*I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*
In a world devastated by monsters, humanity must persist through the use of giant mecha machines. Male pilots are treated like heroes, and their female pilots must serve as their concubines and often die quicker from the mental strain. Eighteen-year-old Wu Zetian volunteers to become a concubine in hopes of her avenging her sister’s murder, and she gets her wish. She kills him through the psychic link that should’ve killed her and emerged the victor. As the military becomes unnerved by her abilities, she is immediately paired with Li Shimin, a convicted murderer and the most vital male pilot in Huaxia, whose female pilots never survive a battle. Zetian refuses to count her days and uses this new position to leverage her survival and figure out why the system fails the girls before it can take any more of them away.
Any book that is inspired by Pacific Rim will always immediately capture my attention. Throw in a sci-fi world inspired by Chinese history and a love triangle that ends in a satisfying polyamorous relationship? I wasn’t even halfway through the book when I decided that Iron Widow would be epic, and Zhao does not disappoint.
What I loved the most about Iron Widow was the immense amount of passion you could feel resonating off the page. It was so much fun reading about Zetian as she grows from being a village girl to one of the most influential people in Huaxia. Revenge plots are usually a hit or miss with me, but Zetian takes it out of the ballpark. She is fueled by revenge for her elder sister, who died at the hands of one of Huaxia’s best male pilots, but her anger doesn’t stop there. Once the pilot is dead, she turns her wrath to the military of Huaxia, the ones who declared that girls were weaker than boys, their energy simply not strong enough to survive when in battle. It’s bullshit, and Zetian knows it; she’s been through too much to be told she is worth nothing and risks everything to prove she is everything.
The mechanism behind the mecha machines can be a little confusing, but Zhao’s writing is straight to the point. No messing about, and their writing abilities just illuminate the world. Personally, I would’ve loved more world-building detail but what we have is impressive and, simply put, a lot of great fun!
The characters are where Zhao and their writing really shines for me. Zetian is one big ball of anger, and justifiably so. Her anger might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I lived for it. She is unwavering in her stance, refuses to take no and the status quo as the answer to everything. From her family to the higher-up of Huaxia, she will prove to them all that their misogyny will be their downfall while she plans to re-write history for everyone the world has abandoned. Shimin was a character who grew on me. The best character comparison I could give is Altan from The Poppy War. A boy raised to be a weapon and so entirely misunderstood by everyone around him. Yizhi seems like the typical first love interest, the one who knew the protagonist first, but he’s brilliant. He uses his wealth and influence to help Zetian and Shimin navigate the upper-class societies who lean onto the pilots are a source of entertainment while they risk their lives. Polyamorous relationships are not common in Young Adult, and Zhao did a great job with their relationship. The story is very heavily invested in its remarkable fight scenes, but I would’ve loved to have seen the trio interact a lot more on the page. Knowing that the first draft of this was more Adult orientated, I can’t help but feel it’s also the one who got away. Zhao teased some pages on Twitter, and I’ve never been so jealous of anyone who got to read that early version. 😂
Nonetheless, Iron Widow was action-packed and tremendous to read. The epilogue teases an even more dangerous journey as Zetian discovers the danger isn’t just the people at the top. Pitched as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Zetain’s story is about a girl who is driven by revenge and her journey to offset her patriarchal society leads to an even more significant threat that pushes her to the limit.