Reviews

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

softrosemint's review against another edition

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3.5

i believe my experience was significantly improved by blocking the author on twitter because i found them sort of cringey. i am saying this, since most complaints of the book on here seem to stem from the marketing setting up unrealistic expectations. personally, all i knew was that it was going to be a mecha book with a headstrong female protagonist and involving a polyamorous relationship. (at which point xiran jay zhao started memeing and i blocked them; friends then recommended the book to be / put it on my 12 months challenge. now we are here).

the book was pretty on par with my expectations. a perfectly serviceable ya fantasy / sci-fi. it felt cool, i was entertained, i had fun. could it have had more nuance and elegance and more polish? yes. could it have been developed more to truly flesh out the plot and the characters? also yes. was it a pinnacle of feminist literature? no. but i had no expectation for it to be any of those things.

let me be clear - zetian is girlbossing it up almost like it is 2012, there are several instances that warrant a good eye roll. but. i do not think the book is in any way harmful to feminist ideas; mostly, i just think it presents a very simplified view on them.

or maybe rong fu was really killing it with the narration!

(i am sorry if all of this sounds like a backhanded compliment but it is my honest thoughts and opinions.)

(the ending was a Choice though. but i guess imagine if it had not been included and we went into the sequel and got this served on like, page 2.)

ellie324's review

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adventurous fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

4.0

kitkatdallibooks's review

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adventurous challenging dark tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

4.75

thekatbite's review

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adventurous dark emotional funny tense fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? N/A
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

sages_books's review

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5.0

I have no words that will do justice to this beautiful, brilliant, bloody book. Iron Widow took my expectations, shattered them, and then proceeded to run them over with an eighteen-wheeler. If you want a book that not only burns the patriarchy to the ground, but also makes you laugh, cry, and smile along the way, READ THIS BOOK. I cannot say enough good things about Iron Widow so do yourself a favor and read this book to see for yourself how good it is

katherinez8's review

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2.0

2.5/5 stars

This book is a mess. It has a cool premise, I'd give it that, but it was so poorly executed.

What I like: the representations
- Wu Zetian is a disabled bisexual MC. Li Shimin and Gao Yizhi are also bisexual.
- Also, it's really refreshing to see polyamory representation in mainstream YA.
- Additionally, this book features Chinese-coded characters (obviously), but the nice thing is that it's also ethnically diverse. While Zetian and Yizhi are Han Chinese-coded, many characters in this book, including Li Shimin, are said to belong to other ethnicities inspired by multiple Chinese minor ethnic groups.

What I didn't LOVE but I didn't dislike either:
This book plucked characters from Chinese history and mythologies from seemingly random periods and dropped them into a made-up sci-fi world. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'm aware books like the Poppy War also did it, although maybe not to this extreme. It just... gives this funny feeling. Just imagine it like reading a fic where the characters are Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, Marilyn Monroe, and Iron Man. It's fun? But in a messy, chaotic, and wild way. At least, I like that it led me to learn more about the inspiration behind some of the characters, particularly the lesser-known historical figures. The author clearly knows a lot about Chinese history, and I'm just glad to familiarize myself with my own culture's history.

What I dislike:
Now this is where it gets messy, but so is this book, so I'll list things I don't like in no particular order.

- The writing
It started off okay, there were even beautiful descriptions of Zetian's village in the first few chapters, but the more the story progressed, the worse it became. It was just like Zetian posting hot-takes on Twitter and the men gasped in surprise, "How dare you?!" At times I had to pause at the juvenile writing, wondering how this is not an insult to young adults. There's also a lot of telling instead of showing.
There are several instances where the sentences started elegantly but ended in a ridiculous way that really made me unable to take this book seriously, e.g. "A night wind keens across the Hundun wilds like a dead concubine crying out." and "Birds constantly startle out, black against the brightening dawn, like a fluttering layer being ejected farther and farther west.", and many more but I didn't bother to even take notes anymore. The dialogues are no less ridiculous. There's this one part where Sima Yi told Zetian not to get into a love-triangle and she replied, "A triangle is the strongest shape."

- The story
For a supposedly action-packed book, the stakes are very low and I was never invested enough to keep reading for more than a few chapters. The first part of the book was fast-paced, but slowed down significantly when Zetian agreed to become this hot celebrity-pilot for profit. It was suddenly bogged down with descriptions of parties and fancy clothes that did not add to the plot.

