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Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros2.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe legendary fantasy author Peter S. Beagle, best known for his metafictional masterpiece The Last Unicorn, tells a wonderful story about the time, in the late 1970s, when he was contacted by Judy-Lynn del Rey — the founder and publisher of Del Rey Books — who was seeking blurbs for a new manuscript she was getting ready to publish. The book was The Sword of Shannara, by a first-timer named Terry Brooks.

Peter read the galleys, discovered that the book was little more than a barely-competent scene-for-scene knockoff of The Lord of the Rings, and called Judy-Lynn up (which is what people did back before text messages and emails) to ask her, bluntly, why she was publishing such tedious and shamelessly derivative trash. Judy-Lynn, who definitely knew what was good and bad but who also knew the business of publishing, answered him as only a fellow legend could. “Peter,” she said, “this book is for people who have read Lord of the Rings forty times and can’t quite get it up for the forty-first.”

In genre fiction, there are readers who seek out work that innovates and pushes boundaries, but a whole lot more in search of the cozy and familiar, and there is naturally nothing at all wrong with this. It’s these readers that Rebecca Yarros is perfectly happy to cater to in Fourth Wing, the first volume of a projected five-book series in which faithful adherence to a checklist of every popular YA fantasy trope is not regarded as a failure of creativity, but the book’s entire raison d’être. Dark academia, enemies-to-lovers romance, found family — if it’s all the rage in fantasy in the early 2020s, you’ll find it here. And yes, there is that protagonist.

I’m aware the term Mary Sue has fallen into disfavor, mainly because of the way certain kinds of fans have used it in a sexist way to dismiss any protagonist in a story who’s both female and competent. But Violet Sorrengail, the hapless young recruit who must tangle with love, war, generational trauma, and discovering her inner strength amid times that try men’s souls, feels very much like a Mary Sue under the original definition of the term. Violet suffers from a connective tissue disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and, what do you know, so does her creator, Rebecca. So, maybe we’re not exactly meant to think of Violet as an author insert, but… well… let’s just say she’s not like other girls and leave it at that.

Here’s the part of this review that may surprise you. Yes, Fourth Wing is packed to the rafters with story problems. But in its best moments, I didn’t hate the experience of reading it. Yarros’s prose is accessible and pacey, and though you’ll probably be rolling your eyes every other page, you won’t be bored either (which is much more than I can say for my experience of reading other fan favorites like The Poppy War or A Court of Thorns and Roses). Indeed, one thing that did frustrate me about Fourth Wing is that Yarros has good enough technical craft that if she ever decided to dispense with catering to commercial formula, and instead strove to create something truly fresh and innovative without always keeping one eye on pleasing the BookTokkers, the resulting novel could potentially blow the roof off fantasy.

But, with the fame and sales and attention Fourth Wing is bringing her, I suppose I shouldn’t blame Yarros if she just decided she can’t be bothered. Right now, it’s hard to picture how the story can possibly have enough substance to fill out the proposed five volumes. Then I’m reminded this is epic fantasy, where no writer has ever been shy about believing that mediocre or even bad ideas can be transformed into good ones just through sheer stubborn persistence. The late Terry Goodkind kept his odious Sword of Truth series going for over 20 novels, powered by little more than graphic violence and libertarian horseshit. So five books about starcrossed lovers and their telepathic dragons? That’s a cake walk.

Yet for all the escapist entertainment value Yarros provides in Fourth Wing, readers who pay a little more attention to things like plot and world building are going to notice some pretty damning flaws. First, it takes Yarros a little while to warm up. Her background is in romance, naturally, and Fourth Wing is her first foray into fantasy. Many of her mistakes are just risible. She cannot avoid having her characters speaking in 2020s idioms, and so there’s a lot of dialogue that sounds just modern and American enough that it can take you out of the world. But that’s minor compared to her world building, which is just plain senseless.

Violet, our heroine, has spent years preparing to enter the Basgiath War College of Navarre to train in the Scribe Quadrant as a scholar. But following the death in action of her older brother Brennan, a dragon rider, her stone cold bitch of a mother (and the nation’s second highest ranking general) has forced Violet to enter the Rider Quadrant, despite her frail physique. Immediately, we’re presented with plot elements for which I simply could not suspend disbelief, and the biggest two have to do with the War College itself and its process for training up cadets to be dragon riders, a process that is purposefully designed to kill up to 75% of cadets.

