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


Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

*The following blurb was taken from Amazon*

When two Niveus Private Academy students, Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo, are selected to be part of the elite school’s senior class prefects, it looks like their year is off to an amazing start. After all, not only does it look great on college applications, but it officially puts each of them in the running for valedictorian, too.

Shortly after the announcement is made, though, someone who goes by Aces begins using anonymous text messages to reveal secrets about the two of them that turn their lives upside down and threaten every aspect of their carefully planned futures.

As Aces shows no sign of stopping, what seemed like a sick prank quickly turns into a dangerous game, with all the cards stacked against them. Can Devon and Chiamaka stop Aces before things become incredibly deadly?

I’ve seen this book pop up on all my social media for months now, so I was amped when my book club chose it as our bonus book this month. Because I’m allowed to buy new books when they’re for book club and it doesn’t break my resolution of trying to buy fewer books this year 😉

Alrighty, straight into my spoiler-free review. Even though this is not the type of book I’d normally gravitate towards as a contemporary YA novel, I absolutely love love LOVED this book. I am so impressed that it is a debut novel by a young writer who took on this project while she was still in school. Mind blown. One of the most enjoyable standalone novels I’ve read in quite some time.

Now, I’m not a Gossip Girl fan (never seen it), but this book DID bring me straight back into my high school adoration of the Private book series by Kate Brian. Chiamaka at the beginning of the book would have fit right in with the girls in that series. But I really liked reading a book from the perspective of the “queen bee mean girl”, and I was just really intrigued from the beginning about her motivations and her personality. Devon is pretty much the opposite: quiet, sensitive, content with being invisible and just getting through high school. The way that these two come together is very authentic and their reluctance to trust each other really makes the relationship they build by the end seem very earned. Overall, they were both well-rounded protagonists, and the side characters were all A+ as well.

In terms of pacing, I felt that this book was pretty fast-paced and engaging from the get-go. It took me about 40-60 pages to really get into, simply because it’s a bit of a genre departure from what I usually read these days, but I was invested into the mystery and the characters right away, and that’s certainly enough to get me through an initial genre-difference shock.

Overall I felt the themes of this story were really important. This is a story with POC and LGBTQIA+ topics, and as a cishet white woman I really cannot imagine what these characters go through, but I know that this kind of thing is real and out there and happening today, no matter how “progressive” we seem to be here in 2022. But ultimately this book is about black power and perseverance, and I cannot express how much I enjoyed it.

As much as I’d love to say more, I really don’t want to spoil anything because the payout is so high for the amazing mystery that debut author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé presents. All I can say is seriously, go read it.

# of Pages: 415

Time it took me to read: 4 Days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 59

Rating: 5 out of 5

Normally I try to recommend similar books to the one I just read, but I really don’t think I have any other that qualify that I’ve read recently, so I’m just going to recommend some of my other recent favorite debut novels by POC authors, so if you liked Ace of Spades, try:

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Rosanne A. Brown

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

The Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao


Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

# of Pages: 342

Time it took me to read: 2 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 49

Rating: 5 out of 5

All Yadriel has ever wanted was to be a proper brujo, like his father and older brother, and like all the other men in his family. Brujo and bruja are able to wield the magic of the dead to see and hear spirits. It is the responsibility of brujo to send spirits that are tethered to earth to their peace, while bruja can use their magic to heal the living. But though Yadriel’s family seems to be trying to accept him for who he is and use his proper pronouns, still his family holds him back from the official ceremony that will mark him as a brujo, all because he is trans. But though his head tells him it won’t do to push his traditional Latinx family even further outside their comfort zone, in his heart he knows he’s ready and that his patron, Lady Death, will accept him for who he is. It helps that he has the unconditional support of his cousin Maritza, another of the family black sheep.

But right when Yadriel and Maritza have snuck off to perform the ritual, something goes wrong. Yadriel’s cousin Miguel has gone missing, and everyone felt his pain as though he died, though no one can find him. Yadriel becomes determined to summon Miguel’s spirit in order to prove himself, but instead summons the spirit of Julian, a boy from Yadriel’s school. Julian doesn’t know how he died either, but agrees to let Yadriel release him in front of his family…after helping him tie off some loose ends.

The threads that tie Julian to earth get even more tangled as Yadriel learns more about his life, and tries to find out what happened to him, as he can’t shake the feeling that if he can find out what happened to Julian, he’ll find out what happened to Miguel as well. But as Dia de Muertos looms, Yadriel finds himself running out of time, both for Miguel and Julian. And when the time does come, Yadriel realizes he might be hesitant to let Julian go after all.


I know what you’re thinking: how can this possibly be my third 5 star book in a row? What can I say, I’m on a hot streak. But there was no way I was giving this book any less than 5 stars.

