The Rise of Kyoshi – F.C. Yee

Any prequel story presents a unique challenge, never mind one set in a fictional canonical universe like that of Avatar: The Last Airbender. A common pitfall of prequels? Since the reader already knows how things eventually turn out, they are one step ahead of the hero. Done well, however, a prequel can expand and deepen a beloved fantasy world by exploring its history and characters in new ways. This is the case with The Rise of Kyoshi. Readers familiar with the original Nickelodeon series might recall that Avatar Kyoshi was a legend, even among the impressive pantheon of Avatars. But how did she become a woman dedicated to fighting injustice throughout the world? And why was she so feared by her enemies? These were the questions left unexplored. In my first talks with F. C. Yee, we discussed a few possible plots but also asked ourselves: What kind of character is Kyoshi, what drives her, and what kind of events in her past could have caused her to develop into such a legendary figure? I didn’t envy Yee the challenge of tackling these questions. I knew he’d have to play within the conventions of an already-established world while simultaneously marking it with his own creative stamp. And the Avatar universe has no shortage of “must-haves.” First, you must have an Avatar—the reincarnated being who holds the ability to manipulate, or bend, all four elements, who has a connection to the mysterious Spirit World, and who deals with conflicts among the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. The Avatar can’t do all this alone and thus must also have a core group of teachers and friends—a Team Avatar, as we like to call it. Political conflict is also a must: Whether it’s a world war or a revolution, the Avatar inevitably ends up in the center of the fight before he or she is ready. And of course, there is never a shortage of epic bending battles.

Though all Avatars share certain rites of passage—such as mastering all four elements—each one must have a unique journey and face different personal and political challenges on their way to becoming a fully realized Avatar. In The Rise of Kyoshi, we meet a young woman so unlike the legend she is to become that we wonder how she could possibly transform into such a remarkable figure. She’s not a great Earthbender. People don’t even believe she’s the Avatar at the start of the book—a great conceit on Yee’s behalf, and one that provides the crux of the conflict for the entire novel. Entrusting another writer with a world and characters that I helped create is always fraught with anxiety for me. In the wrong hands, it can be a disheartening experience. But when I read The Rise of Kyoshi for the first time, I was immediately drawn into the story and entranced by its intriguing new characters and backstory. I was eager to read on to find out how Kyoshi would overcome all the obstacles in her way (and Yee throws plenty of them in her path). Working on this project with everyone involved has been a pleasure, and I couldn’t be more excited about this incarnation of the Avatar universe. Michael Dante DiMartino THE TEST Yokoya Port was a town easy to overlook.

Situated on the edge of Whaletail Strait, it could have been a major restocking point for ships leaving one of the many harbors that supplied Omashu. But the strong, reliable prevailing winds made it too easy and cost-effective for southbound merchants to cruise right past it and reach Shimsom Big Island in a straight shot. Jianzhu wondered if the locals knew or cared that ships laden with riches sailed tantalizingly close by, while they were stuck elbows-deep in the cavity of another elephant koi. Only a quirk of fate and weather kept piles of gold, spices, precious books, and scrolls from landing on their doorstep. Instead their lot was fish guts. A wealth of maws and gills. The landward side was even less promising. The soil of the peninsula grew thin and rocky as it extended farther into the sea. It had disturbed Jianzhu to see crop fields so meager and balding as he’d rode through the countryside into town for the first time. The farmland lacked the wild, volcanic abundance of the Makapu Valley or the carefully ordered productivity of Ba Sing Se’s Outer Ring, where growth bent to the exacting will of the king’s planners.

Here, a farmer would have to be grateful for whatever sustenance they could pull from the dirt. The settlement lay at the intersection of three different nations—Earth, Air, and Water. And yet, none had ever laid much of a claim to it. The conflicts of the outside world had little impact on daily life for the Yokoyans. To them, the ravages of the Yellow Neck uprising in the deep interior of the Earth Kingdom were a less interesting story than the wayward flying bison that had gotten loose from the Air Temple and knocked the thatching off a few roofs last week. Despite being seagoers, they probably couldn’t name any of the dreaded pirate leaders carving up the eastern waters in open defiance of the Ba Sing Se navy. All in all, Yokoya Port might as well not have been on the map. Which meant—for Jianzhu and Kelsang’s desperate, sacrilegious little experiment—it was perfect. Jianzhu trudged uphill in the wet, mucky snowfall, his neck prickling from the bundled straw cloak around his shoulders. He passed the wooden pillar that marked the spiritual center of this village without sparing it a glance.

