitted with an implant that functions as both a health monitor and a miniature computer. He makes all the advances seem believable, and whilst the complexity of the setting takes some time to fully understand, the way the reader is left to figure everything out for themselves fits in what is a generally tricky and mysterious novel.

While this is definitely a science fiction novel, its also a story about moral ambiguity and what it means to be human. Joan He is constantly exploring humans and their differences. Kasey, as a prodigy, is working towards saving humanity, despite not fully understanding humanity herself. Cee, alone on an island, is trying desperately to remember and figure out who she is. The juxtaposition between Kasey’s life in an eco-city and Cee’s on an abandoned island highlights the differences between Kasey and Cee themselves. The struggles with identity and humanity are beautifully written, making the denouement even more powerful.

Overall, ‘The Ones We’re Meant to Find’ is a novel worth persevering with. The start can seem slow and confusing, but by the end the depth and cleverness is staggering. Recommended for all fans of dystopia, ethics, and complex science fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing an eARC – this does not affect the content of this review

Published by Text Publishing
Paperback: 24th June 2021 / eBook: 4th May 2021