Fourth Wing

Cover: Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

Fourth Wing by Author Rebecca Yarros has taken off like a rocket since BookTok (book-focused TikTok) started sharing it around.

This fantasy saga involves dragons, dragon riders, a war college, magic, and other tropes that are pretty typical in high fantasy.  The narrative is a little farther afield than Harry Potter in that it doesn’t take place on Earth, but it’s an interesting rehash of well-trodden ground.

Young and ambitious characters enlist in war looking to make a difference and leave home for war college, where they learn the tricks of the trade while also learning about themselves.

Oh, and having lots of sex.  That’s important.

Let’s get into it.

Details

TitleFourth Wing
SeriesThe Empyrean, Book 1
AuthorRebecca Yarros
PublisherEntangled: Red Tower Books, 2023
GenreRomantasy (Fantasy & Romance)
Intended audience18+
Rating6.5 of 10
Will I read the next one?Nope

What to expect

While Fourth Wing is a fantasy novel, it’s also very much a romance plot.  As you might expect, you’ll find a blend of both elements in this piece.

  • Plucky heroes.
  • Magic.
  • Dragons.
  • Sex.
  • Romance (not subtle).
  • Some pretty familiar tropes.

Fourth Wing is the first book in the Empyrean series, and it’s quickly carved out its own niche.  It’s probably safe to assume that other novels in this book series will offer more of the same.

Warnings

Is this series done?Nope.
Any graphical content?Yes.  Lots of graphic sex.
How long is this book?Longer than average.

Recommendation

Looking for a new fantasy series?  Love romance?  If so, this book is for you.

But you have to really love the romance part.  I can’t stress that enough.  Almost every fantasy element of the book, from dragons to the greater worldbuilding, is vastly overshadowed by the not-so-subtle romance plot between the two main characters.

There’s just no way around it.

If you go in blind (like I did), and you don’t like romance, you’re going to have a bad time.

Overview (minor spoilers)

Twenty-year-old Violet Sorrengail has a complicated past.

On the one hand, Violet’s mother is in charge of Basgiath War College, which trains the dragon riders that keep Navarre safe from the warlike nations that surround it.  On the other hand, she’s a quiet girl who likes to read books.  Not the warrior type, unlike her sister.

Despite these would-be setbacks, Violet ends up in the Rider’s Quadrant of Basgiath — not in the library, with the scribes and archivists — and finds herself plunged into a world of politics, intrigue, and cutthroat competition.

In the world that Yarros has set up, the Rider’s Quadrant trains dragon riders, but the dragons choose who they want to bond with.  There are always more riders than dragons, and the dragons look for particular qualities in their riders.  Unfortunately, these are qualities that Violet has lacked her whole life, so she’s got a lot of catching up to do.

Along the way, she meets a variety of interesting characters, including Xaden Riorson (love interest), Jack Barlowe (wants to kill her), and fellow riders of the fourth wing, the training unit to which she’s assigned.

Plus, because of Violet’s mother and her history with the war, Violet often finds herself at the center of political plots that can shape the fate of the nation.

What works

Coming at this from a fantasy angle, major respect to Yarros for the worldbuilding that went into the story.

The politics of Navarre are well-defined.  How Basgiath works is shown in full detail.  The dragons clearly have their own society, even though it’s not fully explained to the reader.

For the purposes of exposition, Violet has the idiot ball.  She has enough knowledge from her studies to help the reader fill in some essential backstory around the politics and her family’s role in it.  At the same time, she’s a fresh recruit.  She understands theory but lacks the application of that knowledge.

This works to the reader’s advantage, as we get to live vicariously through Violet.  We experience the training, the encounters with huge dragons, the discovery of Violet’s own magical powers, and so on, right alongside her.  Yarros created the perfect voyeur for this kind of story and spent the time making sure that all of the details were assembled and defined.

