Avatar: The Last Airbender was a show that was progressive like few others since. Set in a fantastical realm based on a variety of ancient Asian dynastic kingdoms and cultures, the show centers on the roles that power, compassion and love play in being a leader. The characters often disrupt gender binaries, and represent the experiences of people with disabilities, characters living with trauma, and the costs of revolution on ordinary citizens. Now, almost 20 years after the show’s finale aired, writer F.C. Lee and original showrunner Michael Dante DiMartino have co-created a YA novel, The Rise of Kyoshi, to tell the tale of Aang’s predecessor, Avatar Kyoshi of the Earth Kingdom.
Avatar Kyoshi’s legacy was depicted a few times in the show through the Kyoshi Warriors, an all women group of Earth Kingdom warriors charged with protecting their homeland and inspired by Kyoshi, and the Dai Li, the secret police meant to protect the Earth King that Kyoshi founded. When Aang communes with his past Avatar selves, he comes face to face with the spiritual embodiment of Avatar Kyoshi. She is strong, willful and oriented towards justice at any cost, clashing with Aang and his Air Nomad upbringing not to do harm to living beings. Still, viewers of the show know little about her backstory and rise to power. Even the film adaptation of AtLA, that, for many of us fans does not exist, did not make an attempt to address Kyoshi’s affect on the Earth Kingdom.
One of the biggest challenges for the authors was taking a beloved story and world that was rendered so beautifully in animation and bringing it to life in text. My fears were allayed from the first page. The descriptions of each Kingdom, of each town and home, immediately grounded me into places that may be familiar like Omashu, where we first meet King Bumi, to brand new places such as the outlaw city of Chameleon Bay and other locals across the vast Earth Kingdom. There were enough touchstones throughout the novel that drew me in as a fan and made me feel that I was following the characters and exploring this familiar world from new and exciting angles.
Kyoshi is a wonderful protagonist primarily because she is not identified as the Avatar until midway through the novel. As an orphan working in the service of Jianzhu, the master who is training the perceived Avatar Yun, she is meant to be deferential and servile, knowing her place despite her early Earth bending talent. She grapples with her relationships to Jianzhu and Kelsang, an Air Nomad and master to the Avatar who rescued her from starvation and gave her a home in Jianzhu’s mansion. Throughout the novel, Kyoshi must contend with what family, loyalty and friendship mean when one has lost, when one feels abandoned, and when one has to make a new way in the world. These motifs work so well for this novel as a contrast to Aang in the show; Aang struggled with what being the Avatar meant, but was cared for in the Air Nomad clan and had friends who helped him along the way. Seeing Kyoshi realize that she is the Avatar as a person who has not been nurtured in the same way shows just how difficult her journey to believe in her abilities is. She struggles to separate her personal grudges from the work of bringing balance back to a world that had gone without an Avatar for many years.
The authors inhabit Kyoshi’s inner world so seamlessly that all of her actions and development make sense, including her relationship to love. I loved that her queerness was treated as a normal part of her, and the fact that she is attracted to multiple people of different genders was a nice departure from the show which, for all its progressive writing, was still fairly heteronormative. Kyoshi’s relationship with Rangi, the Firebender bodyguard meant to protect the Avatar, adds a bit of lightness to the story. Rather than seeing her love for Rangi as a weakness, as Aang struggled with his feelings for Katara, Kyoshi sees Rangi as an ally, as family who loves her enough to protect her.
Ultimately, this story is about reimagining what justice looks like. Throughout her journey from servant to outlaw to Avatar, Kyoshi is exposed to people who come from poverty and crime that complicate her understanding of honor and morality and must contend with her parent’s legacies as leaders in a criminal underground. Just as Aang grappled with fighting and his power to harm others, Kyoshi struggles to reconcile her past with her need to find her place in a world that wants to control and define her.
This novel will bring a new, younger audience to the Avatar fan base and appeal to original fans of the series who want to know more about Kyoshi’s story that expands on the nuanced representation of the original series. Fandoms and the communities that support them have long been places where I sought refuge, coming together with others for the love of stories. I am excited to indulge my love of Avatar: The Last Airbender and engage with this new addition to the Avatar canon.
The Rise of Kyoshi is available from Amulet Books.
Leticia Urieta is proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets, Lumina, The Offing, Kweli Journal, Medium, Electric Lit and others. Her chapbook, The Monster is out now from LibroMobile Press. She is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.