Book Review

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow Book Review

Genre | YA Fantasy/Science Fiction
Page #s | 394
Publishing Date | September 2021

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.


Iron Widow is an absolute page-turner with a propulsive plot, a mysteriously unique and totally awesome setting, and an amazing series of “Oh, this old trope? NOPE!” twists. Zhao is a very talented writer who knows how to immediately grab readers’ attention. Although I felt the middle section veered a little too close to other stories (notably, The Hunger Games), Zhao then dismantles all the things that feel familiar with feminism and queerness while ratcheting up the plot and leaving us desperate for a sequel. Um, YES PLEASE.

The furious feminism that is embedded in every page is a breath of fresh air. No opportunity is missed to point out personal or systemic sexism. This is a story about a woman who sees how society has broken women in innumerable ways, through gender roles in marriage, through access to education, through foot bindings, through the propaganda told about what a woman is good for. Zetian is livid and determined to burn it all down, and she does not care a single bit if she looks like a villain for it. It. Is. AWESOME.

The worldbuilding is immediately believable while also being a huge mystery. From the prologue describing a mech battle (how is it the third paragraph and I’m just now mentioning mech battles – THERE ARE MECH BATTLES!) with tech handed down by the gods, I was fully immersed. Most importantly, I also fully bought in, because there is enough here that maps onto our everyday experience (i.e. the sexism!) that the world feels very grounded despite the regular alien invasions.

I don’t want to say too much about the storylines revolving around romances because some of the book’s best twists and turns are found here. I will just say that I loved that Zetian’s fierceness never dies just because she’s crushing on someone, and that I loved seeing two very different but equally healthy forms of masculinity portrayed. Beyond that…just read it for yourself!

As far as I can see, there is no firm release date for the sequel, but I am going to read it as soon as it’s released!

What Makes This Book Queer?

Xiran Jay Zhao is a queer person who uses they/them pronouns. Queerness is sprinkled through the first half of the book and then comes into the second half in a big way. But I don’t want to say more – discover the details for yourself!

Who Do I Recommend This Book To?

Give Iron Widow to your feminist friends that you want to expose to genre and/or to your genre friends that you want to expose to feminism!

Check out our Queer Lil Library for more book recommendations and reviews!

3 comments on “Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

  1. Pingback: Lauren (ReadingWithFeelings)’s Book Recommendations for RCR’s 2022 LGBTQ+ Summer Book Bingo – Roar Cat Reads

  2. Pingback: My 5-Star LGBTQ+ Books for Pride – Roar Cat Reads

  3. Pingback: Roar Cat Reads Book Suggestions for Our 2022 LGBTQ+ Summer Book Bingo – Roar Cat Reads

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