Iron Widow — Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow — Xiran Jay Zhao

I went through Iron Widow in two days. I haven’t had that in a while. For me, I can pin it down to two things: (1) the plot, which was fuelled in no small part by the reader’s own outrage to keep reading on Zetian’s behalf lol, and (2) the way information is presented, which went fast enough to avoid info dumps but detailed enough to let my own imagination fill in the gaps.

First of all, the plot is not subtle. Even reading the blurb—essentially, Zetian volunteers to be a concubine-pilot to avenge her sister who was killed by an ace male pilot—does not leave readers guessing about what the underlying messages could be. The whole premise is based on Zetian in her relentless fight against a patriarchal system that has doomed her from birth. With that as a blurb, and the title “Iron Widow” in a book that is clearly influenced by at least elements of Chinese history, it is obvious the book will be quite heavy (and at times heavy-handed) on the messages it wants to get across.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of outrage towards the system. Zetian, our protagonist, has a lot of anger that feels familiar to me growing up, and it is almost cathartic reading about her letting it out. Did she do it perfectly all the time? No, and in some cases, it is unbelievable. But for me, who was also raised to keep my mouth shut when the men/elders/men elders were talking and to “accept traditions” of toxic behavior, simply because marriage, family, and keeping the peace, it was great seeing a character try.

It was fun seeing the MC yell at a lot of important people, but more importantly, I felt like I understood it in book-context, which makes her rage-moves later on… understandable? I did not like all of them. I did not agree with all of them. But if a character keeps getting betrayed over and over, it’s clear to me why she sees betrayal everywhere, even when it’s not there. If a character’s family breaks her feet to keep them bound and sees her nothing but a commodity, it’s clear why she’s becomes cold to their struggles. Would I do what she did, given the circumstances? I’d love to say no, but honestly, I can’t say for sure. This is definitely not a story about forgiveness, lol

The MC has a lot of other feelings that make me glad I’m not that age anymore. She does fall into the pattern of wanting to jump on every male character she meets, even the boys she hates. I’m not into that character dynamic, but hey, she’s a teenager who is allowed to look at boys for the first time, after a lifetime of foot-binding and being shamed for being a woman. So, yeah, that’s fine.

Even on a wider scale, going from living in a forgotten village to suddenly being the most powerful pilot in the nation, manning Transformers and being a super celebrity, yeah, she’s going to have a lot of thoughts and feelings that don’t make sense and clash with each other. That does not come across as an inconsistency to me, but a learning experience. For Zetian it certainly feels like a long learning experience, but she can’t do everything. Not even she has enough qi for that, lol

The only thing I could not get into was the love triangle. This could be a me thing, because I have never stumbled upon a love triangle I liked. Polyamorous relationships are refreshing, but it felt like Zetian and Yizhi were fine with it (basically alpha couple), and Zetian sort of seduced Shimin into it without really knowing how he felt. But fortunately, everyone was happy in the end, so my reservations were unfounded. I still don’t like love triangles, or most relationships really, in books.

All in all, I really enjoyed Iron Widow for the fire. It went by fast. It did feel a bit heavy-handed on the topics at times, but reading the blurb and complaining about how the book was “in-your-face” about them is like ordering a vegetarian dish and complaining it has vegetables, lol. For what I expected and what I wanted out of it, it definitely delivered.

Keywords to help you decide: single POV, strong female protagonist, influenced

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