There was nothing on the sides or on top of it. It was just a bare log driven upright into the ground of a circular courtyard. It wasn’t carved with any decorations, which seemed lazy for a town where nearly every adult had a working knowledge of carpentry. There, the post grudgingly said to any nearby spirits. Hope you’re happy. Weathered houses lined the broad, eroded avenue, poking steeply into the air like spearpoints. His destination was the larger two-story meeting hall at the end. Kelsang had set up shop there yesterday, saying he needed as much floor space as possible for the test. He’d also claimed that the location enjoyed some auspicious wind currents, using the very solemn and holy method of licking his finger and holding it up in the air. Whatever helped.

Jianzhu sent a quick prayer to the Guardian of the Divine Log as he pulled off his snow boots, laid them on the porch, and ducked through the door curtains. The interior of the hall was surprisingly large, with far corners draped in shadow and thickplanked walls cut from what must have been truly massive trees. The air smelled of resin. Ten very long, very faded yellow cloths stretched across the worn floorboards. A row of toys lay on each one, evenly spaced like a seedbed. A bison whistle, a wicker ball, a misshapen blob that might have been a stuffed turtle duck, a coiled whalebone spring, one of those flappy drums that made noise as you spun it back and forth between your palms. The toys looked as worn and beaten as the outside of this building. Kelsang knelt at the far end of the cloths. The Airbender monk was busy placing more knickknacks with a carefulness and precision that rivaled an acupuncturist setting their needles. As if it mattered whether the miniature boat sailed east or west.

He stayed on his hands and knees, shuffling his great bulk sideways, his billowing orange robes and wiry black beard hanging so low they made another sweep over a floor that had already been scrubbed clean. “I didn’t know there were so many toys,” Jianzhu said to his old friend. He spotted a large white marble that looked too close to the edge of the fabric and, with a graceful extension of his wrist, levitated it with earthbending in front of Kelsang. It hovered like a fly, waiting for his attention. Kelsang didn’t look up as he plucked the marble out of the air and put it right back where it had started. “There’s thousands. I’d ask you to help, but you wouldn’t do it right.” Jianzhu’s head hurt at the statement. At this point they were well past doing it right. “How did you change Abbot Dorje’s mind about giving you the relics?” he asked.

“The same way you convinced Lu Beifong to let us administer the Air Nomad test in the Earth Cycle,” Kelsang said calmly as he re-centered a wooden top. “I didn’t.” Like a certain friend of theirs from the Water Tribe always said, it was better to ask for forgiveness than wait for permission. And as far as Jianzhu was concerned, the time for waiting had long since passed. When Avatar Kuruk, the keeper of balance and peace in the world, the bridge between spirits and humans, passed away at the ripe old age of thirty-three—thirty-three! the only time Kuruk had ever been early for anything!—it became the duty of his friends, his teachers, and other prominent benders to find the new Avatar, reincarnated into the next nation of the elemental cycle. Earth, Fire, Air, Water, and then Earth again, an order as unchanging as the seasons. A process stretching back nearly a thousand generations before Kuruk, and one that would hopefully continue for a thousand more. Except this time, it wasn’t working. It had been seven years since Kuruk’s death. Seven years of fruitless searching.

Jianzhu had pored over every available record from the Four Nations, going back hundreds of years, and the hunt for the Avatar had never faltered like this in documented history. No one knew why, though revered elders traded guesses behind closed doors. The world was impure and had been abandoned by the spirits. The Earth Kingdom lacked cohesion, or maybe it was the Water Tribes in the poles that needed to unify. The Airbenders had to come down from their mountains and get their hands dirty instead of preaching. The debate went on and on. Jianzhu cared less about apportioning blame and more about the fact that he and Kelsang had let down their friend again. The only serious decree of Kuruk’s before he’d departed from the living was that his closest companions find the next Avatar and do right by them. And so far they’d failed. Spectacularly.

Right now, there should have been a happy, burbling seven-year-old Earth Avatar in the care of their loving family, being watched over by a collection of the best, wisest benders of the world. A child in the midst of being prepared for the assumption of their duties at the age of sixteen. Instead there was only a gaping void that grew more dangerous by the day. Jianzhu and the other masters did their best to keep the missing Avatar a secret, but it was no use. The cruel, the power-hungry, the lawless—people who normally had the most to fear from the Avatar —were starting to feel the scales shifting in their favor. Like sand sharks responding to the slightest vibrations on pure instinct, they tested their limits. Probed new grounds. Time was running out. Kelsang finished setting up when the noon gongs struck. The sun was high enough to melt snow off the roof, and the dripping flow of water pattered on the ground like light rain.

