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Book Review: The Fourth Wing

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

At some point popularity merits attention. When the Twilight craze was nearing its peak I picked up the book to see what was powering such success. I already knew going in it wasn’t the type of book that I normally read. I understood the premise -- relatively weak, clumsy high school girl falls for powerful and dangerous vampire. A paranormal romance book.

I picked up Fourth Wing for the same reason, checking out a really popular book (#6 on Amazon as of this writing with 66,000+ reviews at 4.8; for comparison HP currently has 46,000 reviews at 4.8). I read the premise and it sounded good enough for me to skip reading any reviews and dive in. A young woman’s life takes a dangerous turn when her mother - a military general - forces her to enter a dangerous war college for dragon riders, a place she never expected or wanted to be as her goal was to become a scribe. Despite most of the cadets wanting to kill her because she’s the general’s daughter, especially the strongest cadet Xaden, she struggles to survive but gets stronger and discovers a terrible secret threatening the kingdom.

To me, this sounded like military fantasy with dragons, riders, war looming in the background and a classic story of an underdog using seemingly unrelated skills to gradually grow stronger in a challenging setting, perhaps with a little political intrigue thrown in. And that’s sort of what the book delivered, for the first half. But that’s not at all what the book is. I felt this was a bait-and-switch and DNF’d around the 75% mark. Because this book is really another Twilight thinly wrapped in war dragon military fantasy.

So this bad experience is on me. I should’ve read some reviews and found out what the book really aimed to deliver. But going in with certain expectations, you know, wearing my dragon-military-fantasy lenses, I never got pulled all the way into the story.

The good. The story starts with a great hook, Violet arguing with her mom about being forced to go to a dragon rider war college that kills most new students. Instantly raised questions that drew me in. Why is she doing this to her daughter? How will Violet the scribe-to-be survive this 180 degree career turn? We see her get some tools that will help -- her relationship with her war hero sister is strong and she gives Violet special dragonscale armor, helps her pack to survive and passes on their late, older brother’s book of secret tips and tricks to get through dragon college alive. She warns Violet that cadets will be after her to weed out weakness, improve their chances of getting one of the dragons (less cadets, greater chance of getting picked) and some of the descendants of the rebellion kids will want to kill her since mom killed their parents when she squashed the rebellion. All intriguing setup.

The action picks up quick upon her arrival with a Divergent-like entry to the school, with several cadets dying to prove how dangerous it is and one cadet already trying to kill her. The threats don’t stop and the pace is fast from one to the next. Some vile characters emerge, some noble ones, friendships form, powers grow and there are some extremely satisfying scenes of retribution.

The bad. Slight spoilers ahead but nothing major. While the threat of death was tense in the beginning, the story relies on it so heavily that it soon dissolves into death-threat-of-the-week. Oh no, Violet could fall to her death crossing a narrow stone bridge in a storm (others fall screaming to prove it). Another cadet could push her off (he shoves off others to prove it). She gets inside but he promises to kill her later (he later kills others to prove it). Her sister warns her to stay away from the deadliest of them all with the biggest grudge against their family, she sees him almost immediately and he’s spewing hatred and power. She has to spar on mats in a gym where cadets get killed all the time (some get killed in front of her to prove it). This is all just the first few chapters, but it never stops. No matter what she accomplishes, it literally, always, results in a new death threat. She reaches her goal of being seen by the dragons, but they could kill her (and they kill cadets around her to prove it). She gets the power but doesn’t know what it is, if it’s bad the school will kill her (a professor kills a student in front of her to prove it). The power isn’t bad, but if she doesn’t learn to control it it will explode in her and kill her. I’m not even scratching the surface here. At some point the next death threat just got an eye roll from me. They got more and more convoluted. In one scene after a character painstakingly explains to Violet why she is under yet another death threat a side character remarks, “It’s always something in this place.”

(Trying desperately to keep pace with the death threats was the stream of lethal secrets. “But... that means!” “Yes. If anyone finds out you’re dead.”)

