Making the Familiar New In Rebecca Yarros’s Fourth Wing

Books Reviews Rebecca Yarros
Making the Familiar New In Rebecca Yarros’s Fourth Wing

Rebecca Yarros’s Fourth Wing has a lot of “new” qualifiers: it’s a new book in a brand new series. It’s in the new adult category, and it’s the first book of a new imprint of romantic fantasy: Entangled Publishing’s new Red Tower Books. But with all that’s new about the book, what’s most impressive is how Yarros takes familiar tropes and themes and presents them so well that the book is hard to put down. If you haven’t picked it up yet, get ready for some late nights reading past bedtime—this one just keeps drawing you on for one more chapter.

As the book opens, readers meet Violet Sorrengail, the youngest daughter of General Sorrengail, one of the leading officers in Navarre’s military. The medieval-feeling kingdom Navarre has been at war for years. The borders are threatened by neighboring Poromiel’s griffin riders, which are only held at bay due to the wards set on Navarre’s borders. The warriors responsible for maintaining those wards, and defending the kingdom are the dragon riders—a group to which Violet has never aspired to belong. But instead of following her calling to the Scribe Quadrant, like her now-dead father, Violet has been told by her imposing mother that she will become a dragon rider or die trying.

This is not a lightly made joke, either. Those who want to become dragon riders have to cross a dangerous parapet even to be admitted, and many don’t make it over. The training for new cadets is brutal, and many more die before they ever get a chance to find a dragon to bond with. Dragons themselves are picky, and even more cadets are killed by the dragons themselves, if the dragons find a candidate unworthy. It’s dangerous, and no one thinks Violet can survive it: not her older sister, Mira, already a rider herself, and not her best friend, Dain, who is now a squad leader. Violet has been considered too fragile for such a profession. But after her father’s death, her mother decides: it’s dragons or nothing.

Violet’s frail health is one of the interesting angles that Yarros plays with in the novel. She’s not weak (though she’s not yet physically strong as the book begins), but she has joints and ligaments that don’t seem to want to stay in place. (Modern readers might think her condition sounds somewhat similar to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a condition that creates hypermobility and flexibility, but comes with problems like chronic pain, frequent joint dislocations, and easy bruising. It would be interesting to read a review from someone with that condition or similar, to see if Violet’s experiences in a harsh physical environment are well presented.)

At the beginning, Violet also considers herself fragile—but as she overcomes challenge after challenge within the Riders’ Quadrant, frequently solving problems her own way rather than by a more traditional path, she begins to realize that those who have coddled her are holding her back. She makes her own friends and allegiances and gains her own confidence until she realizes that the woman she is now wouldn’t be happy escaping to the Scribes’ Quadrant. She’s not the same person she was before she crossed the parapet.

Because Fourth Wing’s narrative tightly sticks to Violet’s first-person perspective, Yarros finds inventive ways to give readers information about the world. As a trained scholar, Violet knows a lot about her country, and when she gets nervous, she recites facts. It’s a great play in that it gets readers into Violet’s head—this is how she distracts herself from her fears—as well as giving world-building information without feeling like an info dump. 

But even more interesting is what Violet doesn’t know, and the way that the details sometimes don’t match up with what she does. In a scene that doesn’t feel pivotal, she accidentally reads a brief about an attack that she’s certain they’ll cover in her strategy class. When there’s no mention of the attack at all, she can’t reconcile it. Perhaps it was a classified scroll and just hadn’t been marked properly? But those small pieces of information build, until it’s impossible to deny that someone isn’t being honest with Violet, or the riders.

Violet’s advancement through a violent world is reminiscent of other fantasies, like N. E. Davenport’s Blood Trials, where a young woman has to forge a path of her own through a military landscape. The early placement of a love triangle, with the boy next door vs. the bad boy, seems as though it might journey into A Court of Thorns and Roses territory—something likely to please fans of Sarah J. Maas. But Yarros takes the relationships in a different direction early on, giving that trope a sidestep in a way that feels truer to both the characters and the in-world conflicts that they reflect.

And then there are the dragons. Navarre’s dragons are deeply intelligent creatures, who can channel their magic through humans, which is the only reason humans are useful enough to acknowledge at all. The telepathy riders have with their dragons allows for some excellent smart-alecky banter (a bit like Vlad Taltos and Loiosh in Steven Brust’s “Vlad Taltos” series, though that “dragon” is quite a bit smaller than any of Yarros’s). 

Those and so many other pieces of the puzzle are familiar: Violet’s exceptional gifts, despite her supposed weaknesses; the slow reveal of the conspiracy hiding world events; the prioritization of rules or nation over a greater, more human good. But somehow, Yarros brings them all together in a way that creates a page-turning pace. The unrequited and passionate romances both off page and on ramp up the action for romance fans, and Violet’s own determination not to die, to just keep going, resonates, especially after years in which readers may have felt pressures that the world was out to get them, as well. (A pandemic may not be as immediately dangerous as dragon fire, but at least you can spot a dragon coming.) 

Yarros’s familiar elements are used in a perfect way, so while there may not be dramatic surprises in the text, and some elements fall just the way readers are likely to predict, there’s a comfortable familiarity coupled with breakneck pacing through challenges and dangers. The effect makes the novel hard to put down, while also giving readers the sense that they’ve been here before, and are reading an old favorite for the first time.

And that will make the wait for the next installment even more difficult to bear. But like Violet, we’ll persevere.

Fourth Wing is available now.

Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple-choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.

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