Another book exploring one of the past Avatars from the popular series Avatar The Last Airbender, I couldn’t help but pick it up for myself. Something that is quite interesting I hadn’t realized was that the avatar series has a unique advantage for a prequel that many prequels often don’t. Outside of Avatar Roku, we don’t know how the other avatars met their end or even what had transpired in their adventures. It’s a setting rich with possibilities to tell engrossing and exciting adventures in an established and popular world. With that in mind, The Dawn of Yangchen by F.C. Lee tells an engaging story that is intriguing at first but becomes a bit muddied later one. This is the first of a series so some of the issues here may be resolved in the future novel.
The Dawn of Yangchen follows the story of Yangchen and Kavik, a waterbender trying to survive in the slums of Bin-Er. While the previous duology following Avatar Kyoshi and her turbulent rise to becoming the avatar, this story follows an Avatar very well aware that she’s the avatar and has full control of her abilities. Yangchen finds herself embroiled in a political drama that encourages a far more scheming and plotting side of her that is interesting to see in an Avatar but feels a bit strangely out of place. The level of subterfuge employed by Yangchen seemed more lucky than intelligent which seemed off considering Yangchen appears to be a wise and intelligent person. It’s the interaction of these moments of espionage, planning and consequences that help shape Yangchen’s character yet the impact doesn’t quite feel appropriate for how it came about.
Kavik is similar in a way though not as explicitly so. There’s a bit more going on with his part of the story and it’s quite interesting to consider how he reacts to the events of the story. Primarily because there’s certain parts of the story where his reaction is very subdued one moment and then incredibly exaggerated in the next. Not exaggerated in the sense of levity or comedy but rather more extreme than what would be expected. It’s a bit odd but it does help to make him more endearing rather than some stoic streetwise kid. There are still things that can shake him to his core which makes him more endearing to the reader.
However what breaks the character development most is the times when Yangchen, Kavik, or some of the supporting characters, act out of character in a way that breaks the momentum of the story. Specifically one moment I couldn’t help but feel didn’t quite work with everything that had lead to that moment. It felt more like forcing a plot point for the next book at the hindrance of this book. It’s hard not to think it’s rather out of place and needs further explanation which likely will come in the second book.
Rather than be filled with intense high action fight scenes one would expect from the Avatar series, The Dawn of Yangchen takes an interesting route not quite explored as in depth in the other Avatar stories. This story is almost entirely a political drama of espionage and deceit. While that has been explored before in the world of the Avatar. There is a distinct lack of combat and fight scenes and of the ones present, they’re often over rather quickly. It feels almost fitting for an Air Avatar. But there’s a strange lack of excitement as the pace slows down a lot and has very brief moments of intense action. Even the climax feels far too short lived for the amount of build up that it took to get there.
Part of why this feeling may have prevailed is that, unlike previous Avatar stories, The Dawn of Yangchen is more focused on a person vs society type of story. There isn’t quite a centralized antagonistic figure but more so just people themselves. Society itself seems to be built in a way that goes against Yangchen’s beliefs and her role as the Avatar. It makes for a very interesting story set in this world as there’s always been a notion of a specific evil in the world the Avatar must face. In this instance, the evil is human nature which is far more intriguing, especially for a more spiritual Avatar that Yangchen seems to be.
With every story in the Avatar universe, the worldbuilding is already fairly established and those familiar with the story will feel right at home. That being said, it’s not exactly the most inviting for those who haven’t watched Avatar The Last Airbender or even The Legend of Korra. While The Rise of Kyoshi does a good job of explaining what the Avatar is and the importance of the Avatar, The Dawn of Yangchen seems to assume the reader is already well acquainted with the lore. This wouldn’t really be a problem if this series was to be read after The Rise of Kyoshi but there’s nothing indicating that so it risks potentially confusing anyone unfamiliar with the Avatar series.
That aside, Lee does a good job of setting the pervasive feeling of gloom and despair that the Shang cities embody. It helps to permeate the feeling of a person vs society story as it really does feel like Yangchen is facing the very cities themselves as well as the four nations. Is it the best example of such a story? No not necessarily, but the brutal nature of the Shang cities help to tell that story. The level of subterfuge, lying, and plotting that goes throughout the story feels in line with the nature of the people within these cities. It takes the Avatar story to a darker and seedier side that is hinted at in other stories but never explored to this degree.
F.C. Lee does a good job of keeping the pace of the story lively and consistent with short chapters and paragraphs that don’t drone on too long. It’s a very safe approach as attention spans are hard to maintain and I am no exception to this curse. Yet despite my short attention span, I fond the word choice and sentence structure combined with shorter and more fluid chapters helped me to keep focused on the story and stay engaged despite the lack of action Avatar stories are known for.