I just got my copy of the library edition of Gene Luen Yang’s The Promise and thought I’d share my review with you. Please note that this is my opinion, so I’m neither expecting everyone to agree with me, nor do I necessarily want them to. Be warned that this is a spoiler-filled review, and I will speak of plot developments freely as if you've already read them. Read at your own risk if you want to avoid spoilers!
First of all, the story in a nutshell: Following the end of the original avatar series, our heroes celebrate their victory over Ozai and the end of the war. A Harmony Restoration Movement (HRM) is established for balance to be restored in the world by removing Fire Nation colonials from former colonies. Zuko makes Aang promise to kill him should he become like his father. Zuko is attacked by a Yu Dao resident as rebellion against the HRM. Once he visits the town, Zuko withdraws his support of the Movement. Aang and Katara visit Yu Dao and decide that Kuei and Zuko should meet as simply removing the colonials would disrupt the town’s life. While mediating between the two, Team Avatar leaves Sokka and Toph behind to see Toph’s metalbending academy. While there, the previous Fire Nation owner of the school challenges Toph and her students for ownership of the academy/dojo. Zuko goes to his father for advice and decides to defend the colonials, the secrecy of which leads to Mai leaving him when she finds out. Back in the Earth Kingdom, Toph’s students remain unable to metalbend, despite Sokka’s ideas and machinations. When the firebenders come for their challenge, however, they manage to fight them off using metalbending, inspired by Toph’s belief in their potential. Aang and Katara meet with Kuei and he confirms that he will not show cowardice this time and shall confront Zuko head-on. As the two nations head to war, all parties converge on Yu Dao. Both armies confront each other until Aang meditates and then interrupts the battle, saving Zuko from falling to his death in the process. Kuei decides to halt the fighting and visit Yu Dao himself, while Zuko collapses from exhaustion, realising his decision was right. He wakes up in Iroh’s tea shop, and he and Aang decide that a new future must be forged for Yu Dao apart from both the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation, to be decided with Kuei. Aang turns the fan club into the Air Acolytes, with himself as their teacher. Zuko decides to renew the search for his mother to connect with the better part of his lineage, recruiting his sister to coax the information from Ozai he could not.
One of the first thoughts upon after having written all the above is that quite a lot goes in this book. That much is indeed, true, but the pacing of the story flows amazingly well and doesn't lag too much. Even if Part 2 is basically filler, sub-plot and set-up for Part 3, it still feels part of the greater narrative and the time it takes for characterisation is great to go through and doesn't feel like detracting anything from the main plot. The presentation of all three Parts in one hardcover definitely helps in this regard, as they read much better together as a single book.
As for the story itself, one major theme presented is colonialism and its effects, which Yang deals with very realistically. This is an issue particularly close to my heart due to my country’s history. After about 170 years under British rule, most Maltese were indeed afraid of being separated from their colonisers due to their daily interaction with them and the fact that their livelihood often depended on the British services stationed here. Yu Dao is a great reflection of the human realities long-term colonisation and inter-cultural integration result in, which should be there considering the length of the War. Having Kunyo in there was also a great way of symbolising the residual resentment at anti-colonialism common Fire Nation citizens may feel. After a hundred years of war and colonialism, it makes not to have everyone suddenly change overnight.
While on the issue of inter-cultural relations, it was also interesting to see Yang tackling the issue of cultural appropriation within the framework of the Avatar world. The fan club is shown to be well-meaning and genuinely interested in Air Nomad culture, but their enthusiasm as fans gets the better of them and they offend Aang with their lack of understanding. I also like the fact that the issue makes Aang reflect on his role as the last Airbender. He takes on the responsibility of guardian of his people’s culture and takes it upon himself to ensure it survives by founding the Air Acolytes through the fan club.
I also like the way The Promise deals with the conflict between one’s ideals and their relationships. In the post-war Avatar world, the ideal would mean a separation of the nations as they were before the War, but the human reality of the people of Yu Dao has to result in compromise. Sneers starts out trying to live up to his ideals, but when faced with the choice of living with his loved one, he has to give it up for the sake of his human relationship with Kori. Kuei likewise decides not to retake Yu Dao when seeing how people live there together. This point is further beautifully illustrated by paralleling the potential fate of Yu Dao with Aang and Katara’s own future. It was a smart move which raised the stakes by making the issue more personal.
Moreover, I like how Yang manages to intertwine and collect all story threads and sub-plots together, even the most seemingly divergent ones. Kunyo is emboldened to re