- The characters
Just a disclaimer: I won't fault the author for taking liberties with these historical figures. After all, fanfictions are fun because every author has a different take. What I didn't like was how most characters just lack motives. Why did Wu Zetian enlist? To avenge her Big Sister she barely thinks about? Why did anyone kill anyone in this book? Most of the times, everything is so surface-level that the story just didn't make sense anymore.
If you've heard or read tales about the real Empress Wu Zetian (not the Fan Bingbing series), you'd probably already be familiar with how ruthless she was, and we all understand why she murdered people. But this book's Wu Zetian confused me so much, because it just seemed like she murders people for... fun? Why? Was it because she was hurt? Was it because she wanted power? Because if so, I really couldn't sense it, only that killing people made her happy.

- The "feminism"
Why was this book marketed as a feminist book? Let me list Zetian's interactions with other women that didn't end in a fight or their death. Oh wait, there's none. It's baffling how utterly sexist the way the other women are written, and how weird it was that Zetian was constantly judgmental towards the other women in this book, who, mind you, are also victims of the patriarchy.
Zetian fought with Xiao Shufei who was concerned with her strange hair ornament in a very cliché mean-girls trope, then the male pilot Zetian was supposed to murder came in and chose Zetian to be his new concubine because Zetian was oh so speshul. She swore she'd avenge her Big Sister and the other dead girls, but immediately swoons when that male pilot Yang Guang seduced her.
Then Zetian met Dugu Qieluo, a rare high-ranked female pilot, who hit Zetian because she caught her husband thinking about Zetian. She judged Ma Xiuying, another high-ranked female pilot, for carrying cover-powders and having children.
SpoilerAnd she killed Xiuying because she chose her own family over Zetian. She also killed her own mother and grandmother because she didn't want people to use them as a leverage against her.

I just thought we've evolved pass those patriarchal, women-hating fake feminism. To have a book portraying the harmful stereotypical "angry feminist" minus the feminist in 2022 is such a disappointment.
Once again, I'm not judging the author for taking liberties in portraying Wu Zetian. But the iconic, real Wu Zetian defied gender-roles to rule an empire, elevated female positions in ancient China, and brought the empire to prosper. Sure, she murdered people to achieve that, but Empress Wu Zetian is still undoubtedly a feminist. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about this book's version of Wu Zetian.

bookish_penguin's review

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3.0

How-HOW can a book start so well and end so bleh?
One amazing thing I have to post out before my rant: This book gave me enemies to lovers AND friends to lovers AT THE SAME TIME *mind blown*

Now, the complaints!
The feminism started so fun and refreshing and then it became a bit repetitive and then it became a lot of excuses for not being all that feminist in the name of feminism.

The action started so invigorating and new and then it happened again. And again. And really what exactly are they fighting? Is there ever a bigger cop out than having an Alien invasion bad guy? No need for motive. No need for nuance. Just KILL. And then repurpose the bodies to fight them… yikes. Fun! But yikes.

The romance? Eh…Yizhi was MY guy! Yeah, yeah I get a point of this book was no love triangle, but let’s be real, Yizhi deserved better than both of them. And it wasn’t really like he was all that great either.
Meets a known murderer-“I’m a fan of your work.”
See’s his girlfriend laughing manically over someone she just murdered-HoRnY
Actually I kinda loved the morally grey (read: evil) characters. Just maybe not together?

This book really did have a lot of fun elements, but after page 250 I was kinda done. I might be back for the sequel? Honestly I might read the book just to hear about foot binding. I have a morbid fascination with that. Like WTF people!! How was that ever going ti be a good idea?!
A good debut that fell into every debut writing mistake, but still a lil’ fun.

joana's review

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adventurous emotional funny mysterious tense fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? N/A
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

4.5

jgberokoff's review

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adventurous dark fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No

3.25

I have very complicated feelings about this book. On one hand I enjoyed it, it was a quick and easy read which was nice after reading some intensive high fantasy. But that’s where the issues start to come in. The concept and ideas here are really interesting but they get lost in immature and flowery writing. There is no subtlety to the themes of the story (aka government bad and support women’s wrongs). 

Will I read the sequel? Yeah but I definitely will not be pre ordering and will get it second hand.

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booksgamesart's review against another edition

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3.0

I had to see what the hype was all about! Upon finishing, I have mixed feelings. Read if you love adventure, a main character with fire in her heart, and violent attempts at battling misogyny. If its take on violence, in particular that murder can be justified, will offend you, take heed. The oppression in this society is also purposefully terrible... Set in a futuristic world with interesting creatures and a well-done polyamorous relationship, this was super quick and enjoyable in some ways, but I won't look back on it as a favorite.