I know you love Aang and the gang. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this article. But how much do you really love ATLA? Do you love it enough that you want to learn even more about the universe of Avatar outside of the two TV shows—Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra—that we’ve already gotten? If so, then I have the perfect recommendation for you in the two novels, The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi, both of which are prequels to the stories of ATLA and TLOK, and follow the events of pretty much everybody’s favorite Avatar (outside of Aang), Avatar Kyoshi.
Now, I’m well aware that not all prequels are created equal. You have some prequels, like Better Call Saul, that elevate the original story. And then, you have something like the Star Wars prequels that demystify the original story, sure, but not in a way that you want (like, did we really need a whole movie about the “Clone Wars” mentioned in A New Hope?). But if we’re using that scale, then the Kyoshi novels, written by F.C. Yee, are more along the lines of being like Better Call Saul than The Phantom Menace. So, now that you know that, here are a few things that I learned about Avatar after reading both novels. Minor spoilers up ahead.
Avatar Kuruk Was Actually a Great Avatar
Everybody hates on Avatar Kuruk, who preceded Kyoshi, but came after Yangchen, because he had such a short time as Avatar. Dying at the young age of 33, and known to have lived a life partying and drinking, Avatar Kuruk is definitely considered the worst Avatar evaaaaaa!
Except he’s not terrible. In fact, he's one of the better Avatars. In the second book, The Shadow of Kyoshi, we learn that Avatar Kuruk actually had a pretty tragic life. A big plot point of The Shadow of Kyoshi is that Avatar Kuruk is trying to get in contact with Kyoshi, but she's having a hard time reaching him because she can’t stand that version of her past life since she (much like the Avatar fan base) deem him to be such a failure. But through their encounter, we learn that Avatar Kuruk is one of the greatest Avatars ever and that he actually saved the mortal world. But nobody can know that.
I won’t spoil why, but I’m glad that his character gets retconned in The Shadow of Kyoshi. Because it kind of sucks that he was always more of a footnote in the line of Avatars compared to past Avatars like Yangchen and Roku (who was truly the suckiest Avatar).
So, Dust Stepping is a Thing
Firebenders can fire step (basically, they can run in the air off their flames). Waterbenders can mist step (pretty much the same thing as fire stepping, but from using little spouts of water). And I now know that earthbenders can dust step, which Kyoshi learns how to do in the first book, The Rise of Kyoshi. Basically, dust stepping is creating almost infinitesimal “pillars” to run on from something as small as pebbles, that basically makes it look like somebody is running on thin air.
I really love this because it adds yet another layer to earthbending. What was really cool in both Avatar: The Last Airbener and The Legend of Korra was that we were introduced to new subgroups of earthbending. We got metalbending in ATLA and lavabending in TLOK. And with the Kyoshi books, we now get dust stepping. Again, anything that expands the world of Avatar is A-OK with me.
The Wrong Avatar Has Been Picked in the Past
There is a way to determine (or at least a way to guess) which child will be the next Avatar in line. It is a test where different relics are displayed from each nation, and the next Avatar, as a child, will apparently pick the correct relics. It’s a foolproof plan, right?
Well, wrong apparently. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything in The Rise of Kyoshi, especially since it becomes a MAJOR plot point in The Shadow of Kyoshi, but it’s one of the big twists of Avatar lore now since these books are canon. But let’s just say that people don’t always pick the correct Avatar, and it can have major ramifications in the future.
The World of Avatar Can Actually Be Very Violent
I’ve been criticized in the past for preferring The Legend of Korra over Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s because some people really hate The Legend of Korra and think it’s a stain on the legacy of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But I always much preferred the more mature tone of TLOK. I wouldn’t say it goes anywhere beyond Young Adult territory, but it is a bit darker than ATLA, which is more for a Middle Grade crowd.
But if you don’t like Korra because of its darker tone, then you probably won’t like these Kyoshi novels either, since they’re so much darker than ATLA. People are legit killed, and in The Rise of Kyoshi, a new character named Jianzhu, who was on Kuruk's Team Avatar, literally buried people alive with earthbending. And in The Shadow of Kyoshi, another new character has their heart frozen, killing them instantly. So yeah, these Kyoshi novels are not messing around when it comes to the violence.
Korra Is Not the First Gay Avatar
One thing a lot of people were upset about in The Legend of Korra wasn’t the fact that Korra was gay, but more the fact that it was kind of “snuck” into the show. What I mean is, while there are a few hints that Korra might be gay, it’s not until the very last scene of the show that we find out that Korra’s relationship with Asami was more than just “friendship."
Not so with these Kyoshi novels. While there were probably several gay Avatars over the course of the many that came before Kyoshi, this book makes it clear that Kyoshi is gay, and that she has a female love interest. And this makes sense, since the spirit of the Avatar is really all the same person, but in a different body. So Korra being gay is nothing unique in the long string of Avatars, but it is cool to see that it’s finally been made canon that there are other gay Avatars.
And those are just five of the things I learned about Avatar: The Last Airbender after reading these two Kyoshi novels. I’ve also learned a lot from the excellent Dark Horse Avatar comics, but I’ll save that for another article. So what do you think? Have you read the two Kyoshi novels? If not, give them a try. They really are excellent.