Pacific Rim meets The Hamfisted Handmaid’s Tale: Xiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow

I fully expected to adore this book. I mean Pacific Rim, as silly as the premise may be, is just pure fun. Mixing that with feminist themes, a protagonist who dismantles the patriarchy, and has a poly romance as well – it almost sounded too good to be true. And it turns out, it was. There were aspects of this book I enjoyed, but others (important ones!) were terribly flawed or underdeveloped. Which leads me to one of those unpopular opinion ratings. I feel like I’m not allowed to have disliked this book because the internet seems to love it on principle, but I want to be honest here and it just didn’t deliver what it promised.

IRON WIDOW
by Xiran Jay Zhao

Published: Rock the Boat, 2021
Hardcover: 394 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 14 minutes
Series: Iron Widow #1
My rating: 4/10

Opening line: The Hunduns were coming. A whole herd of them, rumbling across the wilds, stirring up a dark storm of dust through the night.

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.

A story such as this, which is meant to show a strong girl protagonist smashing the patriarchy and disrupting existing power structures, needs a solid basis. We need to know how this world works first, in order for us to watch Zetian take it apart in a satisfying manner. That is unfortunately the first problem this book has, although it tries to distract us from this fact with lots of shiny things that grab our attention briefly. What little we know about the world and the ongoing war is this:
Humans are battling the alien mecha Hunduns using Chrysalises (Pacific Rim robots) that are steered by a man/woman team, whereas the man is usually in controll and the woman frequently dies because the mental connection between them is too much to bear. They use qi powers, although I still don’t understand how or what the different sub-types of qi really mean, even after finishing this book. It felt like a Pokémon style addition but without making much sense. There’s wood qi and water qi and one is good against fire and one against air and so on, but I couldn’t really explain it to you if I tried.
The fact that women pilots are used mostly as cannon fodder is accepted by the entire society because family get some money for sending their daughters to become pilots and male pilots need the women’s qi power in order to complement their own – much stronger – powers when driving the Chrysalises. Nobody except for our tenacious heroine (who has grown up in exactly the same society as everyone else in this book) questions this or finds anything with the tradition of sending your daughters and sisters to their sudden death.

But the very fact that Zetian is not like other girls (oh please, I thought we were past that!) kicks off the plot. She is fine with going to her own certain death, as long as she can avenge her sister who was killed by one of the most famous pilots in the land. Her plan is to become his female pilot, kill him and then die in the process or get executed afterward. Of course it then turns out she is MOAR POWERFUL THAN ANYONE because although she does succeed in killing the guy, she herself survives and becomes a Chrysalis pilot herself, an Iron Widow.
She is then paired with the single most powerful pilot currently living, Li Shimin. They measure this stuff in qi points or something – but this guy also happens to be forced to wear a muzzle and have a serious drinking problem. But right from the start you can tell that he is just a tortured superhero who is wrongfully seen as dangerous. I don’t have a problem with this trope, in fact I enjoyed this part of the book, but let’s just say it wasn’t exactly subtle or surprising. And it’s a little cheap that it turns out everything bad about this characters (or indeed, our protagonist) is totally not their fault. They’re perfect really. Any perceived flaws are soneone else’s fault…

Zetian also still has her old love interest Yizhi who follows her into the pilots’ program and sort of helps from the sidelines while swooning over her. One major marketing aspect of this book is the polyamory relationship but, honestly, I didn’t buy it. There wasn’t really anything there. Zetian kisses one guy, then the other, then they talk about it openly – which, granted, is very nice and mature and happens way too rarely in books or on TV – and everyone’s like “guess I’m okay with it then”. But plot convenience takes over immediately because this threeway relationship is never actually tested and can’t be appreciated at all. There are no actual romantic scenes with all three of them, there’s no chance for any of them to even get jealous, there’s simply romantic scenes with Zetian and Yizhi, and there’s romantic scenes with Zetian and Shimin. I’m not the expert on poly relationships, but this depiction felt disingenuous, like the author just didn’t want a love triangel (given how many other tired tropes they used) and so decided to just roll with both M/F relationships and have the guys sort of agree to this arrangement. I don’t want to spoil things but the ending makes it feel even cheaper.

