After an excellent start, and a good-but-not-great follow up, the Dark Horse published Avatar series is back with another strong entry in The Rift, that in many ways splits the difference between its predecessors. Many similarities are clear to The Promise in particular, and The Rift does unfortunately suffer from some diminishing returns in that regard, with Aang once again playing the part of the rigid traditionalist opposed to one of his more progressive friends (although the conflict in question is a little more weighted in his favour this time around).
However, what makes up for that, and then some, is that The Rift takes an admittedly refreshing break from the Fire Lord family drama of the last two books, and instead chooses to focus on Toph, which is good, because as I believe I’ve already mentioned, Toph Beifong is The Best Character In Children’s Fiction Ever. It’s all for the better too, considering that Toph is perhaps given the least attention of all the ‘main’ characters in the show. She didn’t join the cast until almost halfway through the show’s run, and I can only think of two episodes, off the top of my head, that put her front and centre. The Rift then, not only gives a brilliant character the attention she deserves at last, but manages to delve into a (slightly) more gentle side of her without undermining the tough-as-nails traits that make her so beloved.
Also, Aang makes a rock giant to punch a spirit in the face, so there’s also that.
As Yu Dao launches its all-new coalition government; Aang begins seeing visions of Avatar Yang-Chen, the airbending Avatar in the cycle before him. He cannot hear her voice, but he is reminded of an old Air Nomad festival in her name, celebrating her defeat of a dark spirit (Aang can’t remember the details very well, due to being more interesting in flying kites than learning history at the time). He sets of with the usual crowd (sans Zuko), as well as the newly founded Air Acolytes, in order to uphold the tradition of his people… only to discover that a refinery has been built on their sacred land since the genocide of the Air Nomads, and if you’ve seen a single episode of a TV show ever where something ‘modern’ gets built on ‘sacred land’ you know where this is going.
Well, kind of.
While Aang does his best to fulfil the requirements of the festival despite the circumstances, as well as decipher Yang-Chen’s warnings, Toph is immediately taken with the refinery (another coalition project between Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation business partners), and the supervisor, Satoru, is more than a little taken with her. This puts her and Aang on a collision course, with Aang’s fondness for his traditions already tapping into Toph’s frustration with her stuffy upbringing, before it’s discovered that the co-owner of the refinery is (drumroll) Toph’s father.
Boy, adults sure do suck in the Avatar universe, don’t they?
The trope in children’s fiction that all adults look breathlessly incompetent next to their younger cast members is nothing new, but in this world in particular, all parents and parental figures (with just one notable exception) are all varying levels of absent or abusive, and Toph’s dad is a fair helping of both. He’s nowhere near as horrible as Ozai, and he is at least allowed to have an arc here, coming to terms with who his daughter really is, versus his expectations of her, but their first meeting here is as gut-wrenching as it is infuriating.
But yes, the main reason The Rift gets such a big thumbs-up from me, is how it puts Toph at the emotional centre of the story. For those not familiar, Toph is more than just a great character. In my view, she is a truly important one. Toph is blind, but that doesn’t stop her from being (in her own words) The Greatest Earthbender Of All Time. She can ‘see’ by feeling vibrations through the ground, even disturbances as tiny as a line of ants crawling across her garden. So acute is her connection to the Earth, that she can even move the impurities within metal, resulting in metalbending, a discipline thought to be impossible until she discovered it.
However, when we first encounter her, Toph is living a lie. Growing up in an overprotective, upper-class family; Toph hid her talents from her parents so as not to be rejected. When she is forced to reveal her abilities to save Aang, showing her parents that she has never been the vulnerable little blind girl they thought she was… that’s exactly what happens.
By this point in the story though, Toph no longer makes any apologies for who she is. She is tough, loud, crude, but also completely in control and sure of herself. That’s the masterstroke of her character. At heart, she isn’t acting up out of some need to prove anything to anyone, she just likes herself that way. Characters as affirming as her, particularly those specifically targeted at children who are seen as vulnerable, are getting more common, but there are few who have broken (quite literally) so many barriers as her, in my view.
What we do see more than ever in The Rift, however, is Toph’s sensitive side, in her interactions with Satoru. I don’t mean that in a soppy way (the book wisely sidesteps making their interactions too starry-eyed) but hey, she’s a teenager and she still has feelings, even if she expresses them commonly through head-butting. Where I think the mark was hit strongest here is in her reaction to Satoru’s machines in the refinery. The other cast look at them as either novelty toys or as abominations, but Toph, ironically, is able to see what they can’t. Toph can feel the machine, right down to each component part, all precisely crafted and working perfectly together, and her reaction to its beauty, even in such a brief moment, is genuinely powerful.
That’s another thing I wanted to mention (though I could gush about Toph for another thousand words and still not do her justice). The Rift, more than any other story in this series so far, has strong connections to the Legend of Korra spin off show from more recent years, where a world clearly modelled after early 20th Century technology mingles with the mysticism of people being able to harness elemental power at will. It’s an odd marriage, but an interesting one, and we can see the forerunner of that idea in this story, as well as getting more ruminations on the Avatar’s relationship to the spirit world, which plays a big role in Korra’s story. The Avatar universe has deep roots in the philosophy of preservation, particularly when it comes to the environment, which I know can be a turn off for many. Fiction, particularly children’s fiction, when dealing with these themes, has a reputation for being overly preachy. To its credit though, I think The Rift avoids that, and at the very least presents the idea of technological progress as unavoidable, whether Aang likes it or not, and seeks to argue for sustainability without casting Man as the villain in a war against Nature.
The Rift is the most action-heavy story in this series so far, and I think that’s where the most visible flaw comes in. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the action scenes, but they can’t help but fall a little flat when translated into a static medium. The martial-arts inspired choreography of the show was always great to watch, and in a form where motion can only be implied, it loses something.
If you’re an Avatar fan, read this book. If you’re not, educate yourself, and then read this book. Simple. Then, I hope you’ll all join me next time for a look at Smoke and Shadow.