To save their country from alien invaders, boys of Huaxia become pilots of huge transforming mecha called Chrysalises. But the boys do not have the power to pilot these mecha alone… they need a concubine… a woman… to siphon qi from. Unfortunately this arrangement is often fatal for the woman. But because the government pays very well for these sacrifices, poor families from all over Huaxia offer up their daughters in the hopes that their deaths will benefit their sons.
This is what happened to 18-year-old Zeitan’s older sister. Except her sister died at the hands of her pilot-husband and not in battle, which meant her family got nothing. Now with vengeance in mind, Zeitan offers herself up to the very man who murdered her sister. And she succeeds… but not in the way anyone expected. During battle, she kills him through their psychic link, earning herself the title of Iron Widow.
Enraged, the powers that be pair her up with their strongest pilot, Li Shimin. Shimin is a murderer… a man who killed his own family. He’s an alcoholic. And no woman has survived a battle with him.
Okay who’s ready for some trigger warnings? Because–Oh boy!–does this book need them. Triggers for: Rape, domestic abuse, foot binding, sexism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, murder, physical abuse, alcoholism, substance abuse, gaslighting, parental abuse, spousal abuse, major character death (I mean…*points to the blurb*), and more I’ve probably missed. Please make sure you’re in a good place before reading this.
Also this review will contain some spoilers.
But they’re good spoilers. The kind that will likely be important to potential readers. Now that I’ve gotten the warnings out of the way, I need to gush about this book. It’s so freaking good, y'all. Like seriously good. Like I want all the fanfic for it now. First off, it’s a novel written by a queer Author of Color @xiranjayzhao. You might know them for some of their other online things. But this is their debut and it is faboo.
We totally need more of this. Seriously, we need more of this. Additionally, I’m happy to see a book that is rooted in Chinese culture and mythology playing with so many tropes.
I absolutely adored how this book flipped a lot of tropes on their ears while at the same time playing a lot of them straight. This book read like a fanfic, but that is not a bad thing. Fanfic is not a bad word. Fanfic is an incredibly popular and influential type of derivative fiction that is produced by fans for fans. So when I say that the book reads like a fanfic, it’s a compliment. It means that the book was readable and could appeal to an audience who wants something familiar while also having their alternate universes. Because that’s what this is. An AU of Chinese history and mythology with sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal elements. If you like that kind of thing, you will love this. This is the kind of book that readers of the Hunger Games will love. Seriously. I got so many Hunger Games vibes from this, and I loved it.
This is also a YA fantasy novel that contra to what is typical in the genre goes “Nope! No love triangles for you! We’re going to have some healthy polyamory.” and I am 100000000% here for it. Like seriously… no more love triangles… give me polyamory instead. And it’s an equal triad. Squeeeeeeeeee! Like seriously. Readers do need to note that there are closed door sex scenes. What that means is that there is implied sex on the page but nothing is shown. There’s some kissing and heavy petting, but that’s about it. Nothing too explicit. And nothing that would take this out of YA.
So let’s talk characters. Zeitan has a very Katniss feel to her. She’s protective of her family to a point. But moreso she’s protective of those that she’s deemed as innocent and those who have been wronged by the system. She starts out as focused on only one goal – kill the man who killed her sister. And when she succeeds, she discovers a new goal – save the women who are sacrificed/murdered by a system that chews them up and spits them out like cherry pits. She’s strong, but she’s also flawed. She’s powerful… but she also has bound feet so cannot fight physically. She is a disabled heroine who kicks butt and takes names. And she’s also human. Her family doesn’t value her, but they want her to value her family. It’s something that is common in a lot of cultures not just Chinese ones. Part of her growth is learning to value herself for herself and not just as an extension of others. Her character growth is great, and I am here for it.
Then there are the love interests. The first is Yizhi: a rich, scholarly boy from the capital. He’s very much a beta hero. The kind of guy who is safe. Gentle. He’s a good doobie who is willing to let Zeitan take the lead.
Then there’s Shimin. He’s darker. An addict. He’s your brooding YA hero. with a twist. He’s closer to the alpha male archetype but also not fully there. He lets Zeitan take the lead as well when it comes to their relationship. He’s not going to force himself on her and he’s got some of my favorite lines in the whole book. I also love him because he owns his mistakes. He knows he’s got blood on his hands and that he has to atone for it. He’s like a mix of Gale Hawthorne meets Han Solo. I loved him. I loved them both.
There’s a lot of heavy and difficult themes in this book. But I never felt that things got too heavy-handed. The story is compelling and it’s definitely got reread value. It’s the kind of book that makes you think while being entertaining. As a note, the book does end on a bit of a cliffhanger. A very Empire Strikes Back cliffhanger. Which seems to be the norm for YA duologies nowadays. But it is something people need to be aware of. Honestly, I feel like this is a book for everyone. I loved it. It was fun. I loved the themes. I loved the characters. I literally gasped out loud at one point in the plot. So of course I’m going to give this…
If this is your jam, you can get it here.
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I received an ARC of this book via Netgalley