#REVIEW: Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

Typically when I do a book review I will lead with the cover for the book. In this case, the full wraparound is gorgeous enough that I decided to go with that instead. It’s currently my desktop background. I love it that much.

The short version: this book is fucking amazing and you should go buy it right now. Just stop reading and go to Amazon– here, I made it easy for you– or hop in your car and go to your nearest independent bookstore and buy it and get them to order a few more.

The high-concept, “this meets this” elevator pitch for this book is “Pacific Rim meets Handmaid’s Tale,” and for my money that is a tremendously interesting comparison, because I hated Pacific Rim and the absolute last word I would use to describe The Handmaid’s Tale is “awesome,” but it’s still a pretty accurate description. It’s also a very very very loose retelling of the story of the Chinese empress Wu Zetian, only set on an alien planet in a far-flung future and involving giant mechs and a similar sort of mind-meld twin piloting scheme that you saw in Pacific Rim, only it’s necessary that one man and one woman be there to pilot the ship and I really don’t want to spoil a lot on this one because there is a ton of shit in this book that you’re not going to see coming.

I mean, YA is kinda tropey, right? And this starts off feeling a lot like a Chinese-influenced Hunger Games, with our main character being plucked out of poverty and obscurity because of certain Abilities that she happens to have (a thing called “spirit pressure” that may as well be a high midichlorian level, roll with it) and she is sent to pilot a mech with the latest major hotshot.

Oh, I forgot to mention something: piloting mechs frequently leads to the death of the female pilot in the equation, and Zetian’s older sister was previously chosen the same way, and she died while piloting a mech with the same pilot that Zetian schemes to be paired with. So she can kill his ass.

Wu Zetian hates men, guys. She hates men so fucking much. She makes Arya Stark’s obsession with revenge look like a passing fancy. And on top of hating men an awful lot–which, to be clear, is entirely understandable in this world; I haven’t mentioned her bound and shattered feet yet, have I?– she is also kind of an asshole. I have never encountered a character like her in a book before and she is an amazing breath of fresh air even if I think one of the book’s few weaknesses is that she’s kind of inconsistent from time to time about what she wants.

(She’s also, like, seventeen or eighteen, maybe? And a certain inconstancy is not exactly atypical of people that age, so this is a forgivable sin and perhaps simply a reflection of the character’s youth and not a flaw in how she’s written. But I noticed it, so I’m mentioning it.)

Anyway. She’s paired up with this dude who murdered her sister and who she hates, and if you’ve read YA before, you might think this is going to go a certain way, and then it doesn’t, and then something else happens and you think “oh, this is going to be like this,” and then it’s not, and then there’s a love triangle and then you’re absolutely sure it’s going to go like this and it absolutely goddamn does not, and that thought you had earlier where you thought it would be super cool if this happened but no way that will ever happen and then it does.

Okay, that’s kind of obscure. But know this: the worldbuilding is interesting, the characters are awesome, the enemies are evil and personal, the action scenes are great, and the book is entirely fucking unpredictable, and all that adds up to, amazingly, probably not the first book of the year that I think is gonna end up on my top 10 at the end of the year, but certainly the strongest candidate in a while.

In fact, I’ll go this far: the last time I enjoyed the first book in a new series as much as I enjoyed this one? Was Jade City. And I deliberately waited eight hours after finishing the book to let the high wear off before writing this.

Go read it right now.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

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