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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UPR chapter.

About a year ago, I was scrolling through Her Campus and found an article that caught my attention. It was a lineup of books, and among them was Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. The description of the story was very interesting to me, and the mention of a love triangle ending in a polyamorous relationship between the characters may or may not have been the deciding factor in whether I read the book or not. And now we’re here. I’ve read the book a total of two times, though I certainly plan on going through it again at least once more. And since I can’t seem to stop talking about it, here are my thoughts on the jaw dropping novel. 

Spoiler warning for Iron Widow ahead!

On Xiran Jay Zhao’s official website, Iron Widow is summarized as follows:

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

The way the story is set up can be compared to Pacific Rim, in the sense that humanity is fighting against enormous aliens using mechas piloted by two people. Chrysalises can be likened to Jaegers and Hunduns to Kaiju. However, in this story, the mechas are constructed from the shells of fallen Hunduns and they can transform into more complex forms using the pilot’s qi, which are categorized into the five elemental categories of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood. 

As a protagonist, Wu Zetian is only a role model in the sense that she is determined, courageous, and brave. From the beginning, she was willing to do everything she could to exact revenge on her older sister’s murderer: she enlists as a candidate and undergoes all the necessary preparations and tests to become a concubine pilot, specifically, one who will serve alongside Yang Guang. For context, Yang Guang was considered to be one of the greatest Chrysalis pilots during the time the story takes place in. He was greatly admired and was thought to be the one who would lead humanity to victory against the Hunduns. But, to Zetian, he was simply her sister’s killer, as well as another tool of the sexist society they lived in.

This is not a book to read if you want to find a virtuous hero who goes through a relatable and admirable arc pertaining to their morality. Wu Zetian is a killer. Li Shimin is a killer. Gao Yizhi is a killer. All three of them have their reasons for committing atrocities that would find a million ways to violate the Geneva Conventions. Yet, those of us who enjoyed the book find ourselves rooting for literal war criminals who wind up in a polyamorous relationship with each other.

In my eyes, this is the only correct way to fix their love triangle; Zetian and Yizhi fall for each other in a classic “childhood friends to lovers” trope; Zetian and Shimin form a sort of trauma bond as they try to plot against a system that set them up for failure as the Iron Widow and Iron Demon; Shimin and Yizhi grow to care for each other as Yizhi helps Shimin to overcome his alcoholism. The relationship between the three progresses naturally and the fact that they end up together makes sense within the context of the story. It is yet another instance of them doing something differently than what society has previously told them is right.

This book is violent and visceral in its storytelling, with brutal descriptions of battles, abuse, alcoholism, torture, among other sensitive topics. It is meant to be perceived as fiction and nothing more, despite being based on the story of China’s only female emperor, and Xiran Jay Zhao is quick to inform the reader about this: one of the first pages contains a warning about topics and situations presented over the course of the book, as well as a disclaimer that Iron Widow is a fictional story that is very loosely based on historical figures, and that non-fiction resources should be consulted for an “authentic view of history.”

Overall, I found Iron Widow to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. I’m a sucker for science fiction and Xiran Jay Zhao went above and beyond with this book. The fantastical elements of the story are well-connected to the rest of the story’s setting, which also appeals to my love of fantasy and mythology. The imagery of the Chrysalises, the pilots’ uniforms, the Balanced Matches’ wedding attire; they are detailed and paint a vivid picture in my mind, which I love. 

Then there’s the fact that our main trio become worse people by the end of the book. Sure, we love to see the hero become a shining beacon for others as they better themselves. But this? A bastardization arc a la Anakin Skywalker? Even better. They bring out positive traits within the confines of their relationship, yet are a destructive force as a part of Huaxia. It’s extremely interesting to see how they share these sweet, domestic moments in the privacy of their home, and then go and commit crimes (Example: Zetian and Shimin waterboarding An Lushan with alcohol to gain answers about the piloting system and then having Yizhi watch the video).

Long story short, if you like sci-fi, fantasy, mythology, action, and some romance, this just might be the book for you. Alternatively, you could also go ahead and read this if you want to see fed-up characters just go absolutely feral when given the chance. (If reading’s not for you, Iron Widow is also available as an audiobook, or you could just wait for the movie to be released in a few years).

And, stay tuned for when I inevitably write a part 2 of its sequel, Heavenly Tyrant!

Carola Ríos Pérez is a writer for the Her Campus at UPR chapter. She focuses on writing reviews and analyses about films, series, and books, as well as sharing some of her life experiences through personal essays. In 2021, she graduated with honors from Colegio Nuestra Señora de Belén. Initially, she began her career as a university undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus as a Communications student, with a major in Public Relations and Publicity. Currently, she is a junior in Humanities, majoring in Modern Languages, with a focus on Portuguese and German. Other than academics and Her Campus, Carola enjoys kickboxing and spending some quality time with her three cats, Keanu, Ginger, and Kai. Her passion for languages is reflected in her music tastes, and there’s no song she won’t listen to at least once. Occasionally, inspiration will strike, and Carola will focus on writing her own stories, heavily inspired by the Young Adult novels that shaped her teenage years. Every once in a blue moon, though, she will either go into a minor baking frenzy to procrastinate or pick up her guitar and “jam” her worries away.