I began to wonder what kind of society this was, putting their promising young people into this death grinder? And that exposed another problem. The world building begins earnestly enough but abruptly stops. For example, Violet wanted to be a scribe, but instead she has to go to dragon rider school. Okay, what were her other options? We don’t know. It appears in this society there are two professions: dragon riders and scribes. We do not meet anyone else or hear of any other schools. In HP the kids at least sometimes go out for a night in town and see other types of wizards in different professions. There is never a night on town in TFW, we never even see a ‘the town’. The world building basically stops at the walls of the dragon college castle where the characters apparently remain their entire three years, unless they are sent to the ‘front lines’, where they might be killed (others go die to prove it).

So I never got a sense of a spartan culture or whatever that would tolerate this senseless death of a generation as part of ‘training’. Other world building problems raised their hands next. I started having more questions and didn’t come across answers. For example, Xander ‘the uber-dangerous’ is the son of the executed rebellion leader. Who thought it was a good idea to let him bond with one of the most powerful dragons ever seen and gain one of the deadliest powers manifested in the story world? That was a big head scratcher. We tolerate our promising youth being killed in this school by the hundred, we even kill candidates of our own that manifest powers we don’t like, we despise and don’t trust the children of the rebellion, but we’re totally cool with training the oldest rebel child to ride our strongest dragon and wield a power that he could use to kill us all within minutes. Which leads to questions about said powers...

The powers never completely made sense to me. Apparently human beings have no power, but dragons have tons of it. For a human to use power, a dragon must choose to bond with a human. After this bonding the human can channel power from the dragon. The exact type of power channeled depends on the human and the dragon. Okay. So why are the dragons doing this? What are they getting out of giving their power to puny humans? How did this even get started? The dragons have all the power, they kill cadets who so much as offend them with their posture or appear weak. Some of the dragons might be hundreds of year old and are famous in this world. Yet instead of doing their own thing they do the will of these cadets, fly them around like giant winged horses and give them incredible power to use whenever and however they want, because... reasons.

And these powers are all over the place with no rhyme or reason. Basically whatever power you want to imagine without limit, it could be there. Lightning. Mind reading at a distance. Telekinesis. Memory reading - ah, but only when touching. Metal bending. Healing. Teleporting? Why not? Oh, and controlling shadows. Which includes hiding in darkness and also using shadows to simultaneously choke six people to death. Yes, incorporeal shadows can wrap around throats, physically constrict and asphyxiate foes to purple-faced death because... magical dragon powers.

The ugly. This isn’t exactly ‘ugly’ per se, should be re-titled to the ultimate eye-roll in this case, but for me it was the gradual discovery of what the book is really about. The warning shots were there. Literally every time Violet sees Xander her body flips out in some way from heartbeats to flutters to chills to other more private reactions. And every time she follows it up with, “he’s so incredibly hot and gorgeous but I hate him because I know he wants to kill me.” This got old quick. Especially as he never tries to kill her but repeatedly saves her, advises her and protects her. Her supposed distrust and fear of him had no basis in what was happening which made it seem a false device to try to inject tension. Which leads to...

The ‘climax’ of the book. Here is where the sheet is yanked off completely and the book is what it is. Violet and Xander finally confess their love for each other (with him claiming his love began on first sight, no less) and in the ‘climax’ he gets her there. Five times. As we are told in excruciating detail, if you care to read it all. At this point I checked out. I tried to skip ahead a bit to press on. But the scene ends with... yes, you guessed it. A death threat. I sighed, put the book down and have no motivation to pick it up again.

After that I had to go read reviews to see what the target audience thought. I would guess that readers of romance and explicit sex scenes got what they wanted out of this. An evolution of the Twilight/Divergent story with the kid gloves taken off. The irresistible noble bad boy is even badder, deadlier, plus he’s a sex-pro and has his own dragon to boot. The innocent girl is more capable, readily verbalizes sex and fetish thoughts that Trish and Bella internalized, if they thought them at all. Readers coming for that will pay little attention to the world-building, logic and magic problems. For them, the war dragon military fantasy world is icing, where I was looking for it to be the cake.

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