In the world of Iron Widow, boys are trained to fight off the monsters that culled their society hundreds of years ago. They fight and die in machines called chrysalises, forged from the metal-like alien carcasses. Able to transform these robots at will using only their minds, the boys are partnered with young women, who are used as chi siphons and sacrificed carelessly with every battle.
When Zetian's older sister dies before ever seeing battle, she hatches a plan to follow her sister's path to become a concubine and murder the male pilot who wasted her sister's life.
When Zetian and the pilot enter the chrysalis, no one thinks twice about the fact that only one of them will come out alive. But as the pilot who murdered her sister fights the aliens, Zetian takes control of their psychic link, forcing him to fight for his life. When she harnesses his chi and walks out of the chrysalis instead... she throws off the balance of their male-dominant system and is labelled an Iron Widow. A problem. A secret.
Able to sacrifice boys to power the machines, Zetian is quickly silenced and thrown to the strongest and most rabid pilot in the fleet... They give Zetian to the man imprisoned for murdering his father and brothers -- the pilot that no concubine survives -- hoping he'll break her mind.
Iron Widow is a refreshingly new concept, loosely inspired by Chinese mythology and historical Empress Wu Zetian. We're pushed into a frighteningly familiar patriarchal culture, which is exaggerated by the pilot-concubine dynamic that spurs the plot along. Zetian is angry, bitter, naïve, and single-minded in the beginning, leveraging her life strategically for revenge. But as the novel continues, her purpose widens, and she becomes desperate to do more than die for a cause.
I struggle to say whether or not Zetian really grew throughout the story. I felt her moments of progress were sudden and short-lived and didn't impact other areas of her life. That being said, I'm not sure how much she really needed to change. The single-minded naivety sloughed off pretty quickly and allowed the plot to advance, but her inability to really connect with others (which granted was somewhat a product of her environment) made the "relationships" feel stunted and shallow.
I really enjoyed the central plot and Zetian's main goals. She was unapologetic, strong-willed, and willing to risk herself to prove herself and survive. I found a lot I really liked about her, and her goal to upend the male-pilot female-concubine system wouldn't have been as captivating if she wasn't strategically wild and disconcerting.
The world-building was very centralized to two locations. Her village and the complex where the pilots and concubines lived, preparing to fight the aliens. But besides the imagery of the barren desert out beyond the complex, nothing visual really stuck with me. There was no overarching architectural style described, and there was an unfortunate lack of description when it came to surroundings and the other senses.
The aliens themselves were a central drive for the plot. Everything revolved around killing these creatures in order to protect their villages. Despite that, we (and the characters) don't know that much about them. It's kill or be killed, and none of them ask questions. It all alludes back to a vague history of their civilization being decimated by these creatures.
That kill-or-be killed dichotomy hits extra hard when you realize that not only are the humans applying that to the aliens, but they're also using that logic to justify sucking the life force out of girls and women.
My difficulties with the novel are rooted in the relationships -- mainly her connection with the boy she knows from her village. The author uses him as a foil for the strongest-pilot (the one Zetian is paired up to be killed by), but I found his character dominated the story and made it underwhelming. Putting him into the story and giving him abundant resources and easy ways to work around Zetian's struggles really negated a lot of her power and took the "oomph" out of situations. It felt like lazy writing.
Zetian needs someone to look out for her... he has money, he'll buy his way to her. Whatever she and her pilot needed, he was there with money to solve the problem (even in instances were it didn't make sense that the pilot leaders would allow him to do so).
Additionally, Zetian's relationships really detracted from each other. We never spent enough time in either to really see them grow or to understand Zetian's thoughts. They were very shallow due to the writing, even though the were set up to be really strong connections. The relationships felt like something added in later, something to draw readers in. It just never went deep enough to really be fulfilling. This is where Zetian needed to grow, and she didn't.
She went into most of the relationships in the book hoping to use them to her advantage. The author intended for there to be a pivot where she actually started connecting to others, but the writing didn't portray that effectively.
Overall, my problems were with the writing. I can see how this book could've been five stars had the author delved a little bit deeper into the emotional aspects these characters. But even when Zetian claimed she was fighting to save girls' lives, there was never any direct connection. Not once did Zetian build a friendship with any of the girls she was trying to save. In fact, the only time she talked to one of them, the other concubine was bitchy and rude and became an instant rival (never to be seen again though). They were a shallow plot device and nothing more. It felt like she was using their plight to justify her own, and just like the relationships, I wish the author would've done more with that.
I do plan to pick up book two. I'm hope that Xiran Jay Zhao can work through the emotional aspects and really dive into the complete devastation we know is coming. I want to see Zetian grow... for real... and stop simply using the people around her to gain her own power but writing it as though she's forged emotional bonds.
Honestly, if she was just using them for power the whole book, I would've liked that better, because that was actually in the writing successfully.
Zhao can go so much deeper into the world and the characters they created. I stand by my three-star rating - even with my misgivings - because this series has so much potential and such a solid plot.
Moving forward, I NEED some emotional depth between all the characters and true obstacles that can't be avoided with a privileged boy's money. I'm excited to see what book two can do.