Time for another “Book of the Week!” post. I know, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but here it is. Enjoy! This one’s review is also on Good Reads and Amazon if you want to follow me there. 🙂
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book’s premise was super interesting. So much so that I skipped other books on my TBR list and immediately bought if from Amazon to read. I have been looking for more sci-fi featuring non-white worlds and this one definitely fit the bill. Not only is it set in a “near-future-past” China, but it has the added benefit of providing commentary on Chinese gender ideals and misogyny. Essentially “yay feminism”! We need that more in books. Some Spoilers ahead…
While the story was a compelling read and the world was interesting, it was not IMMERSIVE. There is little explained about Hunduns or how the world functions. I was particularly annoyed that I never found out exactly how the MC’s big sister was killed (was it in battle? Was it before battle? what makes me care about her death?). This fact is in the back cover blurb, yet it’s not exactly resolved.
Additinally, I found that I never actually liked the MC all that much. Zeitan is a woman rebelling against the traditional gender roles, while also having been subjected to them her whole like (read: bound feet, sold as a concubine pilot etc…). However, her rebellion is really only conveyed in the form of anger and and hatred toward all other women, her family, her partner, and the boy who loves her. I can see that as a starting point to her character arc, but the problem is that barely changes. She eventually develops compassion to the two love interest boys but even that is just kind of dumped on the page and doesn’t so much “develop” as “lightswitch on”. She’s the same way at the end of the book.
Additionally, you can definitely tell this is a YA written by a young author. There was some very “now” slang that pulled me out of the very immersive world and plunked me right down in 2021-2022. I am not specifically the YA audience, being an adult hard sci-fi fan, but I still don’t think these slang words were needed to help younger readers identify with the 18 year old character. Additionally, there’s WAY too much character internal monologue and “telling vs. showing”. Like a lot. Pretty much the author is telling me what I should think rather than leading me to my own conclusion.
On the plus side, this book’s exploration of gender and alternative relationship styles is needed in the industry. I really enjoyed the line: “On a scale of one to a strange man asking you to smile, how creepy was that?” However (and more on this later) she falls into the trap of all girlboss characters in that she pretty much just adopts a masculine attitude instead.
BUT There is a 3-way polyamorous relationship that gets a bit of page time, which made me very happy. I wish it had been developed better and felt more “natural” rather than “oh all of a sudden the two boys are kissing and now that’s out of the way…onto killing hunduns”. But, representation is representation in that regards and I guess this one is a start. I do believe that younger readers (heck, all readers) should have that exposure in literature/pop culture to normalize equality, inclusivity and acceptance.
So why the 2-star rating? well (END SPOILERS AHEAD)…….
I was very disappointed with the ending. This does tie in a little bit to how the MC didn’t grow all that well. At the end of the book as they confront the aliens on the aliens’ home turf, there is EVERY indication that compassion (Not killing the alien leaders once they were weakened) could win the day over violence (killing them). However, the author essentially allowed the MC to ignore those pleas for help even though to me, the reader, IT WAS CLEAR THAT THE HUMANS WERE NOW THE BAD GUYS.
This did two things for me.
1. It completely subverted the gender commentary of the rest of the book. The MC who’d been rebelling over being a woman by taking on stereotypical masculine traits (anger, violence, dispassion) throughout the whole thing, essentially just “switched genders” and uses violence to solve her problem. I really was hoping Zeitan would split the approach–violence at times, like against the people who killed her partner, and compassion at others. This would have proven her as truly non-binary in identification rather than falling into the trap of what A LOT of “female badasses” fall into–just turning into a guy. What this did for me was make all the commentary over “feminine (or non-masculine) power” being strong irrelevant because the story turns right back into glorifying “masculine power”.
and 2. It really made me lose hope for the humanity of her world. As we find out, it was the humans who had invaded an alien planet (not vice versa as they’d all been led to believe) and the “gods” were the humans that had put them there. But since the MC just goes off and kills a whole race of aliens before she finds out they’ve all been duped and now can’t do anything about it, I kind of stopped caring. Her reaction to this information is to scream and then the book is over. I really wish she’d had time to do one more act of rebellion (like, you know, letting the weakened aliens live) which would put her in danger of the “gods” wrath. That would have made me want to read the sequel. However, as it stands, there is nothing enticing me toward book 2. I don’t particularly like the MC and I didn’t like her actions with the aliens so while there is one intriguing loose end that definitely could flesh out into a whole story, it’s not enough for me.
Also, : the author introduced a new character, vital to the MC’s triumph, in the last 10% of the book, but once he was there he didn’t do ANYTHING to improve the MC’s growth. Literally he was just a body and a machine the MC could use to enact her violence. This was disappointing as well because he could have been there at the crux of the MC’s teeter between compassion and violence. He could have been the bridge between the masculine and feminine. He could have been so many things…except that he was literally nothing and I’ve already forgotten everything about him except that he was a boy emperor sometime in the past.
All in all, I like the idea of this alternative story WRT gender roles, alternative relationships, feminism and “sticking it to the man” but the execution is ham-handed, uncomfortable, and IMO not quite right. Using the idea of feminism as “F** YOU PATRIARCY” is actually super toxic and counteracts its goal by making the traditional patriarchy push back against the feminists. We don’t need fighting, we need a middle ground: compassion with strength.
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