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 was the first book from my 12 friends/12months/12books challenge and boy did it start me off with a bang. It was brutal and completely unapologetic and I simply couldn’t put it down! Zetian has one goal in life, to avenge the death of her sister who was killed by one of the most famous Chrysalis pilot’s. But even Zetian is surprised by the speed and style of his death, killing him through the psychic link which has only previously killed the female concubines used as fodder in the war. Now labelled an Iron Widow, and with a government who don’t know what to do with her, she get paired up with the most dangerous pilot out there, Li Shimin. Everyone is sure he will overpower and kill her through the psychic link in their first battle, but Zetain has had a taste for power now, and she will not go out easily. Now she has an in, she is determined to understand the need to sacrifice girls in battle, why the men always survive, but the secret is so much more than even Zetian could have ever imagined.
Zetian is an absolutely killer, and I mean that in the literal as well as figurative sense (she literally murders someone within the first few pages of the book… he deserves it though.) Ever since her big sister was forced into the life of a concubine and murdered she has known how she will go out, and it’s by killing the person responsible and anyone else she can take down a long the way. Growing up in a world where she has always been deemed lesser because of her sex, instead of bowing down and acting meek like she is expected, Zetian is a whirlwind in human form. From the first page we can tell that she has one singular goal in mind and, when that happens and she survives the consequences, she comes to realise that there is more she can do from within that outside. We know her goal from day one and she never, ever wavers from it, she is there to destroy the system that has killed so many innocent girls and I have to say I loved seeing her question everything and scheme until she gets the information she needs.
The side characters in this book are just *chefs kiss.* Zhao ensures that you never quite know who you can trust and, to be honest, Zetian isn’t the best at making friends so the majority of the cast end up being her enemies, but they all play a significant part in not only furthering Zetian’s story, but that of the overall plot.
Zhao does a magnificent job of blending the traditional and historic Chinese culture in with the modern and futuristic elements. Huaxia may be set in the future, but the world Zhao creates also manages to throw us back to the time of Foot Bindings, a practice that is now retired, as well as to a patriarchal society where women are seen as second class, their lives deemed lesser than men, raised to breed and or become sacrifice concubines to help in the war against the Hundruns. I will say that Zhao certainly doesn’t hold back from the dark and sinister parts of this book, it’s incredibly brutal in parts and certainly not for the faint of heart, but all those parts helped add to the atmosphere and made sure I was 100% on Zetians side when it came to her taking down the patriarchy, even if that meant murdering people.
This book contains one of the best written love triangles I’ve ever read. The author mentions this everywhere, so it’s not a spoiler to say they end in a poly-amorous relationship, but it was just SO well done. From the start Zetian explains what she is willing to give to them, she sets rules that she will not waver on, rules not only to protect her heart, but also her mission. There was no jealously, no almost tug of war for her affections, and it was just so incredibly refreshing to read. The relationships also don’t play a huge part in the story, because Zetian has a mission and she will not be waylaid by matters of the heart.
Iron Widow moves at an absolute breakneck pace and, while there are lots and lots of epic and incredibly well described fight scenes (honestly this book needs to get made into a movie/tv show) Zhao never holds back with their character development either, instead letting both the story and characters progress naturally throughout the book. There are a whole bunch of plot twists, some I saw coming and others that really hit, both narratively and emotionally, and one huge one at the end that just makes me want to magic book two into my hands right now. The sci-fi elements were never too overwhelming and I think that fantasy lovers will equally enjoy this book, Zhao brings the perfect balance between magic and technology and I love how they blended the two together to make the Chrysalises work.
In case you couldn’t tell from the above, I absolutely adored this book! It’s got magic, futuristic technology, a poly-amorous relationship (remember, triangles are the strongest shape), the most epic battle scenes and it packs one hell of an emotional punch. If you don’t mind a little brutality in your books and like your MC’s unapologetically feminist with absolutely no fucks given…well then, look no further. All I can say is, bring on book two.