The Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender took the world by storm during its run from 2008 to 2011, and remains in the hearts and minds of its audience to this day, and with the upcoming Netflix live action remake, the series is more relevant than ever. It is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest children’s series of all time, and one of the greatest fantasy stories of all time. Avatar: The Last Airbender was a perfect blend of character, conflict, and thematic storytelling, all wrapped up in a model that was easily digestible for its target audience of 8 to 14 year olds.
But that was in 2008. In 2019, fans of the series are a bit more grown up, and boy let me tell you, The Rise of Kyoshi is not your mother’s Avatar.
To put it frankly, this book is DARK. As this review is spoiler-free, I won’t get into the (quite gory) details, but I will say that it really took me by surprise how adult this novel is. When I heard a Kyoshi novel was being written, I expected something on par with the tone and style of the original series, which while it did include war conflicts and some mature themes, stayed away from depictions of death. This book features a lot of death (with blood!!), as well as an organized crime ring and political corruption subplot.
For those unfamiliar with Kyoshi, or perhaps just need a refresher, she is the Earth Kingdom Avatar a few generations prior to Avatar Aang, and she’s credited in the original series as one of the strongest and most revered Avatars in history. She has an island named after her, as well as an impressive all-female team of elite fighters who fight with fans in full makeup — the Kyoshi Warriors.
But our powerful Kyoshi had quite humble beginnings. Not only were people highly doubtful of her Avatar status, she also was a weak and untrained Earthbender. The book follows Kyoshi from her earliest moments as an orphan in the Earth Kingdom town of Yokoya, where she’s starving and mistrustful of any adults who come her way. A pair of the previous Avatar’s companions come to town in search of the new Avatar. They find Kyoshi and bring her along, but as a servant to a boy called Yun, who they believe is the Avatar.
The plot really ramps up after the discovery that Kyoshi is the true Avatar, and the fallout from the mistake throws her world into utter chaos.
I say that this novel features some adult themes because almost immediately we realize that Kyoshi has suffered deep loses. Moreso than that, being the Avatar makes her a pawn in many elaborate political games — and they spell trouble for her more often than not. The politics in this novel are heavier than in any other story from the Avatar world, and they make more sense than the politics that drove the Legend of Korra series.
If the original series targeted the 8 to 14 year old range, then I would put this novel in the 13 to 16 year old range. Along with the politics and the bloody deaths, there’s also a serious romantic subplot running through the whole thing that may be too mature for younger readers.
The writing itself speaks to the increased target age. While not on a J.K. Rowling level of writing, author F.C. Yee does a great job of trusting his audience’s intelligence. There are a few moments that feel a little too on the nose, or like internal emotion is a bit too overstated, but then again I am an adult reading it. Perhaps it is necessary for younger readers. Besides, these moments are few and far between.
At about 450 pages it sounds like a long novel, but in actuality it reads very quickly. In fact, I thought the book could have been longer, in order to hang in action scenes longer, feel the emotional moments deeper. Also, the book has a pretty large cast. By the end I felt like I did know them, but I wanted more time with all of them. Additionally, there’s not one, not two, but three villains in this story, and with such a dense plot I wanted more time in all of those conflicts. The story feels grand, even in comparison to the massive story that was its source material. Perhaps it’s because the story was written to emulate the original — a TV show with meandering subplots and lots of moving pieces — but I felt like it was moving through things a little fast. That being said, it doesn’t ever linger, which means the pace is always quick, making for an easier read especially for those not all that interested in novels.
In short, this book is a great addition to the Avatar canon and it really pushes the boundaries of the claim that it’s a “children’s series”. It’s truly an everybody series, and if you wanted more from the original series, this book very well may provide it for you. In fact, you don’t even have to be an Avatar: The Last Airbender fan to enjoy this book. It sets up the world entirely on its own, and while it does expect that most of the readers are familiar with how it all works, it doesn’t rely entirely on that. It’s an interesting, throughout story in its own right, and a really impressive expansion of the Avatar universe.
Final Score: A-
Tell Us: Have you read The Rise of Kyoshi? If so, what are your thoughts? If not, do you plan to?