clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What if Avatar: The Last Airbender was a spy thriller?

Author F.C. Yee explains why the latest Avatar book, The Dawn of Yangchen, veers toward a new genre

Avatar Yangchen talks to Aang in “Sozin’s Comet: Part 2” from Avatar: The Last Airbender Image: Nickelodeon

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Kallie Plagge is Polygon’s senior copy editor. She began writing about games in 2014, and has covered beats from Pokémon and RPGs to first-person shooters.

Every Avatar story, from the original Avatar: The Last Airbender to The Legend of Korra and on to the Chronicles of the Avatar novels, grapples with the fact that the Avatar — a spiritual and political leader who is reincarnated endlessly in a revered cycle — is also just a human being with human emotions and flaws. They make mistakes, and they fail in their duties. And sometimes, they leave messes for their subsequent reincarnations to sort out.

In F.C. Yee’s 2019 novel Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Rise of Kyoshi, the teenage girl who eventually became the formidable Avatar Kyoshi has to pick up the pieces after the previous Avatar, Kuruk, dies young and leaves the world reeling. On the other hand, Kuruk’s predecessor, Yangchen, is still regarded as the pinnacle of Avatarhood, a gifted negotiator who enforced peace throughout the Four Nations.

After concluding Kyoshi’s story in the Rise of Kyoshi’s sequel, The Shadow of Kyoshi, Yee — with the involvement of Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko — moved on to telling Yangchen’s story in The Dawn of Yangchen, available now. But how do you create conflict in a story about the most beloved Avatar in centuries, one largely regarded as infallible?

You make it a spy thriller.

“I tried to look at the cyclic nature of successes and failures and triumphs and tragedies that [keeps happening] endlessly in ways that generate narrative,” Yee tells Polygon. This was the beginning of his creative process, particularly in finding flaws for the supposedly flawless Yangchen.

“She’s not going to give up her Air Nomad values,” Yee says, referring to that culture’s pacifist values. “I wasn’t hugely interested in showing, Oh, here’s an Air Nomad who resorts to killing very, very quickly, or anything like that.”

The book cover for Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Dawn of Yangchen, featuring a female Avatar in an abstracted robe, with a row of past Avatars behind her, stretching into the distance Image: Abrams Books

That’s in stark contrast to Kyoshi, who does, in fact, resort to killing, and is something of a bull in a china shop in terms of her approach to Avatarhood. Unlike Kyoshi, whose character is established in the original Avatar animated TV series, Yangchen is largely Yee’s creation. He had to respect the canon he’d already established for her, which made it harder to find a workable central conflict for The Dawn of Yangchen.

“Yangchen is maybe somebody who moves in political circles with a little bit more tact than Kyoshi. That type of environment lends itself to [...] the conventions of a political thriller or an espionage thriller,” Yee says. “And with those high stakes, what could really move gears at the head-of-state level Yangchen operates at, and what could be a threat to — again, this is part of me trying to write myself out of the corner I [painted myself into] in Rise of Kyoshi, where it’s like, Well, if she enforced a great peace upon the world, what could have ever been a threat to that?

Much of the conflict in The Dawn of Yangchen is centered around information: how warriors, leaders, and spies respond to the information they have, and how they obtain more information going forward. Yangchen knows something bad is going to happen, but her challenge isn’t a fight or a negotiation; it’s sneaking around trying to find out what the threat even is.

“You also have what I hoped was a fun device, where if somebody needs to move in the shadows, who would have extreme amounts of difficulty moving in the shadows? An Air Avatar who’s very recognizable, because she’s sort of worshiped, and she’s got, you know [gestures at forehead, indicating an Air Nomad’s arrow tattoo]. She’s very physically recognizable. So how would she deal with that? By having agents of her own. Now you have a supporting cast.”

In The Dawn of Yangchen, the supporting cast takes a more central role than in the Kyoshi novels. Yangchen meets Kavik, a Water Tribe teenager, when he tries to steal information via letters and documents from her temporary residence in his town. Instead of punishing him, she blackmails him into working for her — and readers see all this from Kavik’s perspective rather than Yangchen’s.

“There is that element where, between heist, espionage, those categories, you do have to limit the flow of information, and one of the ways to do that is through different viewpoints,” Yee explains. Because of the two different perspectives in Dawn of Yangchen, no one’s true intentions are always clear.

“I’m getting very much into spy terminology, but what if it was a complete broken-arrow scenario — like that comes up in movies, because there’s a movie called Broken Arrow [laughs],” Yee says. “You’d have chaos at the highest political level, you’d have machinations, you wouldn’t know who to trust, your allies could be your enemies, you don’t know who’s turning on who, and you’ve got all this spy maneuvering over, you know, Mission: Impossible McGuffins of great import, and there you go — now you have your political and spy thriller that’ll be a challenge to a politically astute Avatar.”

Dawn of Yangchen’s spy-thriller vibe turns it into a different kind of story than Kyoshi’s — or Aang’s in the original series, even though he and Yangchen share the same native element. Unlike Aang and Kyoshi, Yangchen isn’t shown struggling to master all four elements or grapple with her spiritual duties. Instead, she struggles with knowing who to trust. It makes for a story that feels a bit more adult than the Nickelodeon TV series or the teen-romance aspects of the Kyoshi novels.

But even with the different feel, The Dawn of Yangchen is still an Avatar story, and Yee is, at heart, an Avatar fan. “The original story is so rich that there’s elements of these types of machinations already happening,” Yee said. “And you have those perfect examples within the original shows: the hunt for Aang that takes place throughout season 1, you have that element of being undercover, then, with Zuko throughout the Earth Kingdom, and with the original Gaang within the Fire Nation.

“So, like, the source material, again, has that — it’s got everything you need. Any type of story you want to tell, the raw stuff is there for you in Avatar and Korra.”

Read a full free chapter of Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Dawn of Yangchen here.