I could go on forever and ever about why I loved this book, but I’ll try and keep from rambling on too much. I’ll start with the concept/world-building. This story was a wonderful blend of fantasy (with origins from cultures all over Latin America) and a contemporary YA romance. And before anyone says it, yes, I’m aware that’s called “urban fantasy”, but I’m hesitant to use that phrase here. Specifically because typically though urban fantasy takes place in a version of our world where magic/monsters exist, it still feels very other. You’re usually so deep into the fantasy aspect of it, that it no longer feels like a contemporary fiction novel. Cemetery Boys, however, gives you that ooey-gooey contemporary romance feel, but with a healthy dose of magic and adventure to keep things interesting. I just thought that the two styles were blended together so well, and I don’t see that many fantasies based in Latinx culture in YA these days, so it feels really fresh.

Next, the subplot/culture. I believe this is my first story with a trans protagonist, and honestly? There should be more of them (if you’ve got a suggestion for one, hit me up in the comments). The struggles that Yadriel faces are both probably somewhat universal to all trans youth (being nervous/unable to use the bathroom that matches your pronouns, being worried that you don’t “pass”, etc), while also bringing in the unique cultural aspects of being LGBTQA+ in a traditional Latinx family. From the beginning, it is very clear that Yadriel’s family loves him, but that they struggle to accept all of him, as he is. The whole brujo/bruja magic thing being gendered as well was a simply brilliant way of adding a very natural-feeling layer onto the complexity of being trans. One of my other favorite parts is that Yadriel isn’t the only trans character in this story, or the only gay one, and which I think brings up a great point: LGBTQA+ folks are everywhere, and throwing in one trans boy or one lesbian is tokenism, and it just won’t fly in 2021. Another thing to mention here is that the experiences seem very genuine, and after a quick google search I see that Aiden Thomas is also a trans Latinx person, which makes sense because every single word of this story oozes authenticity and lived experience. This leads me into my next segment:

Character. Every single character in this book was so wonderfully lovable, and even the antagonist is someone who’s perspective isn’t entirely alien (that’s all I’ll say, no spoilers). Yadriel is someone who I rooted for from page one, his personality is just so real, like I’m sure we’ve all known someone like Yadriel – someone who is proud of who they are, but they don’t necessarily fit in, though it’s clear that they very much want to, whether it’s with family or friends or their community at large. And so even though I’m sure there are some folks out there who might skip this book over because they like characters they can relate to, and they don’t think they can relate to a Latinx trans boy, I promise that you’re wrong, and any and all of us can find some way to relate to Yadriel. And this coming from a cis white woman in her mid-twenties. Julian, also, is just such a beautiful contrast on the surface to Yadriel, but at the same time they are both trying to find their voices in unique ways. Also the fact that neither are any sort of stereotype, which is always important.

Despite this being a story that deals with “heavy” topics like trans matters, gay matters, death, and culture/community, this book is fun, and the characters all have a natural humor that allows you to float through the story. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll make you think as well as have all the feels, but this is ultimately a joyful story about being true to yourself no matter what, and that those people who truly love you will be behind you all the way. A quick mention to easily one of my favorite side characters of the year so far, Maritza. She is a curvy, proud Latina and I am here for it. As a vegan, she is held back from accessing her full powers as a bruja as well, as most of her rituals require animal blood, which she refuses to use. But she’s not one of the “stereotypical” vegans who shames others for eating meat (or in this case, using animal blood for rituals). She stands by her beliefs and forges her own path, which I love for her. In a story about boys, I wasn’t expecting a female character to love so much, but I was so pleasantly surprised by Maritza.

And finally, briefly, style/pacing. I thought the pacing of this book was excellent. It didn’t feel rushed, but the pace felt fast enough that had I not kept myself busy all weekend, I could have read it in 24 hours (instead of 48). It didn’t have the problem that some standalone novels do of having taking too much time to build everything up and having the ending fall flat. And, of course, I thought the writing style was beautiful, as I mentioned a bit at the beginning. Thomas’s voice is natural and consistent, and the authenticity rings through from cover to cover. I thought Thomas did an incredible job of telling me so much about Latin American culture, so many different cultures as well, from Haiti to El Salvador to Cuba. The culture was expertly woven throughout, there were very few (if any) noticeable “info dumps” (which is something that I as a writer struggle with), so I’m always impressed when the background and cultural parts of the story (whether it’s real world culture or made-up fantasy culture) are so well threaded throughout a story, like here.

Long story short, if you like YA (regardless of whether you normally read high fantasy or contemporary romance), read Cemetery Boys. You won’t regret it.

If you liked Cemetery Boys, try:

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowel

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld