Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao #bookreview #YA #fantasy #scifi

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.

When I saw Pacific Rim mentioned as a comp title for this novel, I jumped on requesting this from NetGalley. The main character sounded like she was ready to stir up some trouble, and I wanted to be around to see what would happen.

I can’t skip commenting on this beautiful cover. Besides being so striking, it does an admirable job of portraying Zetian’s strength and determination. I may be understating it when I say the girl is a force of nature and has maniacal tendencies.

Zetian has been raised her whole life to believe she’s basically a second class citizen and must make sacrifices for men. Although very few survive, she and her older sister volunteer as concubine-pilots so her family can use the death compensation to find Zetian’s brother a suitable wife. A loving family is as far from an apt description as you could get for these people. Zetian rejects these beliefs and has plans of her own to assassinate the pilot responsible for her sister’s death.

When Zetian survives the psychic link with one of the best pilots (after assassinating him), she’s soon paired with Li-Shimin, a death row inmate plucked out of incarceration and forced to be a pilot. He’s a talented pilot, but is feared by the others – the guy doesn’t exactly possess a welcoming personality – but Zetian learns he has many layers to be discovered. After Gao Yizhi, the boy who loves her, comes into the picture again I was sure a dreaded love triangle loomed on the horizon. I was wrong – it’s a polyamorous relationship. It’s the first time I’ve encountered this in a YA book, but it seems a natural development for these three characters and isn’t the primary focus of the story. As partnered pilots, Zetian and Li-Shimin battle the mecha aliens but soon learn they have enemies in their own camp. The cliffhanger at the end was a doozy!

With huge piloted robots that can transform into mythical creatues (seriously, how cool is that?), mind-blowing action scenes, and immersive world-building, I was glued to the pages. The novel also deals with themes of oppression and feminism and gets very dark and brutal at times, but it’s one I highly recommend. This may be one of my favorite reads of the year, and I’ll be at the front of the line waiting impatiently when the sequel releases.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

23 thoughts on “Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao #bookreview #YA #fantasy #scifi

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