The silhouettes of villagers and their children queuing up for the test could be seen outside through the paper-screen windows. The air was full of excited chatter. No more waiting, Jianzhu thought. This happens now. Earth Avatars were traditionally identified by directional geomancy, a series of rituals designed to winnow through the largest and most populous of the Four Nations as efficiently as possible. Each time a special set of bone trigrams was cast and interpreted by the earthbending masters, half the Earth Kingdom was ruled out as the location of the newborn Avatar. Then from the remaining territory, another half, and then another half again. The possible locations kept shrinking until the searchers were brought to the doorstep of the Earth Avatar child. It was a quick way to cover ground and entirely fitting to the earthbending state of mind. A question of logistics, simple to the point of being brutal.

And it normally worked on the first try. Jianzhu had been part of expeditions sent by the bones to barren fields, empty gem caverns below Ba Sing Se, a patch of the Si Wong Desert so dry that not even the Sandbenders bothered with it. Lu Beifong had read the trigrams, King Buro of Omashu gave it a shot, Neliao the Gardener took her turn. The masters worked their way down through the earthbending hierarchy until Jianzhu racked up his fair share of misses as well. His friendship with Kuruk bought him no special privileges when it came to the next Avatar. After the last attempt had placed him on an iceberg in the North Pole with only turtle seals as potential candidates, Jianzhu became open to radical suggestions. A drunken commiseration with Kelsang spawned a promising new idea. If the ways of the Earth Kingdom weren’t working, why not try another nation’s method? After all, wasn’t the Avatar, the only bender of all four elements, an honorary citizen of the entire world? That was why the two of them were wiping their noses with tradition and trying the Air Nomad way of identifying the Avatar. Yokoya would be a practice run, a safe place far from the turmoil of land and sea where they could take notes and fix problems. If Yokoya went smoothly, they could convince their elders to expand the test farther throughout the Earth Kingdom.

The Air Nomads’ method was simple, in theory. Out of the many toys laid out, only four belonged to Avatars of eras gone by. Each seven-year-old child of the village would be brought in and presented with the dazzling array of playthings. The one who was drawn to the four special toys in a remembrance of their past lives was the Avatar reborn. A process as elegant and harmonious as the Airbenders themselves. In theory. In practice, it was chaos. Pure and unhinged. It was a disaster the likes of which the Four Nations had never witnessed. Jianzhu hadn’t thought of what might happen after the children who failed the test were told to leave their selections behind and make room for the next candidate.

The tears! The wailing, the screaming! Trying to get toys away from kids who had only moments before been promised they could have their pick? There was no force in existence stronger than a child’s righteous fury at being robbed. The parents were worse. Maybe Air Nomad caretakers handled the rejection of their young ones with grace and humility, but families in the other nations weren’t made up of monks and nuns. Especially in the Earth Kingdom, where all bets were off once it came to blood ties. Villagers whom he’d shared friendly greetings with in the days leading up to the test became snarling canyon crawlers once they’d been told that their precious little Jae or Mirai was not in fact the most important child in the world, as they’d secretly known all along. More than a few swore up and down that they’d seen their offspring play with invisible spirits or bend earth and air at the same time. Kelsang would push back gently. “Are you sure your child wasn’t earthbending during a normal breeze? Are you sure the baby wasn’t simply . playing?” Some couldn’t take a hint. Especially the village captain.

As soon as they’d passed over her daughter—Aoma, or something—she’d given them a look of utter contempt and demanded to see a higher-ranking master. Sorry, lady, Jianzhu thought after Kelsang spent nearly ten minutes talking her down. We can’t all be special. “For the last time, I’m not negotiating a salary with you!” Jianzhu shouted in the face of a particularly blunt farmer. “Being the Avatar is not a paid position!” The stocky man shrugged. “Sounds like a waste of time then. I’ll take my child and go.” Out of the corner of his eye, Jianzhu caught Kelsang frantically waving his hands, making a cut-off sign at the neck. The little girl had wandered over to the whirly flying toy that had once entertained an ancient Avatar and was staring at it intently. Huh.

