Iron Widow: Inclusive Classroom Library

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is one of our school’s considerations for the grade nine de-streamed classroom. These are my thoughts on whether or not we should include this book in our book club selection. To learn more about our Inclusive Classroom Library Project, please click here.

A Very Brief Plot Outline

Iron Widow is set in the future in Huaxia. Attitudes and traditions in Huaxia resemble medieval China. 

The Huaxians are at war with extra-terrestrial invaders called the Hunduns. To fight these aliens, a male and female soldier (representing yin and yang) power magical machines with their qi. Typically, women die in these machines as men drain their qi.

Wu Zetian joins the army as a concubine to avenge her sister’s death; however, the moment she chooses to exact her revenge, the battle alarm sounds. Now, she believes that her partner will kill her in battle.

In an unexpected twist, Zetian drains her partner’s qi and kills him. Now, the army must figure out what to do with her. While some strategists believe she is a powerful weapon, others think she is dangerous and should be killed.

General Thoughts

I am not a big fan of magical fantasy books, but this was an amazing novel. I can’t get over how good it is! 

The anti-colonial message is wrapped into every layer of the novel. Rage against colonialism radiates from Zetian’s every word and action. Whenever she comes across a new injustice, she wants to kill it. No matter the cost, Zetian can’t help but despise the different types of oppression that exist in Huaxia, and by extension, the real world.

The Iron Widow provides the reader with a modern voice that demands attention. The contemporary ideal, one that typifies the anti-colonial attitude, is voiced in a beautiful but furious way.   

Who Will Like This?

I believe anyone who has felt marginalized because of “the system” or European tradition will enjoy this novel. The type of oppression one has encountered in the past doesn’t matter because Zhao has introduced many different types of marginalization.

Potential Problems

Struggling readers will find some of the vocabulary, ideas, and writing a bit difficult to understand. The length of the novel will also turn some students away.


We will have meaningful but easier-to-read novels for students who may struggle with this one.

Iron Widow is a must-have in our collection! I would even love to do this as a classroom novel instead of To Kill a Mockingbird. Zhao’s anti-colonial message is the next generation’s voice and is too important to ignore. This is the kind of literature we need in the classroom to move social attitudes forward.  

To learn more about our Inclusive Classroom Library Project, please click here.

Dylan Callens

About the Author...

Dylan Callens is a writer and educator living in Sudbury, Ontario. 

His debut novel, Operation Cosmic Teapot, was a resounding success. Since then, Dylan has written a number of other books, including his most recent novel, And the Cow Jumped Over the Blue Moon