Last summer I wrote about how underrated I felt Suki is in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Fearsome leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, she proved that girls can be tough and soft at the same time. She and the other Warriors leave a lasting impression, with their dramatic white and red makeup, heavy outfits, and unique style of fighting with fans. All of these traditions are modeled after Avatar Kyoshi, their namesake and founder of their home island. Not much is known about her in the show, aside from the fact that she singlehandedly created an island while protecting her home from a tyrant, who then fell to his death, leading people to believe she was a cold-blooded murderer. She also gave the advice to Aang that only justice will bring peace, and that she would have done whatever it took to protect her home. This led to her reputation in the fandom as being a tough as nails, no-nonsense Avatar who would rather aim a flying rock at your head than try to negotiate.
I’ve always wanted to know more about Kyoshi, since I’m a sucker for large women who kick ass. Thankfully, there are two novels that tell her origin story: The Rise of Kyoshi and its sequel The Shadow of Kyoshi, both by F.C. Yee. The first book follows Kyoshi’s path to discovering she’s the Avatar, and the second follows her path to finding her own Avatar way, while also dealing with consequences from her past lives. Yee worked closely with Michael Dante DiMartino, one of the creators of Avatar, so the series felt true to the source material. It was also really cool to see how the world of Avatar looked before Aang’s time, well before the Hundred Year War and demise of the Air Nomads. Every mention of flying bisons threw me for a loop because everyone was so casual about it, but during Kyoshi’s time, of course it wouldn’t have been rare to see them.
What really kept me hooked was seeing how Yee took what we already knew about Kyoshi (her makeup, outfit, fans, etc.) and crafted their origins in ways I never would have expected. Her iconic makeup wasn’t even her idea; it came from a band of criminals that doubled as opera performers. Who would have guessed that? After parting ways with the criminals, she keeps using the makeup and feels that she can only truly do her Avatar duties while wearing it. Something that was passed down through history to the Kyoshi Warriors began as a way to hide the Avatar’s insecurities.
Which is probably what I liked best about these books: Kyoshi is far from perfect. In the show, the glimpses we get of Kyoshi are that of a confident, powerful, established Avatar. In the books, she starts off timid and tries to shrink herself down to attract less attention. It’s gratifying to see her come into her own, embrace her full height and power and start to become the fierce Avatar we know she ends up becoming. But still, she messes up a lot. As much as I enjoyed seeing her threaten the lives of horrible world leaders who definitely deserved it, those kinds of actions hold consequences, even for the Avatar. I liked following her journey from becoming a clueless kid who thinks she can brute force her way through any situation, into a thoughtful Avatar who comes up with clever plans (while still relying on brute force to get results, of course!).
Oh, and a nice bonus: Kyoshi is canonically bisexual!
Any fans of Avatar will definitely enjoy this series, and the two books make for an excellent quick summer read!