And so we come to the most recent entry in the Avatar expanded universe that has begun this series, and I feel like these books have arrived at a crossroads. I’ve been mostly complimentary about the series so far, to the point where I’ve been afraid of sounding a little repetitive. However, quality is quality, and the previous three books I’ve covered have overall delivered on living up to, and jumping off from, their beloved source material.
When it comes to Smoke and Shadow though, I am conflicted, which I suppose is at least better than lukewarm. There are parts of this story that are just as fresh and interesting to me as what has come before, and that leaves me wanting to like the whole picture more than I actually do, which is disappointing. I still don’t know if I’d call it ‘poor’, but this is the first time I’ve felt like the series may be running out of ideas. I can’t say for sure, partly because while the previous three books are all very contained, stand-alone stories, with the barest bones of connective tissue between them, Smoke and Shadow seems to be setting up more than a few plot-lines to pay off in later books, so I can’t tell you whether or not they will land well. Therefore, as an individual book, a lot of it just doesn’t work very well.
Okay, that’s enough of me prancing around being vague. Let’s get into what I’m actually talking about…
Smoke and Shadow focusses on Zuko (yes, again) on his return to the Fire Nation capital with his mother Ursa and her new family in tow. It’s the first time Ursa has been back since her banishment, and her apprehension is hardly helped when the family come under attack from the New Ozai Society, an ultranationalist movement who see Zuko’s efforts to uphold peace as weak, and seek to return his father to the throne. Their coup attempt is thwarted with help from Mai, Zuko’s ex-girlfriend (and daughter of the Society’s founder, Ukano) as well as double-agent Kei Lo, who also happens to be Mai’s new boyfriend.
Yes folks, strap yourselves in because we’ve got a Love Triangle on our hands. How refreshing and fun!
But we’ll get to that later. For now, no sooner have Zuko and his family settled in, when children in the capital city begin disappearing. They are being kidnapped by what appear to be the Kemurikage; dark spirits from Fire Nation folklore. Seizing on the panic that grips the city, Ukano is quick to blame the appearance of the Kemurikage (if I have to keep trying to spell it, you have to keep trying to pronounce it) on Zuko’s weak leadership, and forms the Safe Nation Society, who are totally not just a rebranding of the New Ozai Society, to ‘protect’ Fire Nation citizens where the Fire Lord has failed. As unrest grows, Zuko must find a way to maintain order, protect his own family, and possibly even fix his love life, while uncovering the truth behind the Kemurikage…
SPOILERS: It’s Azula, because of course it is!
So, good stuff first…
Ursa continues to be fantastic as a supporting character, and possibly the greatest ‘new’ contribution to the series canon that the books have provided. Of course, she did exist in the TV show, but she was only ever seen in brief flashbacks of Zuko’s childhood, and until The Search never had an inner life of her own, only serving the development of Zuko and Azula’s characters. In Smoke and Shadow, one of the major B plots deals with her feelings at returning to the Royal Palace for the first time since leaving Ozai, and it’s quite clear that she is suffering from a degree of PTSD, which is hardly surprising. Go back and read my critique of The Search if you need refreshment on just how awful her arranged marriage was, but a particular set of panels here, where Ursa walks alone through the vast hallways of the palace, trying to convince herself that she no longer has any reason to be afraid, only to come face to face with a towering portrait of Ozai, are particularly chilling.
One if the ways Ursa’s turmoil manifests is an overprotectiveness of Kiyi, her third child and Zuko and Azula’s half-sister. Kiyi was very much in the background during The Search, but she gets a lot more to do here, and I have a feeling she’s going to be another very welcome addition to the canon. Here struggling to come to terms with the changes her family is going through, and rejecting her mother as a result, Kiyi acts almost as an anti-Azula, very similar to her sister in many ways, apart from completely opposing attitudes towards Zuko. It’ll be interesting to see how she develops in future stories.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the highlights end for me. As I mentioned, Azula is back to serve as the principle villain of the piece, and whereas before I was surprised by how disappointed I was with her in The Search, now I’m just bored, and more convinced than ever that she has served her purpose for the series.
I don’t like that I feel that way, and I certainly understand why the books feel the need to keep using her. She was the most popular villain in the show for a reason. She was menacing, charismatic, supremely capable yet also flawed and human in a way Ozai was never allowed to be. She was an utter bitch, but you were always torn between wanting to see her get her just deserts, and just how fun she made being the villain look. The thing is, that was her arc in the show, and it was an arc that was very definitely and very effectively concluded. So far, these books have always been at their best when using the source material as a jumping off point for introducing new characters, locations and themes. Azula, I’m sorry to say, is old news, and nothing the writers have done with her so far is making her interesting again. This time around, she’s less bug-eyed and raving, and seems to be more back to her old self, though she claims she no longer wants to usurp Zuko as Fire Lord. Her ‘rationale’ this time around is that she wants to help Zuko to become a more ruthless leader, by destabilising the Fire Nation and forcing him to take a hard line to keep order, and yes, it comes across exactly as stupid as I’m making it sound.
Azula isn’t the worst of it though. So I guess that means, unfortunately, I now have to talk about the Love Triangle for a bit…
The romantic sub-plots were always my least favourite element of Avatar. I swear, that’s not just me being a boy, cringing away from any of the soppy stuff. I like romance stories when they are done well, when they actually have anything in common with real relationships, or aren’t too unattainable to even work as escapism from real relationships. The problem is, they so very rarely are done well, and for a series that in so many other ways aspired to do more than you might expect from kids fayre, the ‘couples’ in Avatar unfortunately kept falling into the trap of being generic and clichéd.
That said, Zuko and Mai were always my favourite pairing, even if they were perhaps the best of a bad bunch. They had enough in common that you could easily picture them together, and unlike Aang and Katara, who went back and forth in a meaningless will they/won’t they for three seasons, it was exactly as obvious to the two of them that they should be together as it was to everyone around them.
So, to see them now, trapped in the very worst of romantic storytelling clichés, is infuriating. Again, I don’t think the idea of love tringles is bad in principle, I’m just yet to see one that I think is actually done well, usually because the ‘triangle’, as it is here, is incredibly unbalanced. Kei Lo is a pretty decent character all things considered, but shoving him into a role where he is so obviously just an obstacle Zuko and Mai have to get passed on the road to reconciling their relationship makes him seem like a bland annoyance. If I could be convinced for two seconds that he was actually a serious romantic rival to Zuko, watching it play out might be slightly interesting, but he’s not… so it isn’t.
Anyone who’s got this far into the series should probably read Smoke and Shadow, just to keep abreast of what’s going on. Otherwise, you’re not missing a whole lot.
…That was this week’s Adaptive Panels!!! Check back on Monday for a new BearSleuth Opinion Piece!!!