Fourth Wing took the romantasy (romance fantasy) world by storm in 2023, climbing up bestseller lists and flooding BookTok. The book stars Violet Sorrengail, a young woman who unexpectedly ends up competing for a spot at Basgiath War College, where she’ll be trained as a dragon rider. She rises to the occasion after a lifetime of assuming she’d become a scribe because of her sharp wit, bitter determination, and a chronic condition that makes her joints dislocate easily. During these trials, she must also face down her family’s greatest rival, Xaden Riorson, the bad boy who just so happens to be extremely hot.
Reading Fourth Wing took me back not just to some of my favorite young adult romantasies, but to the feeling I had reading those for the first time. There’s no beating the simple thrill of a magic school, deadly trials, dragons, and forbidden lovers all wrapped in a fast-paced package. (With enough smut for adult readers, to boot.) Luckily, the book’s sequel, Iron Throne, is finally out, so the wait is over. But once you finish that, we have some other books you might love, sorted by tropes and themes in the Empyrean series.
It’s also worth noting that we wanted to go off the beaten path, so we held off from recommending specific titles from Sarah J. Maas and Jennifer L. Armentrout, both of whom are genre hard-hitters whose series also ushered in this era of romantasy. If you haven’t read either author yet, they’re both great reads for any Fourth Wing fan — with a substantial number of books to work through, too.
Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross
There are a lot of enemies-to-lovers books out there, but it’s a little harder to find romances that are actually rivals-to-lovers — people in competition with one another, or in Romeo and Juliet-style family feuds. In Divine Rivals, journalists Iris Winnow and Roman Kitt are vying for the same columnist position at the Oath Gazette, writing about the war waged between gods. But the two of them eventually meet on the front lines as Iris takes a war correspondent role in order to find her missing brother, a soldier in the war, and Roman follows her there.
Though they each have fraught family situations, luckily each of them has a pen pal that they can talk to, through a magical typewriter. I wonder who that pen pal is?
Here’s how I’d compare it: Fourth Wing is for those of us who grew up reading books about dragons, deadly trials, and bad boys. Divine Rivals is for the You’ve Got Mail movie fans who carried Greek mythology tomes around in our backpacks. The sequel is also coming out this year, in just a month, so there’s even more to dig into. —Nicole Clark
The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi
In The Final Strife, society is divided by the color of blood — red-blooded Embers have magic-wielding powers, and life in the highest echelons of this society’s social hierarchy. Blue-blooded Dusters inhabit the middle class, while Ghostings, a servant class who are maimed at birth, have clear blood. But every year, Ember entrants compete in the Aktibar, a competition that determines who will succeed the empire’s various Wardens.
The book was one of our picks for best speculative fiction of 2022. Here’s what we wrote then: “Sylah was raised as a Duster and trained to overthrow the Embers by winning the Wardens’ annual trials. But when the rebellion was quashed — killing her family, or so she believed — she coped by turning to other vices, hoping to vanish into the background. All of this changes when she sneaks into an Ember princess’s quarters and gets roped right back in.” Come for the trials, stay for the slow-burn sapphic romance. —N. Clark
Lethal, competitive magic school books
The Scholomance trilogy by Naomi Novik
The Scholomance trilogy — A Deadly Education, The Last Graduate, and The Golden Enclaves — were among dozens of series touted as “Harry Potter, but for adults” as a way of luring in people who grew up alongside Harry and were looking for something else that gave them the same feeling as that series. But these three books (which, for those leery of open-ended fantasy series, form a nice, complete story arc) are much darker and more riveting than most of the Potter-come-latelys — in large part because they were consciously written to address some of the more glaring story questions in Rowling’s work.
