I’ve been reading high fantasy since I was sixteen when a friend introduced me to the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. Since then, I’ve devoured every book Hobb has ever written (including those under her actual name, Megan Lindholm), and while I didn’t love all of them as much as that original trilogy, the Farseer Trilogy and the Realm of the Elderlings series as a whole have remained my top fantasy series ever since. There is no other series I have fallen for quite so hard as that one.
Until Fourth Wing.
Is it a triumph of literature, penned in exquisite prose and riddled with masterful plotting that could make Brandon Sanderson cry?
Is it high fantasy?
Is it full of smut, swearing twenty-somethings, and a rather odd mashup of modernity and dark academia?
Do I care?
Not in the least.
Because it’s a bloody enjoyable read.
Meet Violet Sorrengail
One of the reasons I love the Farseer series so much is that Hobb penned a male protagonist who is very real, very relatable, and yet isn’t a total turn-off for female readers for all his masculine toxicity that the author has mistaken for the secret sauce that all women love and all men want to be. Fantasy literature is often dominated by male perspectives and female characters written through a masculine lens.
Enter Violet Sorrengail, a veritable breath of fresh air. As the protagonist of Fourth Wing, her character is a vibrant and refreshing departure from the norm, offering a deeply nuanced and relatable female perspective.
One of the standout aspects of Violet’s character is her complexity and multifaceted nature. She is not just a figure navigating a fantastical world; she is a character grappling with real, relatable issues. This is particularly evident in her struggle against the limitations imposed by her physical condition, which closely resembles Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Violet’s journey of resilience and growth in the face of these challenges resonates profoundly, especially with readers who themselves deal with chronic illnesses (I have bipolar, which may be mental, but still takes a constant daily effort that most people don’t have to put into life. I related). Her condition is portrayed empathetically and positively, lending an added layer of depth and authenticity to her character.
In many ways, Violet can be seen as a counterpoint to traditional fantasy protagonists. Her experiences and internal struggles provide a narrative rich in emotional depth and personal growth, which is often lacking in more conventional fantasy tales. This portrayal strikes a chord particularly with those who seek representation of realistic and diverse human experiences within the genre.
Moreover, Violet’s character stands in stark contrast to the often-criticised portrayal of women in fantasy, which can lean towards one-dimensional or overly sexualized. In Fourth Wing, she is neither a damsel in distress nor a mere object of desire; she is a fully realised individual with her own ambitions, fears, and strengths. Her character development throughout the novel is a journey of self-discovery and empowerment, making her an engaging and inspiring figure for readers.
In essence, Violet Sorrengail represents a significant shift in the portrayal of female characters in fantasy literature. Her presence in Fourth Wing challenges the status quo and offers a fresh, empowering perspective. Just as Robin Hobb achieved with her male protagonist in the Farseer series — creating a character that is both real and relatable without resorting to toxic masculinity — Yarros has crafted in Violet a heroine who is both authentic and appealing, resonating with a wide range of readers and enriching the genre with her unique voice.
The World Of The Empyrean Series
The world is well-crafted, with complex world-building and a very intriguing concept. While the plot may not be astonishingly original and is in fact fairly standard and predictable, the world it’s set in is unique enough that I didn’t much care about that. The dragons are real characters, not just set pieces, beasts of burden, foes, or enigmatic forces that exist so far removed from the main characters that they’re about as relatable as a pair of curtains. That being said, they are also somewhat shallow portrayals of dragons, in that they are basically people in dragon bodies. They think, speak, mate, and react like people would. While some thought has gone into their strangeness and they get a hell of alot more page time as characters than we often see in fantasy novels, I can understand why high fantasy fans find them disappointing.
Likewise, I can understand how the worldbuilding and magical system described in Fourth Wing is a let down for people who are accustomed to highly complex systems of magic, and very detailed worlds and magical systems. Yarros chose to focus on the relationships and emotions of her characters rather than the complexities of the magic and work in their world and how it actually works. Consequently, while I love the world and, for this novel, find the worldbuilding to be great, if I encountered such shallow world building and magical explanations in a high fantasy novel I’d throw it at the wall.
Fortunately, this isn’t a high fantasy novel.
Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t seem to realise that going in, which is unfortunate.
