“Iron Widow” by Xiran Jay Zhao- A thrilling YA Science Fantasy

First off, Iron Widow has an absolutely stunning cover. I used the full cover as the pic here, because it is so gorgeous I wanted to share it. Anyway, I wanted to talk about this book because it deserves more attention in the speculative fiction fan community. I saw it described as “Pacific Rim meets Handmaid’s Tale.” I’m often skeptical of book blurbs that try to sell them by comparisons because they often either aim too high (e.g. “Better than [insert your favorite series]”) or are so generic it becomes difficult to know what’s meant (e.g. “For fans of Lord of the Rings”–so basically any fan of fantasy?). Here, though, this comparison is spot-on and specific. Handmaid’s Tale makes me think of the book with its focus on religious practices oppressing women (I haven’t seen the show). Pacific Rim makes me think of giant robots beating up aliens. Well, Xiran Jay Zhao absolutely delivers on a combined experience of those.

The setup–there are some aliens that continue to attack humans. Thankfully, they’re not super bright and seem to just come in huge waves that humans have been mowing down with huge mechs called Chrysalises. These Chrysalis mechs are driven by teams–a man and a woman–who use their chi to drive the mechs to even greater heights of destruction and defense of humanity. Zetian wants to become one of the concubine-pilots (the woman part of the pair is expected to submit to the male partner in every way, whether its taking commands on the battlefield, giving up her life to power his chi, or sexual submissiveness). The reason Zetian wants to be a pilot, though, is to assassinate the pilot who killed her sister.

The book takes readers on a dizzying journey, overthrowing expectations of how the plot might turn out time and again. I enjoyed the many ways the characters around Zetian surprised me throughout the story. I expected certain things from some aspects of the plot, and was delighted when they didn’t turn out exactly how I thought they would.

If I have any complaint, it’s that the aliens/mech combat didn’t occupy more of the book. That’s a matter of my own preference–I just like mech combat and don’t get enough of it in novels. But it was kind of a bummer that the action scenes didn’t give me more of the action in detail. On the flip side, the ending of the novel throws a huge wrench in things that makes me even more excited about the plot developments and desperate for the next book.

Iron Widow is going on my nominating ballot for the Lodestar Award for best YA novel at the Hugo Awards this year. I hope you’ll consider giving it a read, too!

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