Our The Dawn of Yangchen book review explores how F.C. Yee deepens the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender by giving us a wonderfully realistic look at what being the “bridge between two worlds” would be like.
Avatar: The Last Airbender first came to the small screen when I was four years old. It had a large impact on me as a child, with characters like Katara and Suki being my first introduction to girls addressing the misogyny they experienced from their peers. Toph was the first time I saw a disabled character talk openly and even joke about her disability while still being treated as competent and powerful. Later, when The Legend of Korra premiered, I got to watch an imperfect young woman, who went through moments of growth and regression, be the protagonist. As a teenager, when I read the Kyoshi duology, it was the first time I saw a healthy and desirable lesbian couple. This franchise is special because it takes its fans seriously. Media aimed at kids and young adults so often pulls its punches and leaves itself hollow in the process, but not the world of Avatar. It explores the inner workings of politics, the complexities of villains, the devastating consequences of colonization, and what it really looks like to be “the chosen one.”
Every piece of media surrounding a new Avatar looks a little different as we meet them along different points of their journey while facing different challenges. The Dawn of Yangchen by F.C. Lee picks up in Yangchen’s late teens when she has mastered all four elements and already cemented herself as a figure of harmony and balance among the four nations. While all Avatars have the ability to commune with past lives (the members of the different nations who have taken on this role previously), Yangchen is particularly attune to the lives she lived before. Yangchen is also hyper aware of the double expectation of being an air nomad and an Avatar. Amidst all of this, Yangchen has decided to be more than a figurehead and is determined to do what is necessary to enact real change, particularly for low income and refugee families.
The Shang cities are the physical manifestation of how the lowest class is being exploited because of greed. Originally designed to allow trade to continue between the nations even when they were warring with one another, these cities have become traps for refugee families who seek a better life but end up isolated and more destitute than ever. Many young people turn to crime, as it is one of the only means for survival in this system. One of these refugees is a young man named Kavik, a waterbender about Yangchen’s age. Through a series of hilarious mishaps and misunderstandings, Kavik ends up as one of Yangchen’s companions, a normally sought-after position that the young waterbender is none too happy with. Together, they attempt to reform the Shang cities.
I often get asked what books I like to read, and this is a question I find both difficult and a little unnecessary to answer. I read romance novels, young adult fantasy, literary fiction, and just about anything else. The only requirement is that the book is thoughtful and shows me a perspective different from my own. Kids and teenagers want and need this, too. We don’t need to protect young audiences from the reality of the world because they are already living in it. Instead, let’s prepare them for what they will undoubtedly face. We can do that by allowing them to explore complex worlds that both mirror and divulge from our own in the books that they read. Children and young adults are going to learn that the people in charge do not always have the best intentions, that crime is not black and white, that the world is not a fair place, and a slew of other harsh realities, I think it’s best to start tackling these issues as they are developing their sense of self, not six months out from the first election they’ll vote in. This is what made me so excited to write my The Dawn of Yangchen book review—because this book takes its audience seriously.
The greatest credit I can give Yangchen is that her story is undeniably a chosen one narrative, but it doesn’t feel tired in the least. Maybe this is because Yangchen has known she was the chosen one since birth; she wasn’t thrust into a previously unknown world right before starting middle school (sorry Harry and Percy), and so we don’t have to hear about her adjusting to her role for the first third of her arc. Because her journey isn’t about learning to accept her role, something we’ve all read a few too many times, we instead get to spend the novel learning the moral boundaries of being a chosen one. Typically, there is some elder figure that explores the morally gray areas of this kind of power for our main character (hello, Dumbledore and Gandalf), but in this story, Yangchen fulfills the role herself. This makes a much more interesting internal growth arc for a character who is not only an Air Nomad, the most respected and spiritually connected of the cultures within the Avatar universe, but also the Avatar, “the bridge between worlds.”
Yangchen is painfully aware of the nun she is expected to be and equally cognisant of how ineffective adhering to that expectation will be for the real people she is supposed to help as the Avatar. The reconciling of these two realities and the slow realization that we cannot always adhere to morals taught in temples while out in the real world is the most compelling use of the “with great power comes great responsibility” narrative I have yet to read. The Avatar is the most powerful and influential person alive; she knows she cannot afford to waste her position.
Yangchen is not the only complex character in the novel. In this The Dawn of Yangchen book review, I want to bring our attention to all the voices heard in this story. Not only are we aware of the thoughts of the savior in this situation, but we hear from the refugees, too. The book bounces between Yangchen and Kavik’s perspectives. Kavik is from the northern water tribe, but came to the Shang city Bin-Er looking for more opportunities as a young boy. Since then, his older brother has disappeared, and he had no choice but to become a runner, a sort of amatuer spy who collects information for the power players around the city, in order to make ends meet, not only for himself but for his parents.
Kavik is one of the franchise’s best characters because he represents the reality of being a marginalized person in an abusive system. Kavik is a criminal, one who represents the real-world pattern that much crime comes from poverty-bred desperation. Kavik is disillusioned; he is not honored to meet the Avatar or excited at her offer of being his companion, and he is too world-weary to trust such a figure or believe he should become a martyr for her cause. Why shouldn’t he be skeptical? He is one of the people the Avatar failed, and not just Yangchen, but all the Avatars before that couldn’t stop the corruption affecting his life. Kavik is not a perfect person, but he is a brilliantly real portrait of what good people do to survive and the way optimism is not an unlimited resource.
In the opinion of this The Dawn of Yangchen book review, this story’s ultimate strength is in its realism. We read about a seventeen-year-old girl with a pet flying bison and a blue arrow tattoo on her forehead that can bend water, fire, earth, and air. We also read a story about how impossible it is to reckon being the person you desire to be, the person others want you to be, and the person you need to be. These are the emotional truths children and teenagers will encounter, and giving them the opportunity to read about someone they look up to navigating those same trials first will make their path easier.
We all have media that influenced us in our adolescence and taught us lessons about the world. We know these stories help build the identities of the young people who consume them, so we should know how important it is to create stories with substance. Kids and teenagers are smart, and in the not-so-distant future, they will be the decision-makers. Let’s not pull our punches with them. The Avatar is a political figure, an idea that has been present in this franchise since Aang, Katara, and Sokka clamored onto Appa and began their journey to the Northern Water Tribe, but never have those complexities been so deeply explored as in Yangchen’s mind in F.C. Lee’s book. This story is a masterclass in why we should take the young adult genre seriously.
‘The Dawn of Yangchen’ published on July 19, 2022
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Megan Peterson. Look for more recommendations like this Dawn of Yangchen book review on our books page.