What do I mean by shallow worldbuilding? Well, look at it this way, in the realm of the Empyrean (the name given to the series and also the name of the dragon leadership within the world), dragons are real (duh) as are other magical creatures like gryphons. They are magical creatures, allowing humans to access magic by channelling it through dragons or gryphons they bond. The form human magic takes after they bond seems to be completely random, based on a fusion of the personality of the human and their magically bonded creature. These powers manifest like something out of X-Men, and control is learned over time. There are also ‘lesser magics’, and the forbidden practice of drawing magic directly from the earth rather than channelling it through a magical creature.
That’s pretty much all we know about how magic works in this world. The individual powers are explained when we meet a character who wields them, but only so far as we are told what the powers make that person capable of. Lesser magics are never explained at all; riders learn to do them over time and we learn about what form lesser magics take as and when characters encounter obstacles that require their use.
Honestly I was half way through the book before I realised the ability to wield lesser magics was something that came to people when they bonded a dragon and started channelling magic. It really isn’t explained well at all.
So, for the most part, the magical system in Fourth Wing only exists so far as the plot has required it to be explained yet. This doesn’t feel like a world with a complex magical system that has been meticulously defined and mapped out separately, and a story then told within that world.
This is a huge change for well read fantasy fans who are used to high fantasy, which is usually complex and detailed.
But this isn’t a high fantasy novel.
It’s a Romantasy.
The Romance (Okay, SMUT) Of Fourth Wing
I was initially fearful that we were going to have a Twilightesque love triangle on our hands, but Yarros managed to expertly set up Violet’s interest in one character, her instant attraction to another character which she stoically set aside as ridiculous, until she realised she wasn’t actually interested in the original love interest at all and was in fact head over heels for the other guy. There is no true triangle; she has a childhood infatuation with one guy she’s not seen for a year and, upon reuniting with him, realises that he’s not quite who she thought he was and actually, he’s not the guy for her. Once she knows that, her interest in him ends, regardless of what’s going on with the other guy. I found this very refreshing, and far more believable and relatable than the usual forced setup of some poor girl being overwhelmed by how pretty two dudes are and finding it impossible to resist the prettiness of either and bouncing back and forth between the two.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of ogling going on in this book. But it’s a Romantasy. And that is where we run into a bit of snag.
Because it wasn’t really marketed as a Romantasy, and many fantasy fans went into it right after publication expecting high fantasy with dragons and an adult version of Hogwarts. They thought they were getting dark fantasy in a dark academic setting. And in some ways, that’s what this book is. But in other – far more powerful ways – it’s a love story.
A highly smutty love story.
And I’m totally here for it. I love it for being exactly what it is.
But if that’s not what you’re expecting it to be, and not what interests you, you’re likely going to feel let down by this.
Personally, I loved it. I didn’t read it for a good long while and by the time I got to it, Iron Flame was almost out. Which meant there was a very short wait for me between reading Fourth Wing and reading the sequel. I didn’t enjoy Iron Flame quite as much (I’ll get to that another day), but the book had been out long enough by the time I came to it that I knew what I was getting myself into.
Smut. Fantastical, dragon-laced, unapologetic smut.
Why Fourth Wing Has Polarised The Fantasy Community
Few books have sparked as much debate and division in the Fantasy community in recent years as Rebecca Yarros’ Fourth Wing. The novel has undeniably stirred the fantasy community, creating a rift between its admirers and detractors. The root of this polarization is not straightforward, as it intertwines various elements of genre, expectation, and literary execution. To understand the reasons behind the intense discussions and varying opinions, we need to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of the divide.
The divisiveness surrounding Fourth Wing is fueled by key factors including genre expectations, representation within the narrative, and the balance between fantastical elements and romantic subplots, among other things. Any one of these aspects could, in itself, spark debate and divide the fantasy community. The combination of all of them has made the novel something of a (rather ironic) lightning rod for controversy within the fantasy community.
Because I overthink things and I’m generally interested in stuff like this (not least because I write fantasy myself and want to know how to make my own books better!) I figured I’d do a deep dive into why Fourth Wing has taken the world by storm and become a firm fantasy favourite, while simultaneously alienating half the fantasy community.
