Every fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender knows that no matter how mighty an Avatar may become, they are only the latest in line… and unlikely to ever match the legendary Kyoshi; one of the strongest, greatest, and most fearsome Avatars that had ever lived. Now thanks to her very own prequel novel, the story of The Rise of Kyoshi will finally be told.
The Last Airbender series allowed its hero, Aang, to commune with the previous incarnations of the Avatar. Aang relied mainly on Avatar Roku, his immediate predecessor. But as his story, and later The Legend of Korra offered a glimpse of the Avatar before Roku–an imposing woman named Kyoshi of the Earth Kingdom–it was clear one of the most intriguing stories in the Airbender universe was being held for a later date. Thanks to writer F.C. Yee, that time has come, with The Rise of Kyoshi and the announced Shadow of Kyoshi recounting the origins of the Avatar. And based on our time with the book and our interview with Yee, fans are going to have a LOT to talk about when the book arrives on July 16th, 2019.
Reading through the accomplishments of Kyoshi’s life, the shadow she casts over the future that followed only grows longer. The longest-living Avatar (and human) after dying at the age of 230. The one person Chin the Conqueror couldn’t overcome. The founder of the Kyoshi Warriors, who make their home on the island Kyoshi forced free from the mainland–one of the most stunning uses of Earthbending fans will ever find. Screen Rant had the chance to speak with F.C. Yee about shaping this origin story with Avatar co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino, building out the world before The Last Airbender begins, and much, much more.
You’ve made it no secret that you were a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender before tackling this novel. There don’t seem to be too many ‘casual’ fans of Avatar, but can you tell us a bit about how this project first came to your attention, and how being a fan factored into your response? Was it a matter of seconds before you were on board with telling Kyoshi’s story?
During a conference where I was promoting my debut novel The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, the publisher at Abrams, Andrew Smith, turned to me and cryptically asked “Are you a fan of Avatar by any chance?” Of course I told him yes, but after that we didn’t say anything further about it. I knew that Abrams had a prior working relationship with Nickelodeon on some children’s books so I may have had some inkling why he’d ask that out of the blue, but I never brought it up again (probably out of fear of jinxing whatever project might be brewing).
Months later, I found out that Abrams had submitted a proposal to Nickelodeon for a prequel novel series about Avatar Kyoshi, and that all parties were game for it if I was. I was shocked at the size of the project and thrilled that it was focused on my favorite of the pre-Aang Avatars. The fan in me said YES, immediately. My agent translated my enthusiasm into a calmer, more rational response, and from there, we moved forward.
The Rise of Kyoshi is a story that you shaped with Avatar co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino, a driving force in building and expanding the lore to begin with. What was that collaboration like when it came to sketching out Kyoshi’s story–and at what point did you get to take the reins and start putting words to paper?
Mike, Nickelodeon Editor Joan Hilty, Abrams Editor Anne Heltzel, and I did a significant amount of outlining and “axe-sharpening” before I started writing. Mike is a master storyteller, so in those first few calls he was less concerned with technical lore and more focused on giving me guidance about characters, motivations, and forces of antagonism. He let me pitch a lot of different ideas and follow their progressions in outline form. Eventually, we came to a story direction that we thought worked for the character and the universe, and I started writing on my lonesome.
The amount of time we spent up front was immensely valuable. Because we made the creative investment, I clocked my production rate at four times my historical average (I am a tech nerd; this is how we talk). Mike and the other parties involved gave me the perfect combination of feedback and hands-off trust to run with the story. I didn’t stick perfectly to the outline, but the skeleton allowed me to build the rest of the book with confidence.
It’s almost funny to watch the series now, and see Kyoshi introduced as what must be one of the most intriguing Avatars and characters in the world of Avatar… and then realize her full story hasn’t actually been told! Were you one of the fans who wanted to know more about her when the opportunity first arose? Was that a ‘dream come true’ scenario or added pressure, knowing you’re the one who’s finally telling it?
Years ago, I adored the glimpses of Avatar Kyoshi we got in the series since so much was conveyed about her in a small number of scenes. She was almost like a Boba Fett whose actions and attitude backed up her reputation. For me, watching the shows, her appearances as a foil to Aang were so effective and satisfying that I honestly hadn’t given that much thought into wondering more about her personally until I started writing these books.
