Fourth Wing

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From Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:

f you are even remotely on bookish social media, then you are aware of Fourth Wing. It’s been much-hyped and sold out and everywhere I look online there are rave reviews for this YA-fantasy-romance.

I am not here to yuck anyone’s yum. If you read Fourth Wing and you loved it, I am totally happy for you. I want people to love what they read.

This was not a book that worked for me, though, and I suspect I’m probably not the only one who didn’t love it. I made it about 45% of the way though before I finally decided this was just going to be a slog for me and I gave up.

There were two main reasons I could not get interested in this book 

  1. The fantasy archetypes and tropes at work in the plot, and  
  2. The pacing

Fourth Wing is set in a fantasy world where the country of Navarre protects its borders with an elite army of dragon riders. When they are approximately of real-world college age, the young people of Navarre enter one of four quadrants in order to serve their country. Violet Sorrengail is small and accident prone, and by all accounts should enter the Scribe Quadrant. Instead, Violet’s mother, a general, sends her to the Rider’s Quadrant where she’ll probably be killed before graduation (side note: Violet’s mom is not great).

If Violet survives her time at the War College she will hopefully be selected by a dragon to be its bonded rider. 

I don’t fully understand why the War College is so invested in killing off its cadets (or having them kill each other). Fratricide is openly welcomed in order to weed out the “weak” recruits. At the same time we’re reminded frequently that there are fewer riders and fewer dragons every year, and I believe this is definitely a case of causation, not correlation. Also don’t they need people for other jobs? Who makes lunch? 

Violet shouldn’t be in the Rider Quadrant. She’s very academic and would have excelled as a scribe, like her father. It would appear that everyone in the Rider Quadrant knows this, and multiple people offer to help her find a way to get out and get over to the Scribe’s where, frankly, things sound a lot better. Violet refuses on the grounds that her mom would find a way to send her back (why?) and because she stubbornly wants to prove She Can Do It (why?).

. . . .

Sometimes, in the real world, you cannot do the thing even though you really believe in yourself. I have a friend who convinced herself she could accomplish a Tough Mudder through the power of belief and positive thinking, and then she broke some ribs. 

Cadet training involves something like the balance beam from hell as well as a Ninja Warrior course, all while the other cadets are trying to murder you. Somehow Violet makes it through, mostly because she’s clearly The Chosen One.

The Chosen One is a trope seen often in YA fantasy and it doesn’t really work for me. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with it; it’s just not a trope I particularly enjoy and this book relies heavily on it. For me The Chosen One trope allows the reader to accept that the heroine is somehow more special than her peers without actually doing much to prove it. In Violet’s case she’s clever and brave (if foolishly so IMO) but so are a lot of the other cadets. Violet even has the special hair (the ends are always silver regardless of how short she cuts it) that indicates a The Chosen One heroine. She won’t give up, she has fun hair, and two hot guys like her so she must be our heroine, I guess. 

The first half of the book is a boarding school book meets Hunger Games where alliances are formed, Violet injures herself a lot, and well meaning people worry after her, but she is determined to prove her mother wrong even though she hates it and will probably die anyway. It really crawled for me, probably because the stakes seemed so ridiculous that I didn’t care that much anyway. I mean, her first day of school is walking the balance beam of death while the guy behind her tries to stab her, and that’s a level of intensity I’m just not here for. 

Link to the rest at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

PG notes that an author can’t satisfy everyone. The author of Fourth Wing, Rebecca Yarrows, is a multi-NYT bestseller. When PG posted this, the book had an average of 4.8 stars on Amazon with almost 100,000 ratings and 4.7 stars on Goodreads with well over a half-million ratings.

19 thoughts on “Fourth Wing”

  1. This sounds exactly like the sort of book I avoid, so thanks SRTB for the public service you’ve done here 🙂

    Also, I haven’t read Dragonriders of Pern — I have no idea why, it does sound like something I might like — but I still caught that Fourth Wing’s premise is derivative. It sounds like a copy of a copy, and I’m wondering if the author knows it. A YouTuber named Katie Colson panned the book; she says aspects of the Fourth Wing reads as a rip off of “Shadow and Bone” (another series I’ve avoided thus far). Plus the character’s description is a rip-off of Daenerys Targaryen, with the white hair and baby dragon. Daenerys has violet eyes, and the main character is named Violet. Rebels have their children snatched to force them to compete (like Hunger Games), except that being a dragon rider is like royalty … so if you rebel, your kid can have a free education to become a one-percenter with access to your military? Well! That’ll learn ’em to respect your authority!