Genre Expectations vs. Reality
The initial allure of Fourth Wing for many fantasy enthusiasts stemmed from its promising blurb. It hinted at a narrative deeply rooted in the dark and complex territories often explored in acclaimed works like Game of Thrones or the intricate, magical world-building and academic setting of Harry Potter. This anticipation was further fueled by the reputation of Rebecca Yarros as an author capable of weaving compelling tales. However, upon delving into the novel, readers quickly realised that Fourth Wing strayed from these expectations, leaning heavily into the romantasy subgenre.
Romantasy, a fusion of romance and fantasy, often prioritises character relationships and emotional dynamics over traditional high fantasy elements like elaborate world-building or epic battles against dark forces. Fourth Wing embraces this approach, placing significant emphasis on Violet’s romantic entanglements. While the world of Fourth Wing does include unique elements such as relatively detailed dragon lore and a well-crafted setting, the story’s heart revolves around Violet’s romantic life and personal growth.
This shift in focus from expected fantasy conventions to a more romance-driven plot created a divide among readers. Fans of high fantasy, accustomed to narratives laden with complex political intrigue, extensive lore, and grand-scale conflicts, found themselves navigating a story where such elements played a secondary role to romance and character development, or didn’t exist at all. On the other hand, readers with a penchant for character-centric narratives and romantasy tropes found Fourth Wing to be a refreshing and engaging read.
The marketing of Fourth Wing did little to clarify this genre ambiguity. Many fantasy fans, enticed by the promise of a new high fantasy saga, felt let down when they encountered a narrative that didn’t align with their expectations. This discrepancy between what was advertised and what the book actually delivered has been a significant factor in the polarising reception of Fourth Wing.
That, however, isn’t actually a bad thing. At least, not from a marketing perspective (I speak as a marketeer). The fact the novel proved so polarising and sparked so much debate and conversation is precisely why it went viral and dominated everything from bookstores to BookTok and Bookstagram in 2023.
Sure, it pissed a load of people off, but it sold a ton of books and created an obsessed fan base.
Bravo the marketing team!
Female Gaze and Representation
A significant aspect of Fourth Wing that sets it apart in the fantasy genre is its distinct employment of the female gaze. This narrative perspective is a divergence from the traditional male-centric viewpoint that has long dominated fantasy literature. Yarros, through Violet’s character, shifts the focus to the physical attributes and emotional depths of male characters, a narrative choice that not only enhances the romantasy elements of the story but also offers a fresh perspective in a genre where female viewpoints have often been secondary.
This, for me, was a huge appeal of the novel.
Traditionally, fantasy literature, particularly in high fantasy realms, has been steeped in a male gaze where female characters are often objectified or relegated to stereotypical roles. In contrast, Fourth Wing brings a nuanced exploration of male characters through a female lens. This approach has been a breath of fresh air for readers yearning for more representation of female perspectives and experiences in the fantasy genre. Violet’s interactions with male characters are not just about romantic or sexual attraction; they delve into understanding their complexities, vulnerabilities, and strengths from a woman’s perspective.
However, this shift has not been universally embraced. For some readers, particularly those accustomed to traditional fantasy narratives, the explicit presence of the female gaze in Fourth Wing was jarring, leading to discomfort or dissatisfaction. This reaction can partly be attributed to unfamiliarity with such a narrative style in mainstream fantasy. The female gaze not only challenges long-standing genre conventions but also compels readers to engage with characters and relationships from a perspective that is often underrepresented in fantasy literature.
Despite the mixed reactions, the inclusion of a strong female gaze in Fourth Wing represents an important step towards diversifying fantasy storytelling. By centering a female perspective and exploring male characters through this lens, Yarros opens the door for more inclusive and varied narratives within the genre. This approach resonates with a growing segment of the audience who seek stories that reflect a broader range of experiences and viewpoints, contributing to the evolving landscape of fantasy literature.
Tropes and Writing Quality
Fourth Wing, in essence, is woven from the threads of well-known tropes common in both romance and fantasy genres. Rebecca Yarros employs these narrative devices to craft a story that is familiar yet engaging to her readers. The use of tropes such as the deadly school setting, dragon riders, and the enemies-to-lovers dynamic, while not groundbreaking, provides a comfort zone for readers who revel in these classic elements. For those who enjoy the predictability and satisfaction that come with trope-filled stories, Fourth Wing delivers on these fronts, offering the kind of escapism and entertainment value that many seek in romantasy literature.