Another thing that made me sad was how this supposedly feminist book handles its female characters. And I don’t mean the obviously terrible sacrifice of young girls that nobody seems to object to. I mean how Zetian thinks and talks about other girls, how they are shown – as conniving, idiotic bitches, as girls too stupid to understand anything, or too blinded and too conformist to use their brain. Only Zetian is smart, only she sees through the VERY OBVIOUS rigging of the entire system. I’m all for romance in my SFF, but I’ll take a good female friendship or at the very least some good female characters over a shallow poly relationships any day. I found this actually the most devestating thing in a book that is sold as “feminist”.
Zetian could have been such a great character. I mean, she’s pretty ruthless, she needs a cane and later a wheelchair because her family broke and bound her feet (beauty standards and all that) and she isn’t swayed easily by nice words. In short: She is damn interesting! I may not have wanted to be her friend, but I appreciated her strong will and her determination. Except she frequently turns on her fellow women – the ones she is supposedly trying to save – thinking of them as sluts or morons. And then toward the end of the book, she does several 180-turns in a row, one to do with her family, one to do with her general view of the world and whether she cares about what others think about her. It felt like a betrayal. By that point, I was already annoyed at the way she is depicted as oh so special and the only girl worth anything in this world, but that was just inconsistent and unnecessary.

So what did I like then, you might ask yourself? Well, as with most stories about gigantic magical mecha monsters fighting mecha aliens, this one had pretty cool battle scenes. It does rely heavily on Pacific Rim, even with the “drift compatibility” being represented as the mind connection between pilots and a sort of balance of Yin and Yang, but that doesn’t make the idea and the battles any less cool.
The writing was compelling, things happen quickly, and the author creates a sense of urgency in any given scene that makes it hard to put the book down. It may turn out the scene you just read is pretty meaningless overall, but books are allowed to be just fun. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
I also really enjoyed how the romantic scenes were written. I can get annoyed pretty quickly when characters throw cheesy lines at each other with no basis, just to sound dramatic and meaningful. So it was refreshing to have such no-nonsense people (although the boys are very one-dimensional) simply go for it without any fuss. And I liked the kissing. 🙂

As for the plot… it’s a bit of a mess. First of all, the big twist from the epilogue can be guessed way ahead of time and isn’t exactly an original or fresh idea. But that isn’t even all that important for this volume, it’s only set up for the second book. This book deals with Zetian discovering some similarly obvious things that are not only hard to believe but also shouldn’t have to be uncovered by an 18-year-old girl. Well, if everyone else is utterly stupid, then that makes sense, I suppose. You see, the battles and the dialogues between characters don’t really advance anything. They are fun to read, as I said above, but ultimately meaningless for the plot. When Zetian does find out some devastating truth, it’s simply presented or rather dumped on the reader. As all of these revelations can be guessed beforehand, this didn’t bother me that much. After all, I was just getting confirmation for what I had suspected all along. And I’m not trying to make myself sound clever here, it really is that on the nose!
But as the world building doesn’t really advance and we don’t learn new things about the Hunduns, qi magic, or how the Chrysalises came to be, that’s all the plot there is.

Sooooo, I read this for a readathon prompt that asks you to read a “five star prediction” and I think I don’t have to say more about that. I doubt I will read the sequel to this, even if the cover is pretty and reviews throw around buzz words. As I’ve learned yet again, just because a book wants to be something (feminist, original, featuring a poly relationship) doesn’t mean it actually succeeds. I didn’t hate reading this. It was quite a bit of light fun that smashes you across the head with ostentatiously feminist messages every other chapter, but as for rating it, especially as a Lodestar Award finalist, this sits firmly at the bottom of my ballot for now.

Because I want to end this review on a more positive note: For a good poly romance and female characters who don’t tear each other down in the name of “raising each other up”, check out the underknown but totally worthwile sci-fi novel Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi! Or, in fact, that one part of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season that I can’t explain in more detail for fear of spoilers. But reading that book is a good idea anyway, for whatever reason you choose. 🙂

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

3 thoughts on “Pacific Rim meets The Hamfisted Handmaid’s Tale: Xiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow

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