Iron Widow
2021 • 394 pages


Average rating3.9


CW: foot binding, scenes of violence and abuse, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture.

This book has been one of my most anticipated releases of this year and I was so excited to finally get to it. However, this turned out to be a surprisingly bumpy ride but ultimately, I think it was worth the wait.

I definitely had too many expectations from the book, probably a bit different than what the book actually was too. But truly understanding the author's words about her book helped in tempering my idea of what it was gonna be and I went in with an open mind. I still can't believe that this is YA because while it had the coming of age element, the story is brutal in many ways. The writing is very fast paced but it does take some time to get going, and I kept putting it down after reading a few chapters. But once the halfway mark passed, I got through the whole thing in a single setting. The plot itself is pretty straightforward and simple, and has lot of action sequences involving mecha fights - which were quite new for me because I'm totally unfamiliar with manga or anime. I can't say the world building was a strong point here, but the ending has a pretty unexpected revelation, and I think we'll get more of this world's history in the sequel. The author also sprinkles the text with many popular names from Chinese history and classic literature, so if you're familiar with those, you might find the references a lot of fun. I had read about Tang Dynasty a little when I watching the drama The Long Ballad and I had also gotten some background about the only empress of China, so finding those characters here and understanding how the author interspersed their real life events with her plotline felt very interesting.

But what stays through after finishing or even while reading the book is this utter feeling of rage, especially as a woman. The author has mentioned multiple times that the patriarchal society in this book is inspired by the social classes and customs of ancient China, and while knowing that history might make us feel better for having made progress, reading about the fictional life of a poor young woman of the time from her own POV is devastating. The way women are expected to be submissive and brainwashed about their inferiority and duty since being born doesn't at all feel ancient, because haven't we all experienced some milder form of it even in our lives. So when the heroine of this book wants to destroy this world that has brought nothing but pain to her, I only wanted to cheer her on.

Wu Zetian is basically a young ball of rage. She is anger personified - anger at her family who don't actually care about her, only what honor or money or shame she can bring to them; anger at her society which forces her to live life in a predetermined box with rules and regulations, where she doesn't even have an illusion of choice. But I liked seeing her transform from someone only wanting revenge at the cost of her life, to someone who understood the nuances of people's actions, as well as using the limited power she has gained for the greater good. She is not the chosen one savior heroine we are used to seeing in YA fantasy - maybe she could have been in a kinder world - but here she is a destroyer and you can't actually fault her for her decisions.

Li Shimin and Yizhi are the two love interests and wow it's such a relief not being bogged down by a love triangle. Shimin's backstory is truly tragic and all his struggles and feelings of guilt really tug at your heartstrings. Yizhi on the other hand is a privileged young master, who probably hasn't encountered a lot of troubles in life despite not being the preferred son of his filthy rich father, but him turning out out to be a compassionate young man with a determined heart is a wonder. I found him to be the actual center of this poly triad and he really impressed me with everything he did. The romance doesn't feel out of place at all in this bloody vengeful story - more like the only good thing keeping the main characters tethered to their humanity.

There frankly aren't any other characters whom you can remember fondly in this book. You only feel emotions ranging from pity to loathing to fury depending on who it is, and it gives you immense satisfaction when some of them get their comeuppance.

In the end, this was a violent but entertaining read, maybe even a bit visceral and cathartic in how it left me feeling after I finished it. While taking down the patriarchy seems to be a common theme across many fantasy novels these days, I thought the abundance of historical and mythical figures, as well as the East Asian folklore inspired mechas were a unique and fun touch. And if you like it when women characters are allowed to express their most extreme feelings unapologetically, then you can't go wrong with this book.

August 13, 2021Report this review