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In-Depth Critique

***Spoilers Ahead***

Fourth Wing  by Rebecca Yarros

Setting, Plot, and Conflict

Violet Sorrengail, the youngest daughter of Navarre's commanding general, takes after her late-father; She's a soft, small, quiet woman, living for knowledge and books, and fully trained to join the Scribe Quadrant where she can hide amongst the history of her nation and the stories shared with her by her father. Instead, mere months before her induction, her warrior mother decides "all Sorrengail's are riders". Before she knows it, feeble, untrained Violet is facing an impossible challenge: surviving the Basgiath War College's Riders Quadrant with hundreds of other cut-throat candidates striving to become dragon riders.

Overwhelmed and underqualified, Violet has to not only survive grueling physical trials --learning to fight other cadets who will literally murder to reach the top and participating countless endurance exercises designed to kill off the weak --but she must do so as the daughter of the woman who brutally murdered the rebellious families of countless classmates, all permanently marked as traitorous. This feat becomes infinitely more difficult when Xaden Riorson, ruthless son of the leader of the rebellion and eldest of the marked cadets, becomes her commanding officer, giving him full control over her very life. Not to mention the looming fact: dragons don't bond with the weak; they turn them to ash.

As Violet fights for her life, she comes to realize that everything she's ever known -- from the 600 year long war being held at bay to the trajectory of her college career and future to who she defines as friend and foe -- is being reevaluated, for better or worse.

Much like other avid readers, I can't help but imagine Basgiath War College as similar to Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series with a few deviations. Much like the various houses, we have career-specific quadrants as well as dormitories divided by year, and there are classrooms and air fields built to accommodate the appropriate non-traditional learning found in fantasy schools, not to mention the classic stone walls, dragon artwork, and students throwing magic left and right. However, Basgiath is training for war, so while magic obviously permeates the setting, it is very militaristic. Cadets are in formations and in uniforms specific to rank and ability, every individual is heavily armed, and classes being taught are Battle Briefing and Hand-to-Hand Combat. So, while it is a familiar environment in individual aspects, it is also unique in the meshing of military, college, and fantasy worlds.

The pace is very accordion-style -- the speed of the narrative volleys between slow and fast in exponential rises and falls -- due to spreading a specific number of events across a full school year. It's one of the more difficult aspects of any school-based narrative, because the timeline is so lengthy and much space is often left in-between major events meaning filler. Personally, I had moments of irritation in regards to the changing speed in the narrative; Not many, but enough that it became noticeable. The highs may have been exhilarating, but the lows were at times a slog.

Characters and Perspective

Character-wise, it's hard not to root for Cadet Violet Sorrengail. She's the underdog pulling through every obstacle by the skin of her teeth, utilizing her only real edge-- her high intellect and "scribe mind" -- while she painstakingly builds on her shortcomings to match her classmates. She is willing to challenge her superiors, specifically Xaden as their relationship complicates more and more, and her mother who is only ever portrayed as seeing her as a weakness. Any reader who has felt the sense of accomplishment that comes with succeeding at something they had little faith in completing empathizes with an underdog character, not to mention the fact that the target audience of the book is Violet -- the book-loving, slightly sex-crazed intellectual young woman. So, naturally, I -- as the self-proclaimed book-loving, slightly sex-crazed intellectual young woman who enjoys the thrill of accomplishing something challenging -- enjoyed her.

I also enjoyed Xaden, again in the same ways expected of anyone in the Violet demographic. Of course, the sexy, older, forbidden "tall, dark, and handsome" with a soft spot just for her is classically alluring. Beyond that, though, he is a complicated individual with such an odd demeanor, especially regarding her; He doesn't know how to classify her in his chaotic inner-world. "Enemies-to-lovers" almost doesn't feel like an appropriate description when it comes to their relationship, because anyone reading can see that he never really was her enemy, even when he claimed such, mostly because the majority of the time she confused her. I would be very intrigued to read more from his point-of-view (more extensively than the one final chapter), because of the multi-faceted, self-conflicting, weighty whirlwind that he is lost in in his mind.