    Colson revealed that Yarros isn’t a real fantasy writer, but is rather a romance writer who’s just slumming. Apparently a number of people warned Colson, “You have to excuse the world building,” because Yarros isn’t actually a fantasy writer. I don’t think I want to read any romances she writes either, though.

    Colson noted other stupidities with the plot, and she’s hilarious in her take down. Violet is 22, reads like she’s an unusually dumb 14-year-old, and is a clear Mary Sue. A mysterious dragon that hasn’t been seen in 500 years shows up to “Choose You, Pikachu” and picks Violet. There’s a love triangle. Yes, but of course. At one point Violet has to traverse a “rainbow bridge” parapet that’s extra slippery — it’s thousands of feet in the air — while in the midst of a storm, as part of weed-out exercise for would-be dragon riders.

    “You know what’s funny about that? Her mom has a magical power to control storms … Violet, your mama’s got it out for you. Your mama’s got it out for you.”

    And, “His power is reading your mind, and she never thinks for a single second that he’s reading her mind?! She’s an idiot, she’s real dumb, she’s real stupid.”

    Then, the dragons are supposed to be intelligent and superior lifeforms, yet they’re treated as tanks for the war. There’s no obvious reason why an intelligent creature would permit this. But lots of people in the story are alleged to be smart, but are in fact, dumb. Neither the students or the teachers recognize a baby dragon when they see one, and thinks it’s smallness is a birth defect or something. Because they apparently think the dragons are like Athena: just springing up, fully formed into adulthood.

    “Can you give me a dash of creativity?” Colson demands, because the dragons are just referred to by their colors — I wonder what happens if you have two blue dragons? — and when one is explicitly named, it’s “Scale.” Uh-huh.

    Let’s just say, indies: Don’t let anyone tell you that your writing can’t be good because you didn’t get vetted by tradpub editors. Your story may be crap for other reasons, but that won’t be one of them

    I did like Colson’s prediction that 10 years from now, people will realize the book is trash, and not the good kind. Sometimes I do see reviewers make updates and take back their glowing reviews, now that they’re older and have read better books.

    Oh, to anyone who has this on Kindle, Colson has a challenge to see how many times the one Love Triangle guy says, “Damn it, Violet!”

    • As to the Pern series, Dragonriders is actually SF, not fantasy. Highly recommended. At least Anne McCafftry’s volumes.

      Humans have colonized the planet Pern in the Rukbat star system, but have lost much of their technology and history (including their origin on Earth) due to periodic onslaughts of Thread, a mycorrhizoid spore that voraciously consumes all organic material, including humans and their crops, given the opportunity. Thread comes from the Red Star, actually another planet. The Red Star has a 250-Turn (Pernese year) elliptic orbit around Rukbat, and when its orbit brings it close enough, Thread rains down on Pern at predictable intervals over about 50 Turns.

      The Pernese use intelligent firebreathing dragons to fight Thread. A human rider has a telepathic bond with their dragon, formed by Impression at the dragon’s hatching. The bonding instantly creates a very close, lifelong relationship – the dragon almost invariably commits suicide at the rider’s death, and a rider whose dragon died bears a deep emotional wound which can never be fully healed. Later books deal with the initial colonization of Pern and the genetic modification of small native animals into creatures capable of carrying humans in flight.

      The Pernese live in a pre-industrial society, with lords, holds, harpers (musicians, entertainers, and teachers), and dragons, with occasional examples of higher technology (like flamethrowers, the telegraph, chemical fertilizers, and powerful microscopes and telescopes). There are four basic social classes: Weyrfolk (including Dragonriders) who live in Weyrs, Holders who rule Holds (cities, towns and farms), Crafters, and the Holdless who have no permanent home (including traders, displaced Holders, and brigands). The society resembles feudal Europe, but with some significant differences – especially, farmers are organized in their own guild, independent of the Holders – rather than being serfs as in historical feudal societies. Also, there is no formal religion and nothing like the Medieval Church, the closest equivalent being in fact the Dragonriders, who have a planet-wide organization and to whom a tithe is due – though they are in no way sworn to celibacy (rather the reverse).

