By Ben Schwartz
The “Avatar: The Last Airbender” universe has always felt bigger than just the TV show and its sequel series “The Legend of Korra.” Given the renewed interest in the franchise generated by the series’ return to Netflix, now seems like the perfect time for Viacom to produce more content in the “Avatar” universe. Though the upcoming live-action Netflix show seems to be in shambles, with series co-creators Michael Dante DiMartio and Bryan Konietzko having stepped down from the project in August, there is at least one other avenue for fans hungry for more “Avatar” content: the “Kyoshi” novel duology, written by F.C. Yee in partnership with DiMartino.
“The Rise of Kyoshi” (2019) and “The Shadow of Kyoshi” (2020) follow fan-favorite character Avatar Kyoshi in her teenage years as she struggles to establish herself as the Avatar. When the first novel begins, Kyoshi is a mere servant at the estate of Avatar Yun, an earthbending prodigy widely believed to be the Avatar due to an otherwise unexplainable connection to the spirit of the previous Avatar. When Kyoshi, who is actually considered a rather unskilled earthbender, begins to manifest a similar connection, the estate is thrown into chaos. What follows is a gripping tale of intrigue, romance and — of course — iconic bending battles.
There are a number of aspects of these novels that make them stand out, from the high-level story elements to F.C. Yee’s sharp prose. What follows is a spoiler-free list of some of the strongest reasons these novels are worth a read.
These novels contain the best-developed romantic subplot in any Avatar media. The painfully cliché love triangles in “The Legend of Korra” certainly provide no contest here, and the romance in “Avatar” itself never really evolves beyond childhood crushes.
Kyoshi’s romantic interests, on the other hand, feel deep and heartfelt. It certainly helps that the medium of prose allows the reader to view the characters’ inner thoughts in a way that’s impossible on television. Yee’s way of writing about romance as it develops, from initial attraction into infatuation and then full-blown love, are at once relatable and singular. If Aang confessing his feelings to Katara gives you butterflies, or Sokka saying goodbye to Yue tugs at your heartstrings, you’ll love the tender moments in the “Kyoshi” novels.
The original “Avatar” television show is so immersive largely because of the rich world it builds around the characters. It feels like a real place with a real history, from which the conflicts of the show emerge organically.
The “Kyoshi” novels build on many pieces of history established in the original show and lead the reader to a number of previously unexplored areas of the Avatar world. This includes learning more about past Avatars like Kuruk, Yangchen and Szeto, as well as diving into the culture and customs of the Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation and Air Nomads. The exposition is always handled naturally and blends in seamlessly with the story. There are even some revelations that will color the way you view parts of the original show with more nuance or interest.
F.C. Yee’s vivid descriptions bring the bending in these novels brilliantly to life. While the medium of animation allows the best possible visual realization of bending, the medium of prose allows the reader to get a sense of what it feels like to bend the elements. The way a bender must center themself and extend their chi outward is discussed in the show, but the reader gets to experience it alongside Kyoshi in these novels. They also reveal previously unseen bending techniques and give the reader a view of how elemental considerations define a combatant’s split-second decisions in battle.
A brand new team avatar
The biggest reason the original “Avatar” built so much audience investment is because the characters are all complex and lovably (or hate-ably) flawed. The “Kyoshi” novels will not let “Avatar” fans down on this front. They masterfully craft irresistible protagonists and complex villains and pull no punches when it comes time for them to face off. Kyoshi, Rangi, Yun, Lek, Kirima and Wong quickly become just as iconic as the original Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Zuko and Suki.
You can find the “Kyoshi” novels for sale online or at a local bookstore. They are also available digitally on Kindle, and the first novel is available as an audiobook as well. The action, lore, characters and relationships make them well worth the read for any fan of the original show.
Contact Ben Schwartz at bschwaz1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.