Certainly, for me, this was a huge part of the appeal of the novel. I’m bipolar, and my neurodivergent brain is comforted by the familiar, the predictable.
It’s why I obsessively re-read Robin Hobb over and over again; I know I love it. Reading the familiar soothes my anxiety, calms my thoughts, grounds me, centres me.
But I also like to read new novels. If I’m in a less than great place mentally, a novel like Fourth Wing which is inherently familiar and predictable yet also fresh and shiny and new is perfect.
However, this reliance on tropes has been a double-edged sword. Some readers have critiqued the novel for its lack of originality and depth. The familiar plotlines and character archetypes, while appealing to many, have left others desiring more innovation and uniqueness in storytelling. The predictability of the plot, driven by these common tropes, was seen as a drawback, especially by readers who approach fantasy with expectations of intricate, novel narratives and complex world-building.
In addition to the discussions around trope usage, Fourth Wing has faced scrutiny regarding its writing quality. Critiques have been raised about certain plot holes and inconsistencies within the world-building. These issues, highlighted by some readers, suggest a need for more thorough editing and refinement. Such lapses in narrative coherence and detail have led to a portion of the audience feeling that the book could have benefitted from a more rigorous developmental process to tighten the plot and enhance the overall quality of the fantasy elements.
While the book’s approach to tropes and writing quality have divided opinions, it’s important to note that Fourth Wing was not primarily aimed at an audience seeking high literary merit or complex fantasy constructs. Its success and appeal largely lie in its ability to provide an enjoyable and emotionally engaging reading experience, rooted in the familiar tropes of the romantasy genre. Yarros’ storytelling, despite criticisms, has resonated with a significant readership, highlighting the subjective nature of literary enjoyment and the varied expectations of the fantasy community.
Personally, I’m quite happy to set aside the plot holes and not overthink it. The whole point of reading it was to give my brain an enjoyable experience that didn’t require much thought – something that most high fantasy isn’t capable of giving me precisely because of its complexity.
I have, on occasion, been known to read Sophie Kinsella novels. I do this when I need a ‘take your brain out and just enjoy the ride’ book. For years, I’ve wished for a fantasy series that gave me that brainless, enjoyable break.
This is it.
And that’s why so many people love it. It’s also why so many people hated it.
Target Audience and Broader Appeal
Fourth Wing appears to have been crafted with a specific demographic in mind, predominantly catering to the enthusiasts of romantasy — a genre that seamlessly blends elements of romance and fantasy. This target audience appreciates the interplay of romantic narratives within fantastical settings, finding pleasure in the emotional depth and relational dynamics that such stories offer. For these readers, Fourth Wing hits all the right notes, providing a blend of romantic tension and fantasy escapism that resonates deeply with their preferences.
However, the book’s classification as a fantasy novel has invariably drawn in a broader spectrum of readers, particularly those whose primary allegiance lies with traditional fantasy. This segment of readers, often accustomed to the dense world-building, elaborate magic systems, and complex plot structures typical of high fantasy, might find Fourth Wing to be outside their comfort zone. The novel’s strong focus on romantic subplots and character-driven narratives represents a departure from the traditional fantasy fare they are usually drawn to.
The divergence in expectations is particularly evident among traditional fantasy readers who may not have previously explored or shown interest in romantasy. While they might have approached Fourth Wing expecting an experience akin to the epic tales of authors like Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Naomi Novik, Anne McCaffrey, or Robert Jordan, they encountered a narrative that places equal, if not more, emphasis on romantic and interpersonal elements. This unexpected shift has contributed to some of the discontent and criticism that the book has received.
Furthermore, Fourth Wing has opened up the romantasy genre to a new audience. Its popularity and presence in mainstream fantasy discussions have introduced readers who might never have considered romantasy to this hybrid genre. While not all traditional fantasy readers have embraced the novel, it has undoubtedly sparked curiosity and interest in romantasy among a section of them.
Myself included. I have never been a romantasy girlie before; I’m now fully converted.