My true favorite character, however, is Tairn. That dragon is NOT what I expected. Others have described him as the sassy old man and I can't think of a more apt portrayal. His little quips about her feelings towards Xaden -- like asking if he should get the wingleader to help “inspire her” to use her lightning signet -- and his sarcastic chuffing is so far off from what one would expect from such a regal, enormous, ancient creature of legend, and in a most delightful way. His personality is akin to if the Queen of England made a fart joke: you don't exactly believe that she said it because of who she is and what she represents, and yet she's the Queen and she can do whatever the hell she wants while still retaining her elegance and grace. I love the relationship that blooms between Violet and Tairn, as well as the hatchling Andarna. It's like Violet has found a father-figure and guide in Tairn while finding a little sister in Andarna.

I hated Dain (and yes, I was also the one that upon first reading ACOTAR did NOT like Tamlin...) I failed to see from the beginning how Violet could be friendly -- let alone best friends -- with such an insufferable jackass. Sure, when she first crossed the parapet he was there to help patch her up, and while she rediscovered this man that she had been romantically fantasizing about for years, there was a curiosity as to where their relationship would lead. Let me tell you: when he finally grew a pair and kissed her halfway through the book -- acting like it was this whole dramatic proclamation of intense passion and love after how horribly he treated and continued to treat her -- and she said she felt nothing, I LITERALLY said "oh thank god" out loud. He wasn't overprotective; he was overbearing and unsupportive of her. He wasn't healing; he was coddling. He wasn't making cute gestures of affection holding her face over and over (super weird if you ask me, regardless of the whole "mind reading signet" thing...); he was invading her personal space without permission over and over. Xaden NAILED HIM every single time he passed judgement. Dain didn't treat Violet as an equal and yet he was the one far beneath her. Every time he entered a scene or was even just a bystander, I internally groaned waiting for him to do or say whatever stupid thing he was going to do or say. It may have taken a full year and Dain indirectly but knowingly leading her to her death, but at least Violet sees him for who he actually is now.

Otherwise, I really didn't bond with any of the side characters. So much of the focus was spent on Xaden and Violet that the rest of the staff and peers fell off of the radar for me, even much of the leadership and Violet's closer companions. It's understandable at the very beginning when there are hundreds of cadets floating around, but I would have liked to have more depth at least to the handful of individuals who survived to the end. In fact, her bonding with a few others that actually did die suddenly would have driven home the whole survival aspect more than just relying on statistics. I somewhat expected that with the death of Dylan (the engaged guy who fell off the parapet almost immediately) that this would be the case, but he was an exception more than a rule. It was even mentioned that Violet's entire squad survived a good portion while others dropped left and right, then pretty much everyone else that died in her squad (aside from Liam in the final battle -- his death is the closest to an exception to this complaint) were people barely mentioned. That being said the vast majority of the character cast were unmemorable and therefore easily dispensable.

In terms of point of view, I do appreciate the inclusion of underlying commentary regarding the "right and wrong sides of history" and how important perspective beyond the individual self becomes. Setting up Violet as the character with the purest form of background knowledge and best ability to analyze of her peers then driving home the point that even she can be wrong about something as foundational as which side is more morally correct is ingenious. So sure, most seem to pick this book up for the similarities to young reader favorites like the Eragon books or Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, or for the dark angsty slightly-more-adult-than-YA forbidden romance, but the background messages about a person or group's moral compass in regards to major historical events is a fascinating and profound inclusion highly applicable to any point of time in our history. It gives this book more cultural depth than many other adventure fantasy romances, which I highly appreciate. It will help to preserve the cultural relevance of the story as the novel ages.

The Experience Reading the Book

There were quite a few satisfying sections of this book. Some key highlights for me were Jake Barlowe being struck by lightning (it was about time...), Dain getting his ass handed to him by Violet when she redefined their relationship post-awkward kiss (incredible -- I applaud and envy her resolve and sense of self-respect), Xaden busting into Violet's room where she was being attacked by a handful of unbonded cadets (more specifically when Violet sees his facial expression during the time stop and subconsciously realizes how much he actually cares about her -- swoon), and the majority of the scene where Violet bonds with not one but two dragons and upon sharing said information causes a mass uproar (mostly because that was the whole initial dilemma of the book... and there was still two thirds to go.)

