Content warning: graphic foot binding and other mentions of bodily harm; familial abuse; abuse of power
I’m just gonna say it: I love revenge. Like seriously, 😍 justice-fulfilling revenge. If that vengeance narrative is led by a confident woman who makes the world better by a stabby stab here or there, you can sign me up! Which is why when I heard the premise of Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow late in 2020, my levels of excitement and anticipation hit their peaks.
Funnily enough, looking forward to this book is counter to the emotional detachment that Iron Widow’s main character, Zeitan, feels for herself or those around her. As we start the book, Zeitan looks forward to one thing only, her impending conscription into her world’s mecha-based military. Far from patriotic, Zeitan has one mission in mind: kill the army’s golden boy just like he murdered her older sister. Of course, once she gets on the inside, she finds that achieving her primary objective is not enough. Deciding that she must make the world better for all women who have faced similar levels of familial and national mistreatment wherein patriarchal values uphold brutal measures of foot binding, domestic violence, and no real freedoms for those assigned female at birth. Zeitan quells her distaste for the system by trying to work within it to keep young women from being murdered without remorse in the brutal mecha conditions they are forced to endure. To do this, she must make alliances with the most unlikely of people: those who already benefit from this deadly world order.
Overall, I found the general and romantic plots of this story satisfying and was happy to find many similarities between Zeitan and one of my favorite vengeful female characters from the past decade, Emily Van Camp’s character from ABC’s Revenge. Zeitan, like Emily, initially seeks revenge for an injustice that has a significant impact on her family and finds herself adjusting various aspects of her plan based on the levels of new information gathered along the way. Both characters court death with a level of daring that comes not from feeling invincible but from knowing exactly what they have to live for in that moment. Where Emily has a love hinge to Zeitan’s true love triangle—talk about things we like to see!—their relationships with the two love interests have similar levels of engagement, circumstance, and intensity. If this show appeals to you, I guarantee you’ll enjoy this book. In fact, the main misgivings I had while reading Iron Widow had nothing to do with plot, character arc, or relationships.
I expected this book to be one that I could not put down, and because of my high expectations was disappointed to find myself doing exactly that. The pacing at the start of the book is understandably slow as it tries to acquaint the reader with the world’s qi energy and world building aspects. Sadly, this world building didn’t stick well in my brain but I was compelled to read further without fully grasping any explanation between the merits or collaborative power of the different qis or the backstory about the mecha. This led to a very confusing final act, where some of this information becomes important to the story. However, the insights that Zeitan has on society were sources of great enjoyment for me with considerations like the one below keeping me interested in her journey:
“…this whole concept of women being docile and obedient is nothing but wishful thinking. Or why would you put so much effort into lying to us? Into crippling our bodies? Into coercing us with made-up morals you claim are sacred?”
If you, like me, have an inner misandrist who you love to feed narratives of women’s empowerment and victory over patriarchal and hypocritical societies, or are just a fan of vengeful drama, this is a book for you.