Out for Revenge and Feelin' Fine: Review of Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow By Xiran Jay Zhao
Genre: YA Sci-Fi (with Mechs!)
Recommendation: Buy or Borrow (buy on Bookshop.org*)

If you’re on BookTok at all, Iron Widow has come across your page. The author is an internet celebrity in their own right and knows social media very well. I first became aware of Iron Widow after they created a throne out of the copies of the book and then sold the copy they sat on for charity. Likewise, I had rumblings about how the love triangle become a polyamorous triad instead. However, neither of those had been enough to sell me on reading it… until I learned that it was a mech story.

See, I love mechs. Mech stories focus on the vulnerability of the pilots in the context of war since it’s their machines that are taking the brunt of the hits. As a genre, mech stories also discuss war in a deeper, nuanced way that shows how the material conditions in place affect individual responses. Also, big robots are cool.

Iron Widow does have cool robots, but it also explicitly deals with the way that “wow, cool robot” is used to distract from the reality of war. It also doesn’t shy away from showing who actually bears the burden of war on a country and who is protected. The main character, Zetian, recognizes how promises of being a balanced match (a perfect pair between men and women pilots) are used to sell the role of concubine-pilot to women, despite the high death rate for women. This is done in a tense, fast-paced book that keeps the action moving. After all, giant robot fights don’t stop for interpilot drama - and there’s plenty since Zetian has made “fuck around and find out” into her personal brand.

Of course, the romance arc I mentioned earlier is one of the highlights. Personally, I found it to be a little rushed, but that is a common complaint I have about YA romance. My personal preference is for glacial slow burns… and that is a very particular preference. If you’re into vengeful women, men who are viewed as monsters but are really just softies, or rich boys with the best of intentions, you’re in luck!

Normally, I would say to borrow this book - it’s good, and it definitely has a place on your TBR. However, its popularity means that secondhand copies sell quickly and library hold lists are long. It also has an announced sequel in 2023, so owning a copy will be nice if you know you like doing rereads. This pushes it into a “buy” for me.

Pick it up if you like:

  • Mech stories that focus on war (especially if you enjoyed Neon Genesis Evangelion’s deconstruction of mecha anime)
  • You support women's rights... and women's wrongs
  • People getting vengeance on abusive members of the upper class
  • Protagonists that may be the villain someday
  • Polyamory instead of love triangles

Content Warnings:
Content Warning Policy

  • The book has content warnings on the first page that list “... scenes of violence and abuse, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture”.

Representation Notes:

  • Disabled main character
  • Polyamorous relationship arc with bisexual love interests
  • Setting that reinterprets Chinese history and literature
  • Chinese-Canadian nonbinary author

Not Sure? Try Some Other Reviews!

Next Week's Review: My most anticipated books for 2022!

*Transgenre Books is a Bookshop Affiliate, which is an online book marketplace that supports independent bookstores with profit sharing. If you make a purchase through a link to Bookshop.org, I earn approximately 10% in commission. Choosing to buy via my affiliate link helps keep this site free and running, but I also strongly support use of your local library and used bookstores.

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