Of all of the major plot points, though, the hopeless romantic in me just absolutely loves the scene of Violet and Xaden's first kiss. The whole ambience of the storm brewing outside in the night (I wondered about weather control as her signet at the time too, actually), the fact that they were out when they shouldn't have been with each other when they shouldn't be, the off-kilter, almost dreamlike clashing of chaotic yet serene emotional turmoil that literally electrified the air due to the magic of two naughty dragons and probably a little bit of the weed equivalent for Xaden, not to mention all of the sexual tension that had been building for months on its own already... All of it combined in this bizarre little bubble outside of the rest of the book and characters, allowing the two to actually show their emotional cards and act on them in a hot, passionate way? Ten out of ten, plus bonus points for Xaden being a healthy, respectful adult and breaking it off in case it was just Violet acting "under the influence", regardless of his wants and his otherwise ruthless nature.

The tone change in Xaden over the course of the book was a little bizarre for me to wrap my head around. Obviously, I am a fan of their whole relationship, but it did take me awhile for his mood swings to track. I see the initial disdain for her mother, and I see the blossoming infatuation paired with the facade of hatred or "targeting" as a sly, roundabout way of protecting her. In theory, I understand the more and more dramatic waffling between pushing her away completely like it was just meaningless sex and then claiming he can't live without her. The time frame of months doing that though is just a hair beyond believability for me, especially considering that him finally breaking and going all in took less than a day for him to embrace. The concept is great and well done as a whole; timing just seems to be a struggle for me in various aspects of the book. Again, maybe it's just the pacing.

The least interesting parts of the book were probably that secondary push of rising action, between the thrill of Violet surviving the parapet to just be placed under Xaden's watch and the actual build up to surviving the gauntlet and the Threshing. The lull there went on for longer than I cared for. I understand that there had to be some chunk of time where she was mostly without allies, feeling hunted, developing the new version of her relationship with Dain (much to my disgust), doing semi-regular school stuff, and realizing exactly how much stronger she needed to be to survive. I think there just could have been a bit more significance layered in instead of pausing on that note for so long, so that it still felt like the story was steadily progressing instead of taking a breath. For example, Violet could have simultaneously been developing significant relationships to be killed off later as I mentioned before, or maybe more details of her investigation of Navarre's leadership could have been sprinkled in so it wasn't mostly packed at the last third of the book. Either way, we readers still received the necessary information; It just could have been a bit of a steadier release over the course of the plot to avoid dips in intrigue.

If You Liked…

This is a very easy, fun read. Though the content has shadows and emotional depth and adventurous thrills, it is more entertaining than heavy. It's an excellent segue read for the relatively new New Adult age group -- the new level in between Young Adult and Adult, so 18 into early 20s -- as the characters are the target age group and there is a spattering of adult scenes intermixed with themes often found in Young Adult novels like angsty romance and adventure in an educational setting.

Fourth Wing is a great palate-cleanser for those in the midst of dense reading (whether it be serious or heavy adult reading or thought-provoking books being studied for class) as well as a great option for those getting into reading for fun. Readers of Eragon by Christopher Paolini, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins will find this series refreshing as it draws in similar aspects of each into one comparatively more adult fantasy. Many also find Yarros' writing comparable to Sarah J. Maas and Stephanie Garber.

At the time of this review (March 2024), Fourth Wing is number two on the New York Times Bestsellers List and the sequel, Iron Flame, is number three, though both have reached number one since release. The Colorado author Rebecca Yarros (a local author to me) expects The Empyrean series to span five books in total, so keep an eye out for new installments!

Iron Flame by Rebecca Yarros

Review Coming Soon

Onyx Storm by Rebecca Yarros

Publication Date: January 21, 2025

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