Scholomance protagonist El Higgins, like Violet in Fourth Wing, is thrown into a magical training center where the students face likely death from any number of directions, including their classmates. There are no teachers, just the school itself, which seems to be malevolent and sadistic. The school is crawling with predatory monsters, and to survive them, some students become predatory monsters themselves. The only reason parents enroll their children there is that the outside world is even worse. It’s a brutal series — but one threaded through with heroic hope and wistful idealism, as El starts off friendless, isolated, and defensive, and slowly comes to understand both why her world is so awful, and what she can personally do to fight back. —Tasha Robinson
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
In The Poppy War, Rin, an orphan after Nikan’s brutal war, manages to ace the Keju, a test that places the Empire’s brightest into schools, and is placed into Nikan’s elite military school, Sinegard. Not only is Sinegard highly competitive and brutal, forcing students into end-of-year trials to determine their future path, but it’s also a space that’s unwelcome to outsiders — students are often from wealthy families that have the money to spend on elite training just to get into Sinegard, or they’re descendants of empire warlords. Rin is at a disadvantage in almost every area. She doesn’t have the sort of training other students have, but she’s also a dark-skinned girl from a rural, poor province — and she’s targeted by other students because of it.
Rin clashes with several of her classmates and is in trouble with the school when she learns that she holds a rare, striking power known as shamanism. With the help of Sinegard’s weirdest professor, she trains to pass the year-end trials, all while the undercurrent of a nearing war hums in the background of it all — at least, until the sound of that hum becomes too loud to ignore. —N. Carpenter
Temeraire by Naomi Novik
For those wishing Violet Sorrengail’s relationship with dragons was more personal and endearing instead of standoffish and judgmental, Naomi Novik’s nine-book Temeraire series is just about the best dragon-bonding series out there. The kickoff novel, His Majesty’s Dragon, is reasonably solid as either stand-alone or an entry into the rest of the completed series’ grand arc.
Set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, His Majesty’s Dragon opens with British naval captain Will Laurence unwillingly accepting the care and keeping of a hatchling dragon, which he names Temeraire. Captain Laurence is horrorstruck at having to leave the sea, surrender his ship and career, and become a full-time aviator in Britain’s disreputable air corps. But everything he learns about aviators and dragons surprises him. There’s plenty of political intrigue, plot twists and startling reveals, complicated world-building (so many different societies around the world built in radically different ways around dragons), and above all, tactical dragon warfare.
But on a character basis, the entire series has an extremely satisfying emotional arc about a stuffy, repressed, duty-driven military man learning about joy and about respect for others. Military-fiction fans will find a lot of creative, detailed thoughts about the use of dragons in combat in this alt-history series, but for those of us who just want to see difficult people navigate difficult but rewarding relationships — whether with fantasy creatures or with other people — this series is an absolute must-read. —TR
The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and others
For Fourth Wing fans particularly engaged by the detail about how dragon sex lives and dragon rider sex lives intertwine, there’s no better series to reach for than the dragon-bonding OG series, starting with 1968’s Dragonflight. Set on an alien world where human settlers partnered with dragons long ago to fight the periodic deadly rains of Thread, an all-consuming spore that needs to be burned to ash in midair by dragon breath in order to ensure human survival on the planet. Part of that partnership involves such profound telepathic bonds between rider and dragon that it’s important for the riders to be personally and physically compatible when dragon mating time rolls around.
When the series first launches, Thread hasn’t fallen in decades, dragon riders are out of favor, and a new generation sees the threat as a myth. When the threat returns, humanity has to scramble to rebuild its dragon corps and its discipline, and get ready to fight. The original stand-alone trilogy is part politics, part personal voyage of discovery for a new dragon rider, and part going-to-war story. The couple dozen novels and short-story collections that follow — in later decades written by McCaffrey in collaboration with her children, others solo novels by those children — expand the world considerably, in a series of shorter arcs focusing on different, less dragon-y aspects of the planet. (And therefore, sadly, less dragons-in-lust aspects of the world as well.) —TR
To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose
Moniquill Blackgoose’s To Shape a Dragon’s Breath is a story that takes on colonialism and racism told in a steampunk world that’s powered by dragons. The people of Masquapaug had long ago been pushed to a remote island as Anglish settlers took over the mainland. Dragons haven’t been seen on Masquapaug in generations, until Anequs, a 15-year-old indigenous girl, finds and hatches a dragon egg with the help of her community. Anequs is named a Nampeshiweisit for her relationship with the dragon. But the colonizers fear Anequs and her dragon, and force her to raise her dragon in accordance with their own rules: She must attend the Anglish dragon school or her dragon will be killed.