Once I had the opportunity to write her backstory though, the possibilities exploded, and I became eager to figure out what paths led her to become the person we see in the show. It was both a dream and a terrifying, pressure-filled experience. If I botched her story, I’d never forgive myself as a fan, not to mention disappointing the community that loves this universe.
To travel back to the start of Kyoshi’s story, readers are brought into a different world than the one they know from Avatar and Korra. Without spoiling anything, what should readers be prepared for, or know heading in? Because the temptation to pause on just about every page and dive into the Avatar wiki is going to be hard to resist (…I may be speaking for myself here).
I drew upon history for thematic inspiration (more so than direct events), which meant the setting of this book is woven with a lot of internal turmoil. Nothing is monolithic, and the greatest threats are often the ones closest by. I wanted to capture that feeling when you read about a crisis that happened in the past and marvel at how people back then managed to keep everything together. Institutions and beliefs that we’re used to from “current” times may not have formed or solidified yet. It’s a bit darker in parts than the shows, hopefully not gratuitously so. Some of that is due the above, and some due to its category as a YA novel.
The Rise of Kyoshi also expands on the mythology and history in ways that open up new stories. Was that part of the goal, or an added bonus in the process? I think The Fifth Nation in particular is going to be a prime example.
Those new possibilities are more of an added bonus since the primary purpose of their inclusion was to support Kyoshi’s story. In order for them to feel sufficiently rich though, they got a level of detail that could be fruitful for whatever creator that might want to use them.
The Fifth Nation, for example, is loosely based off the forces of the pirate queen Ching Shih, plus a lot of pirate history in general. While I simply wanted them to be effective and believable seaborne marauders, it meant hinting at more stories the reader isn’t seeing.
Kyoshi is noteworthy for more than just her status, since she is one of the few, and likely the most influential LGBTQ+ character in the larger Avatar universe. I’m sure there are fans of the series who will only now discover that, so was it something you felt important to include?
I did feel that was very important to include. Kyoshi is mentioned to be bisexual in the Legend of Korra: Turf Wars comic. Some readers will be coming into the book already knowing that and looking for how her love life is portrayed, and others might be discovering it in the novel itself. Either way, since since media representation is so important, it felt crucial not to leave her relationships out.
Kyoshi feels particularly timely, and complex in this novel: she’s underestimated, strong, formidable, and feared, but she isn’t perfect, either. Fans know her legacy is a mixed one, with massive successes and questionable or even bad calls. Since her origin story can’t really address that legacy directly, did it still factor into the start of her journey?
Absolutely. One of the main goals of this story was to convince readers how it was possible for Kyoshi to create the mixed legacy she did. If I wasn’t going to show her dropping Chin the Conqueror as an adult, I was going to try to show how she became the type of person that would do so without remorse. She starts out very different than the person we see in the show; since narrative arcs demand change, her end affects her beginning from a creative standpoint.
The Avatar fans who can’t stand the wait for The Rise of Kyoshi can also dive into your Genie Lo novels (Epic Crush and the upcoming Iron Will), to see another fierce young woman chosen for greatness. Was the transition from those books to Kyoshi as almost ‘fated’ as it now seems?
There is admittedly a great deal of overlap. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is about a nigh-invulnerable young woman who hates injustice and isn’t afraid of confrontation. I believe that part of the Avatar pitch was pointing at the existing book I’d written as a demonstration I could handle Kyoshi’s story. The humor and action-comedy nature of ATLA was undoubtedly a big influence on the Genie Lo series.
In some sense it felt similar going from Genie Lo to Kyoshi. Both protagonists would rather move mountains than let evil get its way. But ultimately I found myself focusing on their uniqueness. Genie is hot-tempered and quippy but deep down, a big softy inside. Kyoshi is level-headed, a woman of few words, and well, we all know how soft her personality ends up being.
Rise is just the first of two novels diving into Kyoshi’s story in the larger Avatar universe, so in that sense, the ending isn’t really ‘the end.’ Without spoiling, how do you hope readers will feel once they put down The Rise of Kyoshi after that final page?
I guess I hope readers feel a bit like Kyoshi herself- struck by the sudden realization that while the beginning may have ended, there’s so much more business to take care of and story to tell.
The Rise of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee arrives on Tuesday, July 16th, with the second book in the series The Shadow of Kyoshi to follow.
MORE: Everything Aang Did Between Last Airbender & Legend of Korra