      The series as a whole covers over two and a half millennia.

      24 volumes.

      Try the original trilogy to see if it suits you.

      These stories take place immediately before and during the Ninth Pass, about 2,500 years after landing (AL):

      Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey (1968; composed primarily of McCaffrey’s first two Pern novellas, “Weyr Search” and “Dragonrider”, which were originally published in Analog science fiction magazine, in the October 1967 and December 1967 issues respectively)
      Dragonquest (1971), by Anne McCaffrey.
      The White Dragon, by Anne McCaffrey (1978; although published prior to Dragondrums, The White Dragon continues the adventures of certain Dragondrums characters; McCaffrey recommended reading Dragonsong, Dragonsinger and Dragondrums before The White Dragon; The White Dragon incorporates McCaffrey’s story “A Time When”)
      The trilogy was released 1978 in omnibus edition titled The Dragonriders of Pern by Nelson Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club.[4]

      The Harper Hall trilogy is also excellent.

      These stories take place immediately before and concurrently with those depicted in Dragonquest and The White Dragon.

      Dragonsong (1976), by Anne McCaffrey
      Dragonsinger (1977), by Anne McCaffrey
      Dragondrums (1979), by Anne McCaffrey
      The Harper Hall trilogy was released 1984 in omnibus edition titled The Harper Hall of Pern by Nelson Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club.

      From there the series exploded in print and elsewhere.
      At last word, WB was looking to give it the WIZARDING WORLD treatment.

      • I’d heard it referred to as science fantasy, and now I get where the science part comes from. What you’re describing sounds a lot more creative than anything I can think of from the recent, over-hyped “prestige” novels. A breath of fresh air, actually.

        Re: Temeraire — I’m not up on the Napoleonic Wars, do you have to be familiar to enjoy the books?

        • No. Alternate reality. Dragons. And an Inca Empire.
          Of the two I prefer Pern but I was young when I found Pern. 😉

          Being from 1967, odds are she would’ve gone full fantasy if it would have sold (to a publisher). In those days, pre-Tolkien paperback set, “fantasy doesn’t sell”.
          Serendipitously we got PERN, DERYNII, and DARKOVER as hybrids.

          Sometimes editorial lemons give us grand lemonade. 😀
          The 50’s through early 70’s gave us a lot of great, unique fantasies…then everybody wanted to be Tolkien.

      • While McCaffrey was adamant that Pern is science fiction rather than fantasy, this is something of a retcon. The original novella completely reads as fantasy, both in the world building and the literary conventions. Had she stopped there, it would not have occurred to anyone to classify it as science fiction.

        The interesting question to me is why make the retcon? My guess is that the series’ rise in popularity happened before the rise of fantasy as a major publishing category. Even later, there are corners where science fiction is considered more prestigious than fantasy. S. M Stirling used to (and may still) write fantasy, then wave his hand around while chanting “quantum mechanics” a few times, and declare it science fiction. It always seemed to me pointless and weird.

        As for Pern, I really liked the first three main sequence and the three harper hall books. After that it was obvious even in my youth that these were assembly line productions. I haven’t reread any of them in decades. I suspect that I would bounce off them. I find the fantasy and science fiction from that era mostly has not aged well.

        • Remember the times: authors who lucked into a franchise had to exploit it. Even if only to fund the books they really wanted to write.

          If Pern, good as the early books are, were the only thing McCaffrey did, she’d be a footnote. But she did the CRYSTAL SINGER and BRAIN SHIPS series, too. And the PETAYBEE (true) young adult books with Elizabeth Scarborough. And a lot more.

          She made her mark in the field at a time few ladies sold at her levels.
          She’ll endure.

          Oh, and about some folks putting SF above Fantasy, I think we can blame the late 70’s and 80’s Tolkien wannabes. We can’t tell if it was the writers or the publishers, though. But eventually fantasy grew out of it. Tolkien’s shadow will forever loom large in the field but the genre has evolved nicely with its own standouts. Crappy YA notwithstanding.

