Dressed in black and gold, the squad of eight formed a tight circle as the clock counted down, threw their hands in together and let out a ferocious cheer: “One, two, three — ‘Burn it down!’”
Moments later, the doors flung open and the intrepid staffers on duty Monday night at the Ripped Bodice welcomed 150 excited book lovers who’d lined up around the block in front of the Culver City romance-focused bookshop to snag their copies of Rebecca Yarros’ “Iron Flame” at midnight.
That pre-opening battle cry was a nod to the incendiary tagline for the hotly anticipated fantasy romance novel, a sequel to Yarros’ BookTok sensation “Fourth Wing,” in which telepathic dragons wield magic, human cadets vie — and sometimes kill — to ride them and political intrigue and very steamy sex ensue.
“Fourth Wing,” the first in the planned five-book “Empyrean” series, debuted just this April. But with over 2 million copies sold worldwide, according to publisher Entangled, more than 1 billion hashtag views of “Fourth Wing”-related videos on TikTok and a cosplay subculture that has sprung up with astonishing speed and fervor, “Iron Flame” mania is having a moment — and so is the fledgling portmanteau genre of “romantasy.”
The fervor of a midnight book release is reminiscent of the “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” YA crazes of the 2000s and 2010s, but Yarros’ novels are classified as “new adult” — still youth-oriented but decidedly 18+. With a series already in development at Amazon MGM Studios, to be executive-produced by Yarros and Michael B. Jordan, its blockbuster status is only poised to grow as the franchise rolls out.
Only a handful of midnight releases (out of hundreds across North America) took place in Los Angeles, and the Ripped Bodice, by many accounts the first bookstore dedicated to the romance genre, was the place to be. As the witching hour approached, a buzzing crowd mingled, played themed character games and snagged official “Iron Flame” merch as they waited to pick up their limited-edition hardcovers at midnight.
Some, like Redgie De Guzman, 42, of the San Fernando Valley, brought homemade friendship bracelets to give out à la Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. A bookseller at a chain store she declined to name, De Guzman had long-established plans to attend the Ripped Bodice event with friends, and intended to start reading “as soon as we leave.”
Kazmiera Tarshis, 28, and Lauren Webster, 31, both of Burbank, arrived in cosplay paying homage to Violet Sorrengail, the petite but powerful 20-year-old heroine of “Fourth Wing.” Often underestimated due to her physical stature and health conditions, the protagonist nonetheless proves her grit and strength and wields immense powers over the course of the first book.
Tarshis, a performer and digital creator who has cosplayed as Violet as well as characters from the universe of romantasy powerhouse author Sarah J. Maas, devoured “Fourth Wing” earlier this year before turning her friend on to it.
“We love ‘Fourth Wing’ and we also love this bookstore,” said Tarshis, her hair in a Violet-esque brown and silver braid. “Like a lot of girls, when we were younger we read books all the time; then we stopped because we had to be adults. As of late we’ve been getting back into reading so many fun fantasy novels, but with a more adult POV — spicy scenes! — and it’s just so fun.”
The pair had post-midnight plans for “Iron Flame”: a reading all-nighter, of course. “We’re staying up tonight,” said Tarshis. “We have energy drinks, we have snacks, we have our blankets set up and our candles. We’re ready!”
Why trek across town on a weeknight to attend a midnight book launch? The Ripped Bodice and the romance world at large infuse the solitary pursuit of reading with a sense of community — and in a sense they complete the world-building that begins at the author’s desk. The store’s events, which included a brewery launch party in New York (the store opened a Brooklyn branch in April), aim to give customers an experience, not just a point of sale.
Case in point: the many fans who made a beeline to sniff $18 candles, made by SoCal-based Briarwick Candles, that smell like Violet’s brooding enemy-turned-lover Xaden Riorson, whose dragon-powered magic can command the shadows. “Ever wonder what the shadow daddy smells like?” a placard beckoned. (The answer: mint, leather and bergamot.)
Attendees wore stickers with their chosen “Empyrean” rank and wrote their dream powers on a signet wish tree. Total strangers spoke in the common language of “Fourth Wing,” traded notes about Xaden (fondly referred to in countless memes as “Xaddy”), weighed in on the fate of Violet’s BFF Dain and analyzed the romance subgenre known as “spicy” (self-explanatory).
After years of pandemic-induced isolation and anxiety, novels such as “Fourth Wing” and “A Court of Thorns and Roses” have given readers an outlet for thinking and talking about subjects important in their lives. They immerse themselves in these books and their themes on BookTok and other online forums; now they get to do it in person.
“Especially in the last many years, dating has been an interesting situation for a lot of people and social media is kind of overwhelming,” said Webster. “It’s nice to express in a healthy way feelings of romance and love and sexuality, and be able to talk about it with your friends in the context of a story. And to see these men, who are written by women, and think, ‘This book guy treats women so nicely! This is what I’m looking for in the real world.’ Romance novels have let us do that.”
Similar scenes unfolded across the country Monday night, as evidenced by social-media posts of parking-lot tailgate parties and packed bookstore drops. Stores worked directly with Yarros’ publisher Entangled, which used “Fourth Wing” to launch adult fantasy imprint Red Tower, to plan the night’s event.
Fantasy romance is so popular, said Ripped Bodice social media and events manager Teresa Lynch, that the indie bookseller has trouble keeping copies stocked. After “Fourth Wing” sold out this spring, the store was unable to restock for several months.
“The genre is very hot right now, even without ‘Fourth Wing,’” said Lynch. The store has plans to expand its fantasy and paranormal offerings to meet demand — and to throw more release launch parties.
General manager Taylor Capizola, sporting an “Iron Flame” temporary dragon tattoo (another midnight launch giveaway) as well as real “Divergent”-inspired ink, credited the sense of nostalgia, especially among millennial readers who grew up reading YA fantasy romance and relish reliving its hallmarks of heightened worlds, otherworldly creatures and larger-than-life adventure.
Another thing they seem to be nostalgic for: the release parties that flourished in millennial YA’s golden age.
“Some of the most special experiences I’ve ever had at bookstores were for midnight releases, as a fan,” said Capizola. “I was so eager to come in at midnight to get my book, to experience the joy of other fans being around. But then the fandom itself is like your own version of a found family, which is such a prevalent trope within romance itself. It’s like you’ve created this network in this world for yourself and you get to all congregate at the same time, the same place late at night. It’s fun. It’s different. It feels like when you were on your computer late at night on Tumblr, talking to your fandom friends — but in person.”