I don’t remember why I pre-ordered this (via Powell’s, by the way, not the “large river monopoly” website) except a vague sensation that several people whose opinion I trusted were very excited at its impending release. And, hey, the elevator pitch (anime-style giant-mech action in a strongly historical-Chinese kind of setting) is nothing to sneeze at.

Let me get the recommendation part out of the way right now: If the aforementioned elevator pitch intrigues you, buy this book. If a story of a young woman realizing that a great deal of what she’s been told about How Things Are Supposed To Work is Just Plain Wrong and then proceeding to wreck everything in the process of Doing Something About It sounds like your idea of a good time, buy this book. If you want a “YA” tagged story where the romance bits both do and do not go the way you mostly expect, get on board this shiny mecha, folks.

More thoughts after the break. Here, have a pull quote:

“What I have learned through this madness is that you can absolutely solve your problems by throwing money at them. If you can’t, you probably don’t have enough money for that particular problem.”

IRON WIDOW, Xiran Jay Zhao

The “YA” section isn’t where I normally do my shopping. I’m a cishet dude pushing 50, and stories about youngsters saving the world and kissing on other youngsters in the process, while retaining some of their old appeal, aren’t exactly my bread & butter anymore. (It’s a lot more soothing comfort viewing and grouchy robots pretending not to care, nowadays.) It feels like this is the bucket into which some of the more interesting stories are winding up, however, especially ones that play with established romantic tropes.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that I was pleasantly surprised where this book went in that regard. (Not fully my cuppa, as it were, but it made sense in this story and hooray for that!)

The meat and core and heart and soul and burning energy of the story, though, is in our POV protagonist, Wu Zetian. (Family name first.) The story’s told in present tense first person, which I found interesting partly because present tense means not doing any of that heavy-handed “but as we later learned, I’d thought wrong” foreshadowing that past tense narration is prone to. (Which can be done well, just often isn’t.)

There are some smart, interesting choices as to where and how to focus on the brutality of our heroine’s life. This being a civilization modeled on imperial-era China, well, we get a right-up-front dissertation on foot binding. A painful, pointed description. I’m not spoiling anything, to be clear: This is almost the first thing we hear about from Zetian’s narration, as she navigates homeward with the aid of a cane. And yet, this isn’t a grimdark story that wallows in certain other atrocities one would expect from certain other writers as “just depicting how bad things can really be.” It’s unflinching, but makes careful choices about the horrors it depicts.

The mecha combat stuff won’t be too hard to grasp for anyone with even a passing familiarity with giant-robot anime shows, and for folks like me who have difficulty visualizing the exact specifics of described action, well, you’ll get the gist and what’s really important is what’s going on with the pilots anyway. Action drives and is derived from character, after all. For those of you who do follow anime, it’s not much of a stretch to say that this book is the result of the author watching Darling In The Franxxx (I couldn’t get past the first couple episodes, ugh) and basically going, “I have some thoughts and you will all hear about them!” Yes, the mechs are piloted in tandem, paired up boys with girls, and the girls get the sharper end of the deal in almost all cases.

It’s kind of a horrible system. Good thing we have a protagonist who’s ready to dismantle the whole blasted thing, eh?

How about the rest of the cast? Well, good news, tropes fans! We have The Childhood Friend and The Scoundrel With A Heart Of Gold, a Surprisingly Decent Authority Figure, a Rich Asshole, and yes I know those aren’t official TV Tropes names but you get what I’m saying, don’t you? But remember John Rogers’ dictum: “You say ‘trope,’ I say ‘well-honed narrative tool’.” Just because you can recognize the roles these characters play doesn’t mean you can wholly predict how things will shake out.

Speaking of predictions: Because of the present tense narration, seeding in some of the bigger-picture questions can be tricky. Xiran Jay Zhao does a very clever thing here, dropping in just enough occasional factoids or seemingly-rhetorical questions here and there to keep a sense of, “Wait, what?” in the back of your mind throughout. You always feel like there’s something just a bit wrong going on here, like the entire setting is wonky somehow. (I mean, above and beyond the ongoing sacrifices of young women.) And, because they play fair with their world-building and those hints, you’re rewarded if you’re able to piece together the clues. (I won’t spoil the result. You should absolutely read it for yourself and see. I’m usually bad at figuring out this sort of puzzle and I got pretty close. Go me!)

So, to wrap things up: Iron Widow is a heck of a ride, a brutal and take-no-prisoners attack on the notion of traditional gender roles, a dissertation on learning how to care for those important to you and figuring out who those people actually are (and aren’t), and a marvel of anime-style science-fictional world-building that I want to see more of. What’s more, it’s not a doorstop of a tome; I polished it off over a weekend. Bring on the next one!