I’m not going to bury the lede on this one: I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. The nutshell premise is undeniably cool: space fantasy with strong Pacific Rim vibes, in that you have these mecha-type constructs piloted by psychically-linked soldiers who are fighting terrible alien monsters, powering their robots through the power of their chi, but everything inflected strongly through Chinese history and mythology. Except the system is horribly corrupt: girl pilots (we’ll say girls because the protagonist always does, and they’re all under 25 anyway) are “concubine pilots” whose psychic energy is drained by their male counterparts, often leaving them dead. That’s where our protagonist, Zetian, starts from: her older sister was killed by her pilot before she even went into battle, meaning the family doesn’t even get a combat payout for her death. Zetian decides she’ll volunteer, get herself matched with that same pilot, and kill him, and that’s as far as her plan goes, which, fair: she’s a hotheaded, grief-stricken teenager, so long-term planning doesn’t interest her. Except she winds up psychically-draining (and thus killing) that pilot in her first battle, making her the Iron Widow of the title, immediately paired up with a death-row murderer, Li Shimin (aka the Iron Demon) for her future battles as well as a struggle against the corrupt, unjust system which seeks to take advantage of them both and exploit them for all they’re worth (and then some). Oh, and there’s her hometown rich boy crush, Gao Yizhi, who also turns up to complicate the relationship of trust that Zetian needs to build with Shimin. Also, all these battles are filmed by camera drones and broadcast by media conglomerates who turn the pilots into celebrities. (A lot of these details invite Hunger Games comparisons, too, which is not a turnoff.)
I want to say, first off, the ideas in the book are great. The setting? Excellent. The use of actual Chinese culture and history as well as modern media culture? Nice. The subversion of frequent YA tropes like the obligatory love triangle? Appreciate it! The twist at the end? Definitely cool, and sets up intriguing new directions for future installments.
But the plot itself, and character development, are on shakier ground. There’s no subtext to this story (seriously, none), and if you missed Zetian being mad about the misogyny of her culture the first time, you will catch it on one of the next fifty times she very explicitly states it. (It’s a theme worth taking on, and one of the reasons I was interested, so I’m disappointed in the treatment, not the centrality.) Plot points that could add subtlety or show off our characters’ cleverness are glossed over or skipped entirely (a whole kidnapping plot they come up with? all details and logic of it are mostly handwaved away). The building of character relationships happens in choppy fits and starts, and really, most characters beyond Zetian herself feel rather minimally developed. Some of it feels like debut-novel choppiness, which is understandable, since it is a debut novel. But it also feels like a lot of missed opportunities. Zetian comes to her position with no ties of tenderness to anyone except Yizhi, and she even seems half-indifferent to him at times until she decides she’s in love with him. Katniss from The Hunger Games was an equally furious and hotheaded girl, but also one animated by deep and profound ties of love in addition to her rage at injustice, and the difficulty Zhao has in infusing Zetian’s relationships with similar affection flattens her somewhat, and makes it harder to see how she does develop her romantic relationships (she has no other kind of relationships, really, alas).
There’s a lot of potential for this to get stronger, as the series goes on, but I was a bit disappointed by installment #1. It’s burning it up on Goodreads, and I can see why, but it’s just not hitting the spot for me.