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A rags-to-if not riches, at least a level of prestige, heroine in the Avatar universe, with a tsundere firebender love interest and lots of element-bending action, what’s not to like? It’s as if somebody gave F.C. Yee a list of stuff I love and told him to make a book out of it. So that’s all to the good. And while I enjoyed it and I’m glad I read it, I did have issues.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
As an entry into the Avatar universe, it works and has lots of fun little nods/homages without being clunky name-checking, which is good. Kyoshi is both unique, and believable as an incarnation of the same spirit as Wan, and even moreso as Korra. There are some neat new bending styles and a lot of interesting extrapolations on what the world of Avatar is like for ordinary people. Not since “The Waterbending Scroll” have we gotten so up close and personal with the criminal societies of this world, and the book creates an interesting and consistent culture for the daofei.
The story is engaging, with the relationship between Kyoshi and Rangi being the strongest element by far, and the relationship between Kyoshi and her guru-with-a-tarnished-halo Lao Ge being second. But everything else pales by comparison, to the point where the sections from Master Jianzhu’s POV rather drag. I realize the book was trying to humanize the antagonist in the Avatar tradition, but honestly Jianzhu’s just not that interesting a character under all the veneer and, for that matter, he’s not convincing as one of Kuruk’s “Team Avatar” members. In fact, all of Kuruk’s Team Avatar are a pretty rotten bunch, by the standards of the likes of Katara, Sokka, Asami, and the like. Even if you accept the “After Kuruk died, the world went to pieces…” explanation of things, for Kuruk to have been such a happy-go-lucky guy with this nest of vipers, he must have been even more oblivious than previously hinted.
Also, as engaging as it is, the book clearly runs out of room and just sorta falls apart 4/5 of the way through. After infiltrating the criminal underworld, taking down a corrupt earth kingdom governor in a massive assault, and then destroying a powerful would-be despot… the book is like “Oh yeah! The big villain Kyoshi’s been training to defeat and who has been hunting her since act one. Uh… he kidnaps her girlfriend, they fight, a deus ex machina happens, and she wins, all in one chapter. Oh, and then she goes to the air nomads and Kuruk’s spirit shows up to set up a cliffhanger. Tune in next time!”
It’s a disappointing anticlimax, that throws ice over the high of the big confrontation with the daofei, and also makes all that time sitting through the chapters with Master Jianzhu feel all the more wasted. Honestly, if those chapters had been cut to make room for Kyoshi setting up a more satisfying confrontation, I probably would have given the book five stars instead of four.
This book is violent. Very, very violent, by Avatar standards.
Granted, the Avatar series is for a TV audience, so violence and death is something the shows have to be very careful about. Generally speaking, when a character dies in Avatar, it’s intended to be a shocking and important moment, a rare and defining circumstance. Sometimes the show won’t even own up to it (right, Jet?).
The deaths in Rise of Kyoshi are certainly shocking and defining, not taken lightly, but… there are a lot of them, and some of them are extremely gruesome, on the horror level of the Earth Queen having the air sucked out of her, or P’Li blowing her own head off. Chin the Conqueror’s comedic Wyle E. Coyote death would seem tame, anticlimactic, and out of place here. By the end, I was more surprised when an important character survived.
How you feel about this will color your enjoyment of the book. If I were just coming into this book with no expectations from its connection to the Avatar universe, I probably would have taken it in stride as just “this is a story about ruthless violence” and accepted it. But since I do have those expectations, the level and more importantly the frequency of the violence jumped out at me.
F.C. Yee has created a compelling and convincing story in the Avatar universe, populated with believable characters and a very relatable protagonist, that leaves a lot of questions open for future expansion without feeling like plot threads were left dangling. Although hampered by a rushed ending and a bit heavy-handed on the violence, I recommend it to both fans and non-fans of the Avatar universe. Anyone who like YA fantasy and adventure, will find something to enjoy in this book.