The Avatar lives again! Just as the titular character of Avatar: The Last Airbender is constantly reincarnated from one elemental nation to the next, so too has the Avatar universe grown — from its beginnings as an animated TV show, to a live-action movie, then to tie-in graphic novels, and now to prose novels.
This week sees the release of The Rise of Kyoshi, the Avatar universe’s very first canonical prose novel. Written by F.C. Yee (The Epic Crush of Genie Lo) with advisement from Michael Dante DiMartino (who originally co-created Avatar: The Last Airbender with Bryan Konietzko), The Rise of Kyoshi is a stunning revitalization of Avatar storytelling that uses the YA novel format to explore new depths within its world, exploring the internal mental state of element-bending and developing a compelling same-sex romance.
Front and Center, Finally
True to its title, the new novel focuses on Avatar Kyoshi. Born into the Earth Kingdom (one of the four nations of the Avatar world, each matched to one of the classic elements), Kyoshi held the Avatar mantle two generations before Aang, the famed “last airbender.” Longtime Avatar fans may have first heard of Kyoshi in one of the earliest episodes of The Last Airbender, “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” in which Aang and his friends first encountered the Kyoshi Warriors of Kyoshi Island. The all-female group were capable fighters who protected their ancestral homeland while dressed in the kabuki makeup of their namesake idol and wielding her trademark weapons: Fans.
Kyoshi’s unique look made her a visual stand-out whenever Aang was greeted by visions of his past lives. But The Rise of Kyoshi looks at the woman behind the makeup, showing how she went from a dirt-poor nobody to an inspiring legend. Thanks to the prose format, Yee’s novel has the space to expand on mythology that was only hinted at in previous works. Readers don’t get to see Kyoshi bend the elements with martial arts the way Aang did on screen, but they do get to live inside her head and see the Avatar world from a whole new angle.
As The Last Airbender unfolded, it occasionally granted additional pieces of information about Kyoshi. Fans learned she was renowned as one of the most powerful Avatars ever, who lived to 230 years of age. Whenever she manifested herself to speak through Aang (as all past Avatars can do), she displayed a strong sense of justice. Unlike the peace-loving Aang, Kyoshi possessed an iron will to see justice done at all costs. This attitude clearly produced both good and bad results. Kyoshi’s separation of Kyoshi Island from the Earth Kingdom mainland successfully protected the community for posterity and ended the tyrannical ambitions of Chin the Conqueror, but made her a reviled figure in Chin’s hometown. Kyoshi also founded the elite Earth Kingdom secret police known as the Dai Li, who protected the Earth King’s life at the cost of slowly funneling the monarch’s political power into their own shadowy order.
The character we meet in The Rise of Kyoshi is a long way from all that, though.
“What was appealing to me was how with limited screen time, she was such an effective foil to Aang in the original series. They don’t spend that much time together, but it’s so interesting to watch them play off each other with their different approaches to problem-solving,” Yee tells EW. “That got me into thinking about what could be filled in. What kind of experiences would she have had to go through in order to arrive at the woman we see as an adult, who briefly appears and advises Aang, and owns up to slaying a conqueror, and doesn’t take any BS from anyone? She must have seen some pretty intense stuff to give her that edge.”
Granted, every Avatar needs years of training to master the four elements and grow into their destiny as the savior of the world, but Kyoshi isn’t even recognized as the Avatar at the beginning of the novel. The earthbending sage Jianzhu and the airbending master Kelsang, friends of the late Avatar Kuruk who have been charged with finding and protecting his successor, have instead misidentified the Avatar, lifting up a man named Yun even though Kyoshi is right under their noses.
This fascinating twist marks a first for the franchise, since both Aang and his successor Korra were identified as the Avatar at an early age and grew up knowing they were meant for greatness. Kyoshi, by contrast, begins as a mere serving girl in the household of the exalted “Avatar Yun.” An orphan since childhood, Kyoshi is used to being reviled by ordinary townspeople. The combination of her potentially earth-shattering powers and her xenophobic reception among average people may remind some readers of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Though when we first meet Kyoshi, her self-esteem is so low she can barely earthbend at all.
“Since the earliest days of Avatar, we’ve always been pitched ideas of a fake Avatar. It seems like a natural thing for writers to glom onto,” DiMartino tells EW. “We never really resonated with that idea, there was never an angle we could figure out that made sense. But the way F.C. did it, it makes sense in this volatile period between Avatars. He came up with a plausible reason they could’ve been misidentified. It’s a great start for Kyoshi specifically: The person who becomes one of the most powerful and legendary Avatars ever starting out where people don’t believe she is and she has to go rogue to learn how to become the Avatar.”
He continues: “It’s a cool angle on the classic Avatar journey of mastering the four elements and having to find your masters and stuff, when she’s treated as an outcast in a way.”
The Korra Connection
The Rise of Kyoshi also fleshes out a key part of Kyoshi’s character that fans only learned of very recently. The Legend of Korra, the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender that focused on Aang’s headstrong Water Tribe-born successor Avatar Korra, ended with Korra embracing her romantic feelings for her friend Asami. The final minutes of the show found its two female leads taking each other hand-in-hand before walking off into the sunset.