They weren’t intending to get a genuine result today. But picking the first item correctly was already improbable. Too improbable to risk stopping now. “Okay,” Jianzhu said. This would have to come out of his own pocket. “Fifty silvers a year if she’s the Avatar.” “Sixty-five silvers a year if she’s the Avatar and ten if she’s not.” “WHY WOULD I PAY YOU IF SHE’S NOT THE AVATAR?” Jianzhu roared. Kelsang coughed and thumped loudly on the floor. The girl had picked up the whirligig and was eying the drum.

Two out of four correct. Out of thousands. Holy Shu. “I mean, of course,” Jianzhu said quickly. “Deal.” They shook hands. It would be ironic, a prank worthy of Kuruk’s sense of humor, to have his reincarnation be found as a result of a peasant’s greed. And the very last child in line for testing, to boot. Jianzhu nearly chuckled. Now the girl had the drum in her arms as well.

She walked over to a stuffed hog monkey. Kelsang was beside himself with excitement, his neck threatening to burst through the wooden beads wrapped around it. Jianzhu felt lightheaded. Hope bashed against his ribcage, begging to be let out after so many years trapped inside. The girl wound up her foot and stomped on the stuffed animal as hard as she could. “Die!” she screamed in her tiny little treble. She ground it under her heel, the stitches audibly ripping. The light went out of Kelsang’s face. He looked like he’d witnessed a murder. “Ten silvers,” the farmer said.

“Get out,” Jianzhu snapped. “Come on, Suzu,” the farmer called. “Let’s get.” After wresting the other toys away from the Butcher of Hog Monkeys, he scooped the girl up and walked out the door, the whole escapade nothing but a business transaction. In doing so he nearly bowled over another child who’d been spying on the proceedings from the outside. “Hey!” Jianzhu said. “You forgot your other daughter!” “That one ain’t mine,” the farmer said as he thumped down the steps into the street. “That one ain’t anyone’s.” An orphan then? Jianzhu hadn’t spotted the unchaperoned girl around town in the days before, but maybe he’d glossed over her, thinking she was too old to be a candidate. She was much, much taller than any of the other children who’d been brought in by their parents.

As Jianzhu walked over to examine what he’d missed, the girl quavered, threatening to flee, but her curiosity won over her fright. She remained where she was. Underfed, Jianzhu thought with a frown as he looked over the girl’s hollow cheeks and cracked lips. And definitely an orphan. He’d seen hundreds of children like her in the inner provinces where outlaw daofei ran unchecked, their parents slain by whatever bandit group was ascendant in the territory. She must have wandered far into the relatively peaceable area of Yokoya. Upon hearing about the Avatar test, the families of the village had dressed their eligible children in their finest garments as if it were a festival day. But this child was wearing a threadbare coat with her elbows poking through the holes in the sleeves. Her oversized feet threatened to burst the straps of her too-small sandals. None of the local farmers were feeding or clothing her.

Kelsang, who despite his fearsome appearance was always better with children, joined them and stooped down. With a smile he transformed from an intimidating orange mountain into a giant-sized version of the stuffed toys behind him. “Why, hello there,” he said, putting an extra layer of friendliness into his booming rumble. “What’s your name?” The girl took a long, guarded moment, sizing them up. “Kyoshi,” she whispered. Her eyebrows knotted as if revealing her name was a painful concession. Kelsang took in her tattered state and avoided the subject of her parents for now. “Kyoshi, would you like a toy?” “Are you sure she isn’t too old?” Jianzhu said. “She’s bigger than some of the teenagers.” “Hush, you,” Kelsang said.

He made a sweeping gesture at the hall festooned with relics, for Kyoshi’s benefit. The unveiling of so many playthings at once had an entrancing effect on most of the children. But Kyoshi didn’t gasp, or smile, or move a muscle. Instead she maintained eye contact with Kelsang until he blinked. As quick as a whip, she scampered by him, snagged an object off the floor, and ran back to where she was standing on the porch. She gauged Kelsang and Jianzhu for their response as intently as they watched her. Kelsang glanced at Jianzhu and tilted his head at the clay turtle Kyoshi clutched to her chest. One of the four true relics. Not a single candidate had come anywhere near it today. They should have been as excited for her as they’d been for evil little Suzu, but Jianzhu’s heart was clouded with doubt.

It was hard to believe they’d be so lucky after that previous head-fake. “Good choice,” Kelsang said. “But I’ve got a surprise for you. You can have three more! Four whole toys, to yourself! Wouldn’t you like that?” Jianzhu sensed a shift in the girl’s stance, a tremor in her foundation that was obvious through the wooden floorboards.

.

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