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Book Tour: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Empress Wu Zetian is a name you'll often come across in Asian history books, but Xiran Jay Zhao, in their debut novel, reimagines her as a teen who disguises herself as a concubine-pilot to pursue her personal revenge against Yang Guang, an esteemed pilot who caused her sister's death, all the while reclaiming her control as a woman in the misogynistic system prominent in Zhao's futuristic world inspired by Ancient China.

Often iterated as a cross between The Handmaid's Tale and Pacific Rim, Zhao weaves a gripping, brash story featuring an unapologetic, fierce, and unyielding heroine, whose pursuit for personal vengeance while dismantling a patriarchial system, is empowering and thrilling to witness. Zetian may come across as unlikable to some, but readers must understand that her anger and characterization are grounded from the societal barriers that shaped her life and molded her into someone who will fight to free herself from the shackles of a patriarchal society; that her anger and desperation stem from her personal experiences to which no other woman, child, or girl must suffer as much as she did. In the midst of it all, Zetian comes out as a compelling, morally-grey character in this fast-paced tale that Zhao carefully spunned with their own modern take on Chinese mythology, nuanced with an extensive world-building that's as magnificent as the main character.

All in all, Iron Widow is a breathtaking, thrilling debut novel that defies the norms of a typical YA book. With every page turned, Iron Widow will throw its readers into a journey of twists that will grip them with riveting action through an exhilarating, brutal tale of a brilliantly penned heroine whom you all need to steer clear of.

This book has clearly punched its way to one of my top favorite reads for this year and deserves a 4.5-star rating.

Thank you to Caffeine Book Tours and Penguin Random House Canada for the complimentary e-ARC in exchange for an honest review as part of my book tour stop.



Title: Iron Widow

Author: Xiran Jay Zhao

Publisher: Penguin Teen Canada

Publication date: 21 September 2021

Age group: Young Adult

Genres: Science Fiction, Historical Fiction


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.

On-page Representation

  • POC (East Asian)

  • LGBTQ+ (Bisexuality, polyamory)

Trigger and Content Warnings

  • Violence and abuse, footbinding, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture.

Book links




Xiran Jay Zhao is a first-gen immigrant from small-town China who was raised by the Internet​. A recent graduate of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, they wrote science fiction and fantasy while they probably should have been studying more about biochemical pathways. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture. Iron Widow is their first novel.

Author website:

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