Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Photo Credit: Amazon

Bibliographic Information:

Title: Iron Widow

Author: Xiran Jay Zhao

ISBN: 978-0735269934

Publisher: Penguin Teen

Publishing Date: 2021

Genre/Format of the Item: Book

Fantasy/Science Fiction


2022 Barnes & Noble Children’s and Young Adult Book Award (Winner of Young Adult Award)

2022 Pacific Northwest Book Award Winner

A Polygon Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of 2021

An Indigo Best Teen Book (2021)

A New York Public Library Best Book for Teens (2021)

An Amazon Editors’ Pick for Best Young Adult

A Canadian Children’s Book Centre Favourite Book of the Year (2021)

Reading Level/Interest Level:

Grade level 10-12 (Novelist)

Photo Credit: Zetian and Shimin by 妄猫Sama on Weibo,

Plot Summary: Zeitan lives in a village outside of the city of Huaxia, an area protected by the Great Wall of China and the only safe place for humans. Many centuries ago, alien Hundans landed on Earth and have been fighting for control of the planet ever since. Humans rely on their life-force Qi to power enormous fighting Chrysalises, giant mechas that can change energy force and shape, to fight off the Hunduns. Females have one main role- to become “concubines” (co-pilots) for the strongest male pilots that fly Chrysalises, but frequently this ends in death for the female. Zeitan’s sister was killed prematurely by one of the pilots and Zeitan decides to avenge her sister’s death by killing one of the greatest pilots in the force. Zeitan manages to take mental control of the mecha and kill the male pilot, thus granting her the title of “Iron Widow”. The people of Huaxia are outraged by Zeitan’s Qi life force and strength and she is forced to marry the the most feared pilot, Li Shimin. Shimin notorious for killing his family in cold blood and carries the title as the most powerful pilot in Huaxia.

Zeitan must find it in herself to work with Shimin in order not to be controlled and killed by him. Zeitan’s only friend, Yizhi, the rish son of a media mogul, manages to find her and help her understand Shimin. Together the three must wage a war against the Hunduns, but also, they must show the people of Huaxia that they are not monsters themselves. Zeitan will fight in many battles, but she will also find love and learn to appreciate the love in those around her, as she prepares for the biggest fight of her life against the Hunduns.

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Author Background: Xiran Jay Zhao grew up in Vancouver, Canada. Their parents immigrated from China and settled in Canada where Zhao claims they were “raised by the internet” (Zhao, n.d.). Zhao graduated from Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University with a biochemical disease research degree but graduated at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and looked to writing as a means to make money. They are currently an award-winning author who also likes to cosplay. They enjoy creating YouTube videos about Chinese history and culture and creating TikTok videos for fun (Zhao, n.d.).

According to Zhao’s website, the main character is based on Wu Zeitan, the only female emporer in Chinese history (Zhao, n.d.).

(One World Publications, 2021)

Critical Evaluations: The Iron Widow offers its readers a perfect blend of adventure, romance, thriller suspense, and science fiction/fantasy. The main characters are well crafted and relatable. The setting is a grim futuristic Earth that has been taken over by aliens. This sets the tone for a volatile world where humans must fight for survival. Zhao is able to craft a novel set in a dystopian world where men control everything and yet a powerful female protagonist prevails against all odds. I think that this makes it a very appealing premise for teens that like science fiction/fantasy. The story is easy to follow and is written in a linear fashion. I appreciate the acceptance that Zeitan has towards the relationship of Yizho and Shimin. Zeitan, Yizho, and Shimin have created a bond that is large enough to hold the love of each person for one another without jealousy or judgement. This inclusive approach puts a LBGTQI postive spin on the book which is refreshing for this genre. The ending was the one part of the book that left me wanting for more. Zeitan is forced to make a choice that will alter the future of her world. It seems to me like there might be a sequel based on the “cliffhanger” type ending. This book will appeal to teens because it offers a fast-paced adventure story with strong characters that are dealing with issues that teens can relate to such as difficult families, insecurities about love and relationships, overcoming the status quo, and finding one’s own path in life.

And I want my mother and grandmother to be that way too. What’s holding them back is that they don’t believe there’s any way for a woman to live a meaningful life other than by rearing a family. I’ll show them; I’ll prove to them that it’s not true. We can live for more. We can live for justice. Change. Vengeance. Power” –Zietan, pg. 298

Zhao. X. J. (2021). Iron Widow. Penguin Teen

Creative Use for a Library Program: The Iron Widow would make an excellent addition to a teen fantasy night at the library. Imagine this: a group of 24 teens on 4 tables seating 8 people. Each teen has read the Iron Widow and now must create a role playing game with their pod in one hour. Teens can arrive in costume and choose their characters from the book. They can create mechs and battle it out, while trying to “earn” energy points in their downtime. The rules can be simple or complex but there must be at least 8 characters, weapons, a description of the world, energy points, and a way to win. Then the teens can battle it out after presenting their game! The library can have a few small token prizes for the winner of each table.

Speedround/Book Trailer: If you like fierce heroines who are willing to fight to the death for what they believe in, then the Iron Widow is a book for you. In this futuristic world, it is humans against alien Hunduns, but it is also a world where men control and dispose easily of women. Zeitan is fed up and ready to fight for her life and show her people what she has the power to accomplish.

Potential Challenge Issues/Defense Preparations: People may disapprove of the homosexual relationship that Shimin and Yizhi develop. They may also disapprove of the implied sexual interactions between Shimin, Yizhi, and Zeitan as a threesome. Blatant misogyny is evident in this culture, although Zeitan makes a concerted effort to fight against it. In defending this novel, I would tell people that sexual relations between men or as a threesome is not a subject that is censored by libraries. Authors have the right to allow their characters freedom of expression and love and I would point out that the relationships between Shimin, Yizhi, and Zeitan are respectful and mutual. The cultural practice of “sacraficing” females so that men can fight with more power is disturbing, but many characters in the book, including men, disagree with this practice and fight to overturn it. I would say this is a novel with a powerful female protagonist that fights for what she believes in.

Reason for Inclusion: I loved this book, including the strong female protagonist, but also I grew to love her two male partners as well. It has diverse characters and a very engaging storyline that will captivate teens immediately. Teen collections need authors of varied backgrounds and writing styles, and Xiran Jay Zhao is a talented Chinese author who deserves to be showcased and read. The genre of science fiction/fantasy is craving authors other than straight, white men and Iron Widow is a stunning addition to any library collection.


One World Publications. (2021, June 3). Xiran Jay Zhao on Iron Widow [Video]. YouTube.

Zhao, X. J. (n.d.). Press Kit.

Zhao. X. J. (2021). Iron Widow. Penguin Teen


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