by Xiran Jay Zhao
Publication: September 21, 2021
Series: Iron Widow #1
**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own**
Zetian is a force to be reckoned with when she has her mind set on conquering an empire. She is determined to avenge her big sister by destroying the pilot who killed her, and she is willing to sacrifice herself along with her family to do it. Zetian’s desire for justice is not only fueled by love for her older sister but also anger that women are considered disposable. Enraged with her inability to dictate the choices in her life and the senseless sacrifices of women as concubine-pilots, she aims to bring down the patriarchy in any way possible. I was immediately drawn to Zetian and her struggle for agency.
As much as I liked Zetian, it was difficult to fully support her in her one-track endeavor, and this is where the character growth comes in, however incremental it is. With few exceptions, she doesn’t believe men deviate from wanting to maintain control over women. While she aims to grab power and free women, she begins to realize that changing the status quo is difficult to do alone and that everything is not necessarily black and white. While initially resistant to most things that challenge her views, she is not immune to change, willing to broaden her views when she can see with her own eyes or someone pushes her to see the bigger picture. She wants a better world for women, and I was all for it. I understood her anger and cheered her fight against the patriarchy.
As much as I supported Zetian’s agenda, I found the story lacking in some areas. Zetian’s struggle takes place within the larger context of a war between humans and aliens called Hundans. Humans utilize mechas, or Chrysalis as they’re called here, that are powered by two individuals–a pilot (usually male) and a concubine-pilot (usually female). The mechas can take on multiple forms, which is often dependent on the connection and strength of the pilots. Despite the amount of information and description of the mechas and how they operated with chi, I wanted to know more beyond the insulated world of mechas and pilots. The context and the environment appeared hazy to me as I tried to figure out how this war began and where the Hundans came from. I was curious about the external environment. I was unsure about the government system in place, something I try to understand especially when someone is trying to topple systems and regimes. These were some points of confusion for me, and I would have liked it fleshed out better. I was also not generally fond of the writing style. Although I appreciated some of the more descriptive passages, it was difficult for me to settle into the writing but it became less of a hindrance once I became engrossed in Zetian’s story.
As fun as the mechas are, Zetian shines here with her ruthlessness and hunger for power. I loved the themes that arose as Zetian tried to dictate her life while fighting against the subjugation of women. It was enough to overcome what I found lacking in the story, things I hope will receive greater focus in the next book. I’ll be continuing with the series because, for the most part, I like Zetian and want to see her succeed. Fans of strong female protagonists and those who enjoyed Pacific Rim, which I loved, will enjoy the novel.