This is all explained by telling us that only the best of the best of the best can even come close to being chosen by a dragon as its rider, and anyone who can’t hack it has to be weeded out quickly. Fine, but in reality, only the best of the best who join the Navy will ever get to be Top Gun in an F-15, and I don’t think the Navy takes all the recruits who flub their very first run on the simulator and has them shot out behind the hangars. Why wouldn’t you take the recruits who can’t hack it as potential dragon riders and just roll them over into infantry, or support staff, or literally any of the other hundreds of roles that are necessary for an army at war to function?

The reason Yarros has made this choice at all can be blamed on her decision to prioritize the inclusion of popular tropes (in this case, dark academia) simply because they’re popular, without consideration as to whether or not they’re right for her story. Any idea that’s included in a story has to make sense in the broader context of the world you’re trying to get your readers to believe in. And deliberately killing off three-quarters of your own fighting force when your nation is embroiled in a 400-year-long war with its neighbor, a war that happens to be going very badly for your side, does not make sense. It is not believable.

There is one scene where, through circumstances I won’t spoil, Violet gains access to her mother’s office and discovers frantic dispatches from outpost commanders begging the general for funds and supplies and especially reinforcements, as the protective wards along the border have been failing and the griffin-riding invaders from Poromiel have been harrying villages and outposts more often and more savagely. By having her War College continuing to allow hundreds of its recruits to be casually murdered in training, even allowing recruits to murder each other, Yarros’s world building sinks to a level of absurdity from which it simply cannot recover.

But that’s not all. In the first few chapters, Yarros gives Violet and her sister Mira, a dragon rider whom she idolizes, dialogue that simply spells out lore and foreshadows plot points, as if Yarros is working under the assumption that despite the hundreds of trope-heavy romantasy novels that have come down the pike over the last 15 years or so, everybody has just waited around to read hers first. When Violet has to walk the Parapet, a high wall that all recruits are forced to cross in a gale force wind just to see who gets blown to their death, she uses her scribe training and calms herself by reciting her nation’s history out loud. I suppose there are more on-the-nose ways of infodumping backstory, but turning it into your heroine’s method of managing her stress is a trick I kind of have to admire.

And of course, when Mira warns Violet in no uncertain terms to avoid a wing leader with the perfect villain name of Xaden Riorson, you know right then and there he’s going to be the enemy she falls for on sight. Yes, there’s an attempt at a love triangle here, but it’s never a contest. Violet’s boyhood crush Dain Aetos is handsome and loyal, but he’s also a bit of an overprotective beta simp whose nonstop pleading for Violet to go back to the Scribe Quadrant and stop endangering her life is obviously just stifling her personal growth. Xaden is the arrogant son of the leader of a rebellion whom Violet’s mother had executed, and Xaden makes it clear he intends to kill Violet in revenge the first chance he gets. We also know that, because he’s an irresistibly hot bad boy, he will not in fact follow through on this and that spicy romance is on its way, though not before reams and reams of resisting each other’s temptations as long as they can. For those of you who don’t like to waste time, fornication finally occurs in Chapter 30, nearly 400 pages in. To Yarros’s credit, her background in romance makes the sex far less cringe than most anything I’ve read from the vast majority of male science fiction writers.

But I mentioned there were two serious flaws in Yarros’s world building, and this is the second, if less serious one: Conscripting the children of executed rebels into your own military sounds like a recipe for even more treason. As a way of keeping an eye on them, I suppose it’s not completely implausible, but it just seems incredibly risky.

Do I believe for a second that this book’s most devoted fans care in the slightest about any of the criticisms I’ve laid out here? Absolutely not. Either they haven’t noticed, or they have, and they just smile and shrug because it’s more fun to be swept up in the romance and adventure. And I wish those readers every ounce of joy. We all have cheesy entertainment that we love even though (and sometimes because) it’s deeply dumb but fun as a barrel of puppies all the same. And as I’ve said, Yarros can write prose that gets its hooks in. And though she wears her influences on her sleeve, here and there she improves on them. Yarros has drawn heaps of influence from both Anne McCaffrey and Naomi Novik in particular, and where one common criticism of Novik’s Temeraire series is that her dragons are basically big ponies, Yarros’s dragons are mean as hell until they bond, and the act of flying them is portrayed as terrifying and deadly until a rider knows what they’re doing. (Riders frequently fall off, and Violet’s dragon Tairn is one of the few that can be bothered to catch her.)

My possibly-vain hope is that future volumes in this series improve and that Rebecca Yarros allows more of her own ideas to come to fruition, now that she’s (hopefully) done trope-checking. She’ll have to work a lot harder on avoiding massive plausibility disasters like the ones plaguing Fourth Wing. But with luck, and the enthusiasm of all her deeply passionate fans, maybe by the time The Empyrean Saga wraps up, it really will have taken wing.

Followed by Iron Flame.