The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars trilogy of sequel graphic novels, written by DiMartino and illustrated by artist Irene Koh for Dark Horse Comics, further explored this relationship, as Korra and Asami struggled with coming out to friends and family. This is where Aang’s waterbending daughter Kya came in. Kya approached Korra and Asami during Turf Wars, explained that she also loved women, and gave the two young lovebirds a crash course in the state of LGBTQ affairs within the Avatar world. One of the most interesting tidbits was the revelation of Kyoshi’s bisexuality. Just as The Rise of Kyoshi explains how the Earth Kingdom Avatar learned to fight with fans while wearing kabuki makeup, it also explores her first experience of falling in love with another woman.
“In the back of our minds we always thought Kyoshi was probably bisexual,” DiMartino says. “For a YA novel, it just seems quite appropriate to have her explore her feelings toward men and women. In the Korra comic, it’s just a line; there wasn’t time to really get into it, so F.C. took that idea and came up with an awesome character Rangi and it’s great. It’s really the heart of the story, which I really like.”
For a story that’s primarily about martial arts and elemental battles, Avatar has always had a knack for crafting compelling romances. But the blossoming relationship between Kyoshi and her firebending friend Rangi, who start out as co-workers in Yun’s mansion before being drawn together in a daring escape and learning to survive together on the run, also highlights the unique strengths of Yee’s novel. The Avatar shows and graphic novels can visualize the spectacle of bending, but The Rise of Kyoshi gets us into the characters’ heads to see how these elemental powers fuel personalities and relationships.
At one point, as Kyoshi and Rangi are fleeing from attackers, Yee writes, “[Rangi] ran as nimbly as they did on the roof tiles, and when there was a leap too great to make naturally, she stepped on jets of fire that blasted out of her feet, bounding in propulsive arcs across the sky. The sight made Kyoshi’s breath come to a standstill at the very time she needed it flowing. Rangi was so beautiful, illuminated by moon and fire, that it hurt. She was strength and skill and determination wrapped around an unshakable heart.”
All About the Words
Until now, Avatar has primarily been a visual story. Both the animated shows and the tie-in comics have used their formats to broadcast the show’s visceral combination of martial arts techniques with elemental powers. But in scenes like this, Yee finds a way to make the components of Avatar storytelling come alive on the page. Other characters, like Jianzhu, use interesting bending techniques that focus on small projectiles or minor manipulations that maybe wouldn’t pop on screen but come alive in the reader’s imagination.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge capturing the motion and kinetic energy of the series in word form,” Yee says. “If you were going to describe, word for word, everything that happens in a fight scene as complex as the ‘Day of Black Sun’ episode where everyone’s jumping around pillars created by the Dai Li, or the gang’s intrusion on the Earth King’s palace…I felt for me it would be impossible. So I actually drew on a concept from back when I practiced capoeira. For capoeira, when you see two people get into the circle and start moving and it seems like a very fluid thing, the mindset my teachers told me is you’re supposed to be having a dialogue. Rather than doing lots and lots of motions, you’re posing a question to the other person. Then they’re answering and posing one of their own, and you’re interacting that way. That call and response, set up and subversion, was probably better suited for the text form and my own capabilities, so I described fight scenes in that manner.”
The good news is, there’s more where this came from. Kyoshi’s aforementioned 230-year lifespan means there’s lots of room left for additional stories, and Yee is already brainstorming the follow-up novel. He teases, “She is definitely going to be challenged on an intensely personal level, which you might guess from the end of book 1, as well as on the political level, as she goes from the lowest rungs of society and most outcast to the highest levels of the world stage.”
That’s not even all that the future holds for the Avatar universe. DiMartino is currently writing a new trilogy of Legend of Korra graphic novels, this one titled Ruins of the Empire and illustrated by artist Michelle Wong, that explores the fate of the villainous Kuvira; part one is available now. A new trilogy of Avatar: The Last Airbender comics is also currently underway, written by Faith Erin Hicks (The Nameless City) and illustrated by Peter Wartman with consultation from DiMartino.
Most interestingly of all, DiMartino and Konietzko are hard at work developing a live-action series version of Avatar: The Last Airbender for Netflix. Not much is known about the project, and it’s still early enough that DiMartino couldn’t speak much about it. But with that on the horizon and The Rise of Kyoshi in bookstores this week, it’s clear that Avatar has become one of the richest and most rewarding fictional universes of 21st-century pop culture.
“It’s pretty crazy,” DiMartino says. “It’s just wild that we created it in 2002, and we’re still working on it. It never went away, even when we weren’t working on the show, because I was working on the book or comics. It’s always been part of my life. But this does feel new. The people who grew up with the show are now older and actually working on the shows, comics, and books, and there’s still the next generation discovering it. That was one of our goals originally: To tell a timeless story that could last generations.”
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Avatar: The Last Airbender