June 26, 2023

Review: Fourth Wing

Fourth Wing Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this back to back with another dragon fantasy ( To Shape a Dragon's Breath ), and it was instructive to compare the two. Dragon's Breath was written by an Indigenous author, and her focus was on the intricate and fascinating alternate history she created, where North America was settled, not by the British, but by Norse and Dales colonizers who also conquered much of Europe. She dealt with the effects of colonization and the attempted erasure of Native cultures, and her dragons, while quite interesting in their own right, were almost an afterthought to the larger themes. The protagonist's dragon reminded me a bit of an overgrown, bouncy Golden Retriever puppy (albeit a puppy with a dangerous chemical breath that can literally transmute matter).

The dragons here are nothing like that. They harken back to the classical fire-breathing monsters, with a bit of Anne McCaffrey's Pern thrown in--they are intelligent and telepathic, bonding mentally and emotionally with their riders. The larger world is also a secondary fantasy world, not Earth (although the author's habit of using our months and days for dates was a little disconcerting). The country of Navarre and its dragons have been at war with Poromiel and its gryphons for hundreds of years, and the pinnacle of achievement for many young people is to be admitted to the Basgiath War College, where--if they live long enough (and the student death rate is alarmingly high, so much so that it seems to defeat the college's stated purpose)--they may get to bond with a dragon and fight for their country.

The protagonist is Violet Sorrengail, youngest daughter of General Sorrengail, and she is not supposed to be at Basgiath. She studied all her life to be a scribe, but after her father's death the general ordered her into conscription at Basgiath War College. This book is the story of Violet's fight to survive at the college (not only was she not prepared or trained to attend, she has a connective tissue disorder that makes her physically fragile), her bonding with not one but two dragons, her discovering her hidden power, and her falling in love with her greatest enemy--Xaden Riorson, son of the leader of the Tyrrendor Rebellion.

This book is fairly brutal--as I said, the cadets drop like flies through the narrative. It's written as a first person present tense narrative, as many young adult books are nowadays, but this book, with its explicit sex scenes, is definitely not YA. (And they advance both plot and character, as the best sex scenes should.) The only quibble I have with it is the character of Xaden, who is a rather typical asshole romantic hero who falls for the protagonist at first sight and doesn't say a damn thing to her about his true feelings until the end of the book. Granted, he does have complicated reasons for keeping his silence (the fact that she's the daughter of the woman who executed his father is a big one), but this is a trope that needs to be discarded. Otherwise, the characters--including the dragons, especially the grumpy Tairn--are well-rounded and interesting. Plot-wise, there is a deepening mystery about the history of Navarre and Poromiel and the true enemy which emerges about three-fourths of the way through the story. The aerial fight scenes are well-paced and pulse-pounding, and the final reveal is obviously setting things up for the next book. Which means that the overarching story is not solved in this book at all, so be aware.

We see nearly all of this through Violet's eyes, and she is a fine protagonist--intelligent and resourceful, fierce and loyal and kind. She alone makes this book eminently readable, although there is a lot more to recommend it. Looking forward to the next.

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