Caramel has a big appetite for all books, and he loves to share what he has read with the readers of this blog. This week, he got his paws on Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao, a 2021 young adult novel Sprinkles had intended for Marshmallow. And then for the next couple days he could not be separated from it, until he was finally done reading. Today, he discusses this book with Sprinkles, who is taking notes and asking questions. There may be more spoilers in this review than usual.
Sprinkles: So Caramel, I had thought this would be a book for Marshmallow, but you took it and read it first. What appealed to you so much from the beginning?
Caramel: The robots on the back cover.
S: I had not even seen that as a mecha before you showed it to me! But yes, now I can see that it looks like a mechanical dragon.
C: It is a mechanical bird.
S: Really? Tell me more.
C: That thing on the cover is the Vermillion Bird. It is a Chrysalis, a mecha that the humans in Huaxia use to fight the giant aliens who are native to the planet.
S: Ooh, so the main character is a human living on a planet that is not the Earth, and there are native creatures on this planet, and the humans are fighting them.
C: Well, we don’t learn that the Hundun are native to the planet until the end actually. So that is a big spoiler there!
S: Oops! I did not know. But did you know that the Vermillion Bird is actually a traditional Chinese symbol? Wikipedia says “it represents the Fire element, the direction south, and the season summer”.
S: Does that match with anything in the book?
S: Okay, that is neat! So the author has incorporated a bunch of Chinese mythology into the story then! Pretty cool… Why don’t you tell me more about the story?
C: Well, the Chrysalises are powered by a woman and a man, and almost always things end up with the woman dying.
S: That’s kind of weird.
C: Actually there are only three women who have ever survived being in a Chrysalis and the main character Zetian is one of them.
S: And is she the narrator?
C: Yes. And the book is in first person, and I really like that. She is also always writing in the present tense, which makes things sound a lot more like they are happening as she writes. And that makes things more interesting.
S: I can see that!
S: So the inside cover jacket describes the book as follows:
In Huaxia, the highest honor for a young girl is to be selected as a concubine-pilot: supporters paired up with male pilots to power up Chrysalises, the giant transforming mechas that humanity relies on to battle the massive aliens that lurk behind the Great Wall. But the honor often ends in death, and when eighteen-year-old Zetian’s sister is killed by an ace pilot, she signs up to avenge her.
C: Yes, exactly what I told you!
S: I can see that. So then what happens?
C: She does take her revenge, and the pilot is killed, and that is why she is called an iron widow.
S: But the book does not end there.
C: No, it does not. In fact all this happens quite early on. To be precise it happens at the end of chapter 7, and there are 47 chapters and an epilogue.
S: So there is a lot more that happens after, right?
C: Oh, yes. And it is all pretty interesting.
S: You also said there was some mushiness and some bad words.
C: Yes, Marshmallow calls it mushy, and I just skip those things. And they use the F-word a couple times.
S: Okay, so about that mushiness: does Zetian have a romantic interest?
S: But it is not essential to the rest of the story?
C: Well, a little, but I did not need to know all the details of them kissing and so on.
S: When it is a young adult book, sometimes those things seem to show up.
C: Well, it is still a pretty cool book. And apparently there will be a second book, but it’s not coming out till next summer! Can you believe that? How am I supposed to wait that long?
S: I don’t know Caramel. I guess you just have to read other books in the meantime.
C: And I want to talk to the author and complain! I really want to read that second book!
S: Well, it may not be all up to the author. Anyways, so there is a second book. Does that mean this book ends in a cliffhanger?
C: Yes. It’s a big bad cliffhanger. Like the Big Bad Wolf.
S: What do you mean? Doesn’t the main part of the story of this book get resolved?
C: Yes, there is some resolution, I’m not telling what, but there is so much more that is going to happen next, I’m sure. And I want to know about it.
S: I can see this was a fun book to read! It has mechas, aliens, space ships, and all kinds of fun stuff you like.
S: So why don’t you give me your three-word description for the book?
C: Mechas against patriarchy.
S: Well, “patriarchy” is a big word for you Caramel. Do you know what it means?
C: Yes. It means the men are on top and the women are not. And in this book, Zetian is living in a world which uses women up in these mechas. And she won’t have any more of it.
S: Those three words will work then. Though it is maybe more correct to say “Zetian against patriarchy”, no?
C: Yes, but I have to mention the mechas! And while I’m doing that, we have to link to the author’s page which has a lot of cool drawings of the mechas in the book!
S: Sure, Caramel. Those pictures are pretty amazing. And on a related page, the author writes that the book is a “sci-fi retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history”.
C: That is really cool! I did not know that when I was reading. That makes total sense though! But I want to read the next book, too. Maybe it will be like when she is the emperor? It is called “Heavenly Tyrant” so that makes sense!
S: Yes, I agree Caramel. Definitely something to look forward to for next year. So what do you want to tell our readers as we wrap things up?
C: Stay tuned for more book bunny reviews!