Reviews · Summaries

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Wu Zetian has lived her whole life bound: everything from the shape of her feet to her cultural role has been decided for her simply because she was born a woman. She has two options for her future: find a good match for marriage, or sell herself into service as a concubine pilot, giving her lifeforce to help the male pilots control the giant Chrysalis warriors in the neverending battle against the invading hunduns. Zetian was determined that she would never give her life in service of that abominable tradition.

Until Big Sister died.

Now, despite despising everything the Chrysalis pilot system stands for, Zetian will infiltrate it to understand once and for all what happened to her older sister. When she comes out of her first Chrysalis battle unscathed, and on top, she is labeled an Iron Widow and paired with Li Shimin, the only male pilot able to match her mental strength to power a Chrysalis.

Zetian did what she never knew was possible: used her mental strength to overpower her male copilot. And now that she knows what she can do, she is determined to find out why so many young women are killed when she was able to rise. And prove once and for all that women can do everything the men can and more.


I can genuinely say that I have never read anything like this book before, and as a self-proclaimed connoisseur of young adult, that’s saying something. I loved this book. I’d climb to the top of a mountain and yell to the heavens how much I loved this book. This is the kind of dystopian/sci-fi/fantasy blend that I am here for. This may as well now be an Iron Widow stan blog. Seriously, definitely my favorite book of the year so far (out of six, but that’s still pretty good considering four of them were rated 5 stars).

I’m going to be brief and spoiler free, because I think that every single person who stumbles upon this blog post and hasn’t picked up Iron Widow should shut this window, go straight to wherever you get your books, and start this one right now.

First worldbuilding/story setup: definitely one of the better sci-fi/dystopia books I’ve read in terms of getting pretty much all the information I needed on the way this world worked in about the first 20 pages (or less). Normally I especially suffer when trying to read sci-fi because they tend to be heavy on the (often necessary) info-dumping right at the beginning. Since it’s not my favorite genre, that’s where sci-fi usually loses me. However, I really feel like I understood the world: obviously based in Chinese culture, with specific details such as the pig cage drowning for adulterers and the lotus feet practice. But also they’ve got these crazy alien hundun creatures that they have to battle using giant mecha robots that are powered by qi (spirit power). And lower class and rural families sell their daughters for a “glorious” death powering these Chrysalis robots in exchange for prestige and a healthy payout. All of this is covered in the first two chapters, and other less important snipits are woven in well throughout. All in all, I was never bored and was engaged in the world from the start.

Next, characters: I’ll come right out and say that I have NEVER read a protagonist (particularly a YA protagonist) like Wu Zetian. In the wise words of the author in one of their TikToks “She is unhinged”. Truly. She is vicious and bloodthirsty and hell-bent on revenge throughout the whole story. Female characters (even tough ones) are almost always softened in some way. Love of family, love of children, love of animals, even their love of their romantic interest is often made into a weakness of some kind. Zetian has none of this weakness. She is intrinsically driven by revenge and her arguably sketchy moral code. She believes women are not the weaker sex, good, feminist, yay, but also she is willing to be the sole prosecution, judge, and jury for those who wrong her: you mess with her, she’s just gonna kill you. And while I would certainly fear her if I met her in real life and I don’t find her particularly relatable, she is awesome to read about her and I love her vicious nature. Without revealing too much, there is a love triangle in this story, and I do love both of these characters so much. Personally, love triangles are my least favorite YA trope, BUT, this author makes what I believe is the only acceptable romantic ending for a love triangle, and I will just leave it at that. Long story short, characters are great, pick up the book and read all about them.

Pacing/Style: I thought this book was paced very well. Normally it’s very difficult in my experience to classify a sci-fi/dystopia as fast paced due to, as I mentioned, the necessity of world/technology building. But this book takes off like a speeding bullet and never really slows down. I easily consumed the last 200 pages of the book in one evening. Particularly at the end I found it really impossible to put down. And for style I have to say I’m always so impressed with the quality of some debut novels. It really didn’t read like a first publication, and I think that the author is such a talented person, and I cannot wait to see what they put out in the future.

Summary !!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!!:

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE for the love of all things holy stop right here if you have not read Iron Widow. I am such a passionate believer that everyone should check this book out, and this will spoil everything, and there are so many delicious moments that I want you to experience yourself so please stop…unless you’ve finished the book, in which case feel free to check out this summary!

