Book Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Good morning! If you’ve been around for a while you’ll know that we recently moved to a new apartment. Guess what! We’re moving again! So you could say that we are pretty worn out from moving this year, but we anticipate this one to be the last time! Please send energy (or coffee) because we will be busy this weekend!! Please enjoy this review of Iron Widow while I’m away!

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Title: Iron Widow
Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Publication date: September 21, 2021
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy

A gripping, feminist, historical reimagining full of mechas and spirit worlds

At a glance: In a world where women are offered up as sacrifices for men to pilot mechas and keep fighting a never-ending war, Wu Zetian offers herself up as a concubine pilot to get revenge on the man who murdered her Big Sister, but during her first flight she ends up getting revenge in a way that she doesn’t expect…

  • ๐Ÿ’ช Feminist
  • ๐Ÿ† Strong Female Lead
  • โœ‚๏ธ Reimagining
  • ๐Ÿ“– Couldn’t Put It Down

Read this if… you are tired of seeing love triangles end up in tragedy when they could end in victory, if you are looking for a magic system based on qi, or if you love books with protagonists who are burning with rage against the patriarchy.

Diversity Representation: Chinese cast, setting and author, disabled MC, polyam relationship + discussions on gender roles/identity

Content Warnings: Oppression, murder, sacrifice, captivity, violence, torture, mentions of rape, foot binding, alcohol addiction, domestic abuse

โ—โ— Buddy Read Alert โ—โ— I read this with my bookish friend Ahaana! Ahaana just celebrated her one-year blog anniversary, so make sure to check out her blog Windows to Worlds! Her review is coming soon ๐Ÿ’•

Book Review

Imaginative, feminist, badass, action-packed, compelling, gripping, fun

Iron Widow has been a book that I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while. Immediately when I picked up this book, I was completely drawn into the anti-patriarchal rage in Wu Zetian. I found myself reading this slowly to savor the world, the rage, the respect between the main characters, it was all so compelling. This reimagining of Wu Zetian, the only woman emperor of China, with qi-powered mechas was such a wonderful read. I highly recommend you add this book to your lists if you haven’t already!

Quick Summary: Wu Zetian has one mission in life: to avenge the death of her Big Sister by murdering the man who murdered her. In order to do this, she volunteers to become a concubine pilot in a system where the female pilot nearly always dies from the mental strain. After she’s called to action to pilot with the man who murdered Big Sister, she ends up getting her revenge in a way no one expected.

The truest success of Iron Widow is how seamlessly Xiran is able to transition from setting to setting so quickly while making sure to be easy to follow. It’s truly a huge feat. The setting will go from the main world to the spirit world to another spirit world back to the main world from a new lens then back to normal within a few pages. Every segment is just so clearly defined and easy to follow that it’s hard to get confused. The way that there is no confusion about what the reader is seeing is truly an accomplishment, especially with how many worlds and perspectives we see in this book.

Iron Widow does an incredible job at balancing the different perspectives that come with being a woman in an intensely patriarchal society. The headline of this book is often about Zetian’s rage against the patriarchy, but every woman in the book has vastly different experiences and different ways that they have learned to survive. Though that was hard to read, I adored how it offered different perspectives. There is no single way to experience any oppression and no single way to live in this world. Everyone experiences the world differently and this book showed so many different experiences so well.

No review of Iron Widow would be complete without the acknowledgment of the relationships in this book. The love and respect between all of the main characters was absolutely delightful. The love triangle that turns into a three-person power thruple is something that I wish I saw written more. I read so often about jealousy and betrayal but I nearly never read about the level of respect written into these pages. It was refreshing!

Summing it all up

Iron Widow is a gripping reimagining of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor of China, full of seething rage against the patriarchy. This reimagining gets insanely creative with its worldbuilding while maintaining easy-to-follow transitions and descriptions. It offers many different perspectives of how women survive an extremely oppressive patriarchal society but manages to stay cool and fun all at once.

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Book Club Questions:
Iron Widow

Since Iron Widow is a reimagining of Wu Zetian, I’m including bonus reading material for your book club. Read up on the real Wu Zetian here!

  • Discuss the balance between historic and futuristic elements present in this novel. How was it balanced? Did it feel like too much history or too much future? Were there any points at which you were confused?
  • How did you feel about the changes in settings so quickly (from the real world, to piloting in the spirit world, to the ying yang world etc)? Did you feel that the transitions were smooth? How do you feel about so many different “worlds” all wrapped into one single novel?
  • Discuss each woman in this novel. How has the extreme patriarchy affected each of them? How has each woman learned to overcome these struggles? How do you feel each of these perspectives were handled? How do each of these perspectives differ from each other?

About the Author

Iโ€™m a 20-something meme-loving weeb from Vancouver, Canada who is somehow becoming a published sci-fi/fantasy author. Most of my books are mashups that contain tropes from both genres. Iโ€™m a 1st generation immigrant from small town China, and Iโ€™m currently in between undergrad and grad school for biochem / disease research. I spend too much time and money on skincare and makeup. If youโ€™re not careful, I could talk to you for hours about anime, books, or Chinese history.

Also, I am a Certified Meme Lord TM whose shitposts have been featured on Vice and ComicBook.com. Iโ€™m not joking.


Let’s chat!

๐Ÿ†Are you excited for Iron Widow?
๐Ÿ† Have you been waiting for a love triangle to turn into a polyam relationship like I have?
๐Ÿ† Are you excited to dig into this beautifully Chinese-inspired world?

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Want More Diverse Book Recommendations?

Check out the rest of my blog! I’m dedicated to sharing books with you that include diversity, so feel comfortable that any books on Bookish Brews will include some diversity.

If you liked this review or thought you might like this book, check out some of my other reviews for books with strong female leads:


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Added to my TBR: Iron Widow!

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*I received this book for free and am leaving this review voluntarily*