To that end, Violet isn’t a perfect character, either.  She’s clearly an outlier with a target on her back.  Her mother is important, and the Sorrengail name has a bloody past.  These pressures force Violet to evolve quickly if she wants to stay alive.

From this perspective, Fourth Wing really shines.  I finished the book wishing there were more dragons, more politics, and more of the swords and sorcery stuff that I’d been expecting.  

And don’t misread:  There was plenty of that.  It’s done so well that I’d have loved to see even more of it.

What doesn’t

Unfortunately (for me), everything that works well in Fourth Wing is overshadowed by what didn’t work.

One of the key political touchpoints of the story centers around Xaden Riorson, a third-year rider with a checkered history.  In a nutshell, Xaden comes from a family who betrayed Navarre.  Violet’s family is largely responsible for the death of his parents.

As a consequence of their disloyalty, Xaden and the other children of the rebels are forced to enlist and serve Navarre as a way to prove that they, unlike their parents, are loyal.  Put another way, Xaden isn’t a dragon rider by choice.  Unlike most riders, his path was chosen for him.

And, because Violet is a Sorrengail, she’s (rightfully) expecting there to be some bad blood between them.

So, of course, he’s the love interest — and it’s not subtle.  From the instant these two characters meet early in the book you know where things are going to end up.

Yarros tries to mask it here and there by bringing the politics of the situation back into the narrative, but there’s no saving it.  Violet is basically eating Xaden with her eyes in every scene, describing his body in a way that makes the angle of story obvious.

Because Violet is our viewpoint character, the Violet/Xaden interaction creates a tonal shift that pushes the piece out of the traditional fantasy lane and squarely onto the romance track.

While the external narrative continues to follow the usual beats that come with a standard fantasy setup (training montage, bonding with dragons, discovering magic power, etc.), the personal plot shifts from self-discovery and coming of age to almost pure romance.

That might work for many readers, it’s a little too much.  Over the course of the book, the romance angle in Fourth Wing slowly overshadows everything else.  By the end, it’s the dominant plot element and, as a result, both the world and the greater narrative are diminished by it.

The sex scenes are also highly descriptive in a way that doesn’t particularly serve the narrative.  It’s not a “fade to black” situation.  Furniture is broken.  Lightning splits the sky (literally).  Even Xaden’s shadow magic plays a role.

For the most part, these scenes are there for the romance reader’s indulgence.  For most everyone else, they may have best been left on the cutting room floor.

What’s weird

The execution of the romance aspect is off-putting.

While I’m definitely not a romance fan, it’s easy to see a way where the romantic elements of the plot could have been introduced in a more subtle or indirect way.

Yarros is clearly a gifted writer, and romance isn’t my forte.  As a reader, I don’t know if the overt approach is a genre expectation or just poor execution.

I don’t feel that I’m hypersensitive to romance, either.  It’s just very obvious.  From the start, Violet goes from “he’s hot” to “I should hate him but I love him” at lightning speed.

It’s odd.

What’s next?

Despite how it may seem, I don’t hate this book.  It does some things very, very well … but the series isn’t for me, and I won’t continue with it.  This was a random pick for me, and I went in completely blind.  Had I known about the romantic elements, I wouldn’t have picked this book up in the first place.

That’s just my personal preference, though.  I felt the same way about A Court of Thorns by Sarah J. Maas.  Cool writer.  Interesting story.  Just not for me.

Of course, you should take my opinion with a grain of salt — especially if you can look past the romantic elements that overcrowd the plot.

Clearly, Yarros and Entangled Publishing are enjoying a huge amount of success from this novel.  It’s a bestseller.  The New York Times, Goodreads, NPR, and about a thousand other outlets have anointed this book as a “must read” and showered it with starred reviews and praise.

Personally, I don’t get the hype.  (Sorry!)

But, if you like new adult, romantasy fiction, Fourth Wing and its successor, Iron Flame, should probably be on your shortlist.

Happy reading!  

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