In essence, Fourth Wing serves as a bridge between genres, attracting readers from both sides of the fantasy spectrum. Its appeal lies not only in the story it tells but also in its ability to merge elements from different genres, creating a novel experience for a diverse readership. Its success underscores the evolving tastes and preferences within the fantasy community, highlighting the genre’s capacity to encompass a wide range of storytelling styles.
Cultural and Social Context
The polarised reception of Fourth Wing not only speaks to differing tastes and genre expectations but also mirrors broader cultural and social undercurrents within the fantasy reading community. The book’s focus on female perspectives and desires, particularly in a genre historically dominated by male authors and male-centric narratives, has stirred up significant discussion. This reaction can be seen as reflective of ongoing tensions and evolving conversations around gender roles within the fantasy genre.
Fourth Wing, with its emphasis on the female gaze and romantasy elements, challenges traditional norms of what is often deemed as ‘legitimate’ fantasy. It steps away from the archetypical heroic quests and battles that have long been staples of the genre, instead giving prominence to personal relationships, emotional depth, and a distinctly female narrative voice. This shift has not been universally accepted, highlighting some of the underlying biases and resistance within the fantasy community.
The book’s journey illuminates the changing dynamics of fantasy literature, where there is an increasing demand for diverse stories and characters that break away from conventional archetypes. The mixed response to Fourth Wing underscores a broader cultural shift, as the fantasy genre expands to include a wider range of voices and perspectives. It also reflects ongoing debates about the inclusivity of the genre and the space it offers (or fails to offer) for stories that deviate from the established norms.
Fourth Wing stands at the intersection of genre evolution, cultural shifts, and social discourse within the fantasy community. Its divisive nature stems from the clash of mismatched expectations, its pioneering female gaze in a traditionally male-dominated field, the deliberate use of familiar tropes, and the broader cultural context that influences reader perceptions. While it has garnered a loyal following that embraces its romantasy flair and female-forward narrative, it has simultaneously sparked debate among those who either anticipated a different type of story or grapple with its departure from the conventions of traditional fantasy.
A Fourth Wing Review In Summary
Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros presents a vivid and compelling fantasy world that strikes a fine balance between detail and accessibility. The world-building is clear and engaging, avoiding the pitfalls of excessive complexity that can sometimes make high fantasy intimidating for new readers. It presents a fantasy realm that is easy to dive into and enjoy.
The romance aspect of the novel, particularly its slow-burn nature, has garnered positive attention, drawing comparisons to popular romantasy books like A Court of Thorns and Roses. This element of the story has been especially appealing to fans of the romantasy subgenre, offering the emotional depth and relational dynamics they seek.
Yarros’ use of modern, informal language and a first-person narrative style is noteworthy for its readability and broad appeal. This approach has made the book accessible to a wide audience, including those who might not typically read fantasy.
Central to the novel’s appeal is its protagonist, Violet. Her complexity, growth, and resilience make her a relatable figure, especially to readers who experience chronic illnesses. The portrayal of Violet’s condition, which mirrors Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, is seen as empathetic and adds significant depth to her character.
Readers have found Fourth Wing to be enjoyable and engaging, praising its fun and fast-paced nature. However, some reviewers have critiqued the plot and character tropes for being too predictable and lacking originality.
While the book’s modern language and narrative style enhance its accessibility, they have also given it a somewhat juvenile feel for certain readers. This has been a point of contention, especially for those accustomed to more traditional fantasy writing styles.
The portrayal of dragons and the world’s magic system, could have been developed further. There’s a feeling that these aspects play second fiddle to the romance, which dominates much of the narrative. For readers who entered expecting a traditional fantasy experience, this overemphasis on romance has led to some disappointment. Personally, I didn’t find it an issue because I went into the book looking for a romantic fantasy that didn’t require much thought.
I can, however, understand how the book left many fantasy fans disappointed. This is just not your regular high fantasy novel, or even low fantasy. It’s a romantasy, pure and simple. Its success and appeal should be judged within this context, recognizing its contribution to and place within the romantasy landscape.
Fourth Wing is a significant entry into the romantasy genre, offering an accessible, emotionally engaging, and character-driven narrative. While it may not satisfy every expectation, particularly for high-fantasy purists, it stands as a beloved and impactful work for many readers seeking romance and fantasy intertwined.