          (And Stirling? Yeah, what’s with the whole “change” thing? The Nantucket trilogy is great, CONQUISTADOR is fun and begging for sequels and instead he pivots to that slog? I gave up after three.)

          • I don’t begrudge her her success, and I agree that she did good work beyond Pern. I just didn’t, and don’t, feel any urge to stick with a series once it is clear that the author is going to ride it as long as it keeps selling, without regard to having anything further to say.

            In a similar vein, early Harry Turtledove was very interesting. Then he mostly wasn’t. He later as much as admitted that he had kids in college. He had found a formula that sold, and did what he needed to do. Fair enough. But I quit reading it once I figured out the formula.

            • Xanth.
              Anthony (jokingly, one hopes) implied the publisher wouldn’t let him do anything else. Also that what he intended as a trilogy became a trilogy of trilogies and eventually an open ended series of fan driven stories. The early (best) volumes were clearly kid friendly adult stories but over time the adult themes faded. I stuck with it through MAN FROM MUNDANIA which is about as good as the early volumes but it was clear he had a different (increasingly younger) audience in mind. Which is good; SF&F needs more entry level material and catching them while they’re young is a public service. 😉

              Some series know when to end but its hard to turn down a steady paycheck. XANTH I don’t read the new releases but I readily recommend it as a great intro to the field. (Tweens in.particular.)

              Room for everybody.

  2. To add: responding to a review like this by citing sales is deflection. Those are different topics. Though I suppose it is nice to highlight this tradpub triumph.

    • High sales are an excellent response to a review like this. The review told us about one individual’s tastes and preferences. Responding that many others have tastes and preferences which respond positively to the book is on point.

      • The review takes at shot at the question “Is this book good?” What raises it above simply assigning a number of stars is that the reviewer gives reasons for the conclusion.” Citing sales is only a relevant response if you believe that “Is this book good?” and “Is this book popular?” are strongly positively correlated. If they are, then one can dismiss a negative review of a popular book as an outlier.

        It is not my experience that “Is this book good?” and “Is this book popular?” are strongly positively correlated.

        • No, they’re not.

          And the author is not a newcomer, as pointed out.
          She comes with a fanbase that will buy on name recognition alone.
          It may be derivative and bring along tired YA tropes but as long established: true fans = sales. That much she got right. For now.

          Brand loyalty only goes so far.
          (Anybody remember Palm Computing’s latter years?)

        • And that demands a standard for a good book. What is that standard, and who accepts it? Popularity indicates it meets the standards of many people.

          Imagine the shaman telling a story to our ancestors huddled around a fire. They have all fallen asleep while he drones on. But, never fear, it’s a good story.

          • If it’s a good story, why did they fall asleep?
            Maybe the storyteller sucks rivets?

            Might I remind you of THE GOLDFINCH?

            Top selling.
            Most abandoned (55%) book of the year.

            Tradpub only cares about reader spend so from their point of view it doesn’t matter if anybody reads it,completes it, or liked it.

            Readers care: “bore me once, shame on you;bore me twice, shame on me”. Repeat business matters, even for the literati.

            Look up the author, see if she’s sold anything since 2014. Or still has an agent.

            • I wonder how the abandon rate for Goldfinch compares to the DaVinci Code? Conan The Barbarian? James Bond? Or a barracks favorite, Mack The Bastard Bolan?

              • Odds are, much lower. Those have decades of repeat business. Word of mouth works for them, not against them.

                Say what you will about Patterson, but his *name* alone promises a good enough read. He wouldn’t hsve lasted this long if he didn’t deliver on that promise. Ditto for Anthony or other franchise authors. They found a market they can please, seemingly indefinitely, and they addressed it.

  3. The country is defended by bonded pairs of dragons and their riders? I know the genre does not place a lot of emphasis on originality, but that is awfully on point! The first Pern stories were published (um… checks Wikipedia and does the math) 56 years ago. I am reminded of my reaction, back in the day, to The Sword of Shannara: breathtakingly derivative.

    Edit to add: Oh, and responding to a negative review by citing sales is deflection. Those are different topics.

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