WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Rise of Kyoshi, by F.C. Yee, on sale now.
Avatar: The Last Airbender fascinated fans with its unique and detailed world when it debuted in 2005. Featuring characters that could manipulate the elements of nature with martial arts, a world with a budding industrial revolution mired in centuries-old politics and a reincarnated spirit that maintained order throughout the ages, there seemed to be no concept too big or too fantastical for the series.
Fans who were hungry for more got their wish in the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, and the comics continuing the stories of both shows only further fed the appetite for those interested in the world of Avatar. However, there were always fundamental questions about the world that never quite got answered, and only scraps of information involving the history of the world before the first series took place existed.
Then, everything changed when the prequel novel, The Rise of Kyoshi
attacked was released this summer. Here are some of the biggest questions the novel finally answered.
HOW DO BENDERS PROTECT THEMSELVES FROM THEIR ELEMENTS?
Perhaps to help maintain the air of fantasy surrounding it, the series rarely delves into the mechanics of bending or how it actually works. It always seemed clear that a bender needed to exert conscious control over an element in order to affect it, but there were always scenes of firebenders or earthbenders getting blown away by their own element and then walking away seemingly uninjured.
The novel chalks the phenomenon up to an instinctive forcefield-like aura that surrounds a bender. When Avatar Kyoshi, still in the early days of her training, at one point runs for her life, she instinctively activates a force around herself that allows her to run straight through stone buildings. It's even explained at a different point that infant firebenders light kindling aflame with their breath, but are protected from their own fire while doing so.
HOW DO WEAPONS HELP BENDERS?
Whether it was Zuko with his swords, Aang with his staff, or Gow with his hammers, there have always been examples of benders aiding their abilities with weapons. What was never clear was just what function the weapons served, or why exactly they would be of help.
Rise of Kyoshi uses the title character's war fans as the focus for the explanation. Inherited from her airbending mother, whose abilities steadily waned over the course of her criminal career, the fans were a way to amplify her airbending motions. What's interesting is that the weapons can also work in the opposite direction: Kyoshi herself has problems with precision rather than power, and the war fans allow her to focus her abilities on smaller targets.
WHAT IS THE AVATAR STATE, REALLY?
What's interesting about this question is that it's one a lot of fans may not have necessarily asked because they never really knew they had to. Although the visuals of the show and comics seems to make it clear that the Avatar State, a time when the Avatar glows with spiritual energy and becomes their most powerful, gives the user access to all their previous lives' knowledge and skills, this was never actually made explicit before.
Until Rise of Kyoshi, that is. Shows and comics could imply that past Avatars lent their experience to the present Avatar, but it was never directly stated. With the narrative firmly set from Avatar Kyoshi's point of view, the times she enters the Avatar State makes it clear her actions are guided by the experience of her past lives. While she's plenty powerful on her own, the detail confirms once and for all just why the Avatar State gives such a huge boost in ability.
WHY WERE SO MANY BENDING STYLES CREATED SO QUICKLY?
Another question that always seemed bothersome, particularly after The Legend of Korra, was how so many new bending styles could be introduced so suddenly after centuries of the artforms existing. Whether it was metalbending, bloodbending, lavabending, or spiritbending there always seemed to be a revolutionary new skill on the horizon for Team Avatar that never existed before. Why did it take so long to discover such talents?
What's interesting about the prequel setting of Rise of Kyoshi is that it manages to show just why there is incentive for benders to keep hush hush about unique abilities when they discover them. Kyoshi herself travels with a band of thieves who keep their ability to "dust-step" a closely guarded secret. The benders of the group use quickly ascending columns of water or earth to create a makeshift staircase mid-air, nearly allowing them to fly.
The ability allows them to escape the authorities, and it's to their advantage to keep it a secret. Similarly, a firebender Kyoshi meets enters into a duel with her and she is shocked -- quite literally -- to discover he can lightningbend. While fans of the series are familiar with the ability, it's not widely known in the time of Kyoshi. Keeping such a talent a secret allowed the bender to initially gain an upper hand in his fight, and it quickly becomes clear why such innovations don't spread too quickly in the world of Avatar.
IS THERE ALWAYS A TEAM AVATAR?
The two Avatar TV shows had a similar setup with the main character learning to master their abilities amidst talented friends known as "Team Avatar." Both series even referred to friendships and bonds transcending lifetimes, and the fact that the casts of both shows mimicked each other so much seemed to indicate that a Team Avatar might not be a new concept. There was never any reference to past Team Avatars, however, so fans were left to wonder.
A lot more light is shed on the status quo of Avatars, their training and their mentors in The Rise of Kyoshi. With the main plot of the novel involving a mis-identification of the Avatar following their reincarnation, the setup for the book goes to great lengths to explain the background of something previously given little attention to. Typically, Team Avatar consists of older masters from each of the Four Nations who join the Avatar on their journey throughout their training.
While the two modern series are more peculiar for making Team Avatar so young, the idea of gallivanting about with the Bridge Between Worlds from continent to continent is apparently a tale as old as time. Previous to Kyoshi, Avatar Kuruk frequently got up to hijinx and misadventure with his own Team Avatar, and Kyoshi gains her own fellows and allies throughout the course of the novel. It just goes to show that some things never change, even as we keep learning more and more about them.