To Shape a Dragon’s Breath follows Anequs’ growing relationship with her dragon, Kasaqua, as they resist the norms the Anglish people are trying to put on them; the Anglish see dragons as tools or weapons, but Anequs and Kasaqua have a deeper bond that’s built on respect and tradition. —N. Carpenter
Disabled and/or chronically ill main character books
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Iron Widow has made a huge impact on the young adult science fiction and fantasy genre for its feminist storytelling that tackles the misogyny of its vivid, cruel world head-on. The Huaxia nation is under attack by massive alien creatures; the nation defends its borders using mechas called Chrysalises. Women in Huaxia are little more than a tool to power these Chrysalises for their male pilots, who drain the qi of their “concubines” until there’s nothing left. Wu Zetian enlists to avenge her sister, but ends up overpowering and killing her male partner — branding her as a dangerous Iron Widow that’s both a powerful tool for the army but a force that must be controlled. Iron Widow is the story of how Wu Zetian breaks down the sexist system.
Wu Zetian is a powerful woman who’s also disabled after her feet were bound as a child; the chronic pain she experiences from her feet means she walks with a cane or uses a wheelchair when she’s not controlling her mech with co-pilot Li Shimin, a pilot considered a dangerous criminal by Huaxia. The government, too, has found a way to control Li Shimin, who does not conform to societal norms, by feeding an alcohol addiction. Iron Widow is intense in both battle and its relationships, dismantling tropes and expectations at every turn. —N. Carpenter
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Six of Crows has become beloved both as a bestselling heist fantasy and as a Netflix adaptation. The action and romance make this book easy to read in one sitting. But the crew in particular has always been a standout element of the story, led by the magnetic and frightening kingpin Kaz Brekker. Kaz runs the Crows, a gang in Ketterdam that hatches numerous heists across two books — becoming embroiled in a geopolitical power struggle over magic and who gets to use it, and a highly addictive drug that amplifies a magic-wielder’s powers.
Kaz is also the hot disabled antihero I’d been pining for for years. He walks with a limp, using a cane for mobility purposes and as a weapon. He, like nearly every member of his crew, is recovering from a few deeply traumatic incidents — one event in particular makes it hard for him to touch other people, and so he wears gloves. I consumed this duology so quickly, and would read any new addition in a heartbeat. —N. Clark
Deadly trials books
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
I will take any excuse to recommend this pulpy classic to more readers. In Battle Royale, junior high school students are dropped off on a deserted island, where they must fight to the death — as part of an authoritarian government scheme, of course. There are 42 students, and nearly every single one of them gets a kind of gruesome spotlight.
This book is probably the most obvious progenitor to The Hunger Games and Squid Game in that it’s a fight to the death. But where The Hunger Games emphasizes its dictatorial government and the class system around it, and Squid Game has distinct competitive games, Battle Royale focuses on the terrifying interpersonal dynamics between young people who are desperate to survive. In this way, it’s a little closer to Lord of the Flies, the bloodthirsty novel that is nonetheless considered classic reading in a lot of schools.
It’s also just paced amazingly — like 600 pages, but you could read it in a day, it’s so un-put-down-able. —N. Clark
The Serpent & The Wings of Night by Carissa Broadbent
The Serpent & The Wings of Night is another standout romantasy book that features Hunger Games-like deadly trials. Like Fourth Wing, it also stars a young woman who must fight her way through a deadly competition, though she is underpowered compared to her peers — at least, that’s how it looks on the surface. But this book has a more supernatural flavor.
Oraya is the adopted human daughter of the vampire king, and she must fight her way through the Kejari, an extremely brutal tournament held by the goddess of death, Nyxia. But the odds are not in her favor; competitors from several major vampire factions pose a major threat. She must learn to work together with Raihn, the vampire who is her greatest competition… but will he become more to her? I’ll let you figure that one out. —N. Clark