  • Zetian decides to sell herself off to the army to be a concubine pilot to Yang Guang, the Chrysalis pilot who killed her older sister, who was also his concubine pilot. Chrysalis pilots fight the hunduns, faceless creatures who try to invade human settlements.
  • Zetian wants to be Yang Guang’s copilot so she can kill him for the brutal murder of her sister, who didn’t even die in battle so their family didn’t even get the compensation they would have gotten. Zetian knows they’ll execute her and her whole family for Yang Guang’s murder, but she blames her family for her suffering (warrented) and so doesn’t care that they’ll die.
  • Her best friend Yizhi is the son of the richest man in the city, and tries to stop Zetian from carrying out her plan by offering to marry her. Zetian is undeterred and kisses him once before heading to her destiny.
  • Zetian is tested for her spirit ability, and she has a much higher number than average, assuring she’ll be accepted quickly by Yang Guang, allowing her to get close to him. She is in fact chosen the same day she arrives.
  • She goes with Guang to his suite, where he begins to seduce her and she doubts her plan, he seems kind, could he really have killed Big Sister? But before they can go to bed together, they are pulled into a battle, which Guang has to carry her kicking and screaming to the Chrysalis. Zetian is sure she’ll die before she can carry out her plan.
  • Zetian is pulled into Guang’s mind realm, where she learns to take control and fight through his mental barriers. But she also sees images, that he says the same things he said to her to all the other girls, and that he did in fact kill Big Sister in cold blood. So within the mind realm, the two of them fight and Zetian kills Guang, the second most powerful Chrysalis pilot, and takes over the Chrysalis herself, fighting on her own. When the battle is over she wakes up to see she’s killed Guang for real, fulfilling her plan, if not the way she intended. She exits the Chrysalis, holding his body for all the media to see.
  • Zetian is proclaimed the Iron Widow, and paired with the strongest pilot they have, Li Shimin, who with pure spirit power kills every female concubine pilot who he ever fights with. Zetian is determined now to live, to beat Shimin somehow. They go into battle, and Zetian is unable to overpower him, and they somehow manage to do something to the Chrysalis nobody has ever seen, and the two are declared equal partners.
  • Zetian is determined to hate Shimin, despite what she hears about him: that he killed his abusive father and brothers for raping a local girl, and that the military forces him to fight, that he’s not killing his copilots on purpose.
  • Yizhi arrives at the military compound in disguise, determined to help them. Shimin is a drunk, and Yizhi helps him work on getting sober. Zetian and Yizhi learn that the military forced alcohol on Shimin to keep him compliant.
  • The hunduns are becoming more aggressive, and there is a campaign to go and destroy their emperor and their nesting grounds to take over those lands. But nobody in the military wants to see them succeed, so Zetian makes a deal with Yizhi’s father, the lecherous king of media from the capital. He paints Shimin and Zetian as the powerful, scandalous couple that they appear to be.
  • Zetian admits her feelings for Yizhi, and they begin their relationship, which Zetian tells Yizhi that she can’t be constricted to being just with him, and Yizhi understands and is supportive.
  • Shimin and Zetian have gotten closer during their battles together and have mastered the copiloting of their Chrysalis. They are matched together in an extravagant wedding-like ceremony, where Zetian and Shimin also enter into a real, physical relationship to match their persona. Both Yizhi and Shimin are equally dear to Zetian (yay for polyamory).
  • Zetian and Shimin torture and kill a military leader who is responsible for torturing Shimin over and over and forcing him to fight and become addicted to alcohol. They do this so they can get information about why female copilots are so much more likely to die. They find out that the female pilot seat is literally designed to drain their qi (power) so that even if the girls are equally as powerful as their male pilots, they are far more likely to die, making Iron Widows like Zetian one in a million. This is the reason why Shimin’s previous girlfriend, who he loved, died in the Chrysalis when she should have been his equal.
  • Armed with this knowledge, Zetian plans on revealing to the world that the military has been killing their daughters for hundreds of years to sustain the Chrysalis’s, simply to keep women imprisoned in their place as the “lesser sex”. But first they have to go and save the world from the hundun emperor.
  • Zetian and Shimin (with Yizhi along for the ride to offer them extra qi), lead the army of Chrysalis’s to fight the hundun’s on their territory.
  • There are two huge emperor class hunduns, who seem to be able to talk a little bit into Zetian’s head, calling them invaders and asking them to stop. They are able to kill one and damage the other, but before they can finish them off, one of the other Chrysalis’s attacks Zetian and Shimin’s Chrysalis (the Vermillion Bird), with the intent of killing everyone inside.
  • Shimin sacrifices himself to save Zetian and Yizhi, who are able to escape the Chrysalis unharmed. Blinded with rage and grief at Shimin’s death, Zetian follows a tribe of people who have been living in the hundun lands for generations to where the last great Chrysalis pilot and former emperor is said to be waiting to be reawakened.
  • With the help of his protectors, Zetian wakes the emperor and convinces him to let her take the male pilot’s seat in the great dragon Chrysalis. Zetian rides it back to the battlefield, ending the battle and declaring victory over the hunduns.
  • Zetian finds out that the pair of pilots who killed Shimin in the Vermillion Bird did so on orders from command, who said that they’d kill the pilot’s two young children if they didn’t kill Shimin and Zetian. Zetian does not take this as an acceptable answer and uses the dragon Chrysalis to crush the two pilots who betrayed them.
  • Picking up Yizhi on the way, Zetian pilots the dragon all the way back to the city, where Yizhi’s father has held her family captive, saying that if she doesn’t stop her absolute revenge rampage that he’ll kill them.
  • Yizhi goes out to try and reason with his father, but instead just kills him and the two of them leave Zetian’s family to their fate. Zetian is determined to remake the world with her at the helm, ensuring that no women will ever have to die at the hands of a male Chrysalis pilot.
  • The ending finds Yizhi contacting Zetian from where he is going through the old Sage’s archives, discovering that their entire civilization is a lie: this is not earth, and the hunduns are the native species, with humans being the invaders. And then the “gods” up in the sky cut off Yizhi’s message with a message of their own: stop what she’s doing and submit to them, or they’ll finish off Shimin, showing what appears to be Shimin’s preserved remains. The book ends with Zetian falling to her knees with a scream.

The End


# of Pages: 391

Time it took me to read: 4 Days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 56

Rating: 5 out of 5

If you liked Iron Widow, try:

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao

Furyborn by Claire Legrand

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

3 thoughts on “Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

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