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Iron Widow - Book Review

While sitting in quarantine this holiday break (I'm the only adult at home without Covid so far - thanks for asking - everyone else is recovering nicely, but gosh is Season 3 of the pandemic opening with a bang), I had the chance to read Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. It's a dystopian YA sci-fi novel set in a China-based future where humans are defending their world against alien invaders, with a young woman as the point-of-view protagonist who ends up in a pretty well-represented polyamorous relationship for a chunk of the story.

If I set aside that YA really isn't my favorite genre, I'd give the book itself four and a half stars out of five - and a big part of that is that the polyamorous representation is really top rate, some of the clearest and best I've ever read for a combination of realistic emotions and challenges, and likeable protagonists that draw you in to the fast-moving story. Because dystopian YA isn't my favorite, (I grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I'm a little burnt out on YA dystopias from my own teen days) it took me a session of putting the book down and picking it back up to get deep enough in for the characters and pacing to 'catch' me, but once the plot kicked in, I couldn't put it down. The scifi nerd inside me is excited to see the possible details of the world's technology we might learn after some twists revealed near the end of the story, and hopefully the author will deliver. They have another book coming soon, but it's in a different series.

Amazon's description of the book focuses on the feminist angle of the story - that Zetian, our point-of-view character, is out to upend a system that largely uses women and girls as supports for men's endeavors, including as literal fuel for the pilots and ships in the war against the aliens. Our plot essentially begins when she instead uses a pilot as fuel and pilots the ship herself, becoming 'the Iron Widow' and requiring that the Army pair her with the strongest pilot. The tradition of essentially marrying pilots to any women who survive more than a single battle forces her into a close relationship with this pilot, Li Shimin, and while there is the very direct and heavy-handed strictly feminist or women's liberation reading of their growing relationship, the nuances of the two of them grappling with his role in upholding a system that viewed her as disposable while he himself did not, and the two of them coming into a partnership intending to work against that system from within, is a pretty good allegory for non-normative relationships and intentionally building relationships in general. The inclusion of a romance from her past that re-emerges and them eventually becoming a vee and then a triad solidifies this - and it's all done pretty well, with each of the three protagonists trying to tell the others that it's ok, they can pick the other and be happy, and other such monogamy-assuming things, and only a couple little speeches that veer into polyamory-lecture territory. (They're pretty good polyamory lectures, to be fair - the one on infinite love and jealousy not being important was good enough that I sent my partner a picture of it as I was reading.) By the time the relationships solidify, you like these characters and you want them to be happy, and their bumps of insecurity and not knowing what to do make perfect sense in the context of both the plot, and their age and figuring out what they want. It's melodramatic sometimes - but they're all supposed to be 18-20. I don't know anyone who wasn't melodramatic at that age.

Fast-paced, engaging, largely not about the romance even though will-or-wont-they is a plot point and there are a few relationship shifts, Iron Widow is worth a read if you like dystopias, like sci-fi, like YA, or want to smile at some polyamory representation. If you have a tween or teen reader who is old enough for fade-to-black intimacy being alluded to repeatedly but nothing explicit in the story, this is great for them, and the main character is most things you could want out of a spunky, strong female lead. 4.5 out of 5 stars.


*Affiliate link to Amazon included because I like to eat, dear readers, and this post is not sponsored in any way.

In housekeeping news: I'm having some technical issues but hope to have a new podcast episode up tonight; Polyamory 101 runs next Sunday Jan 9, 2022 at 3 pm Eastern and there are still spots available if folks are interested in attending. It's $15 for the one class or the bundle of that and Beyond the Kitchen Table on the 23rd is $20. Find class registration information and other links at New merch is up here at the website, we've got pride stuff! Go check it out, the stickers, mugs, and notebooks are cute.

It's official, I'll be teaching at Tethered Together in Stamford, CT, March 11-14! I'll be running two classes and a polyamory meetup event over the weekend there, so if you're into rope, circus arts and relationships, go to and register to join us for the weekend!

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The book is very good, I also want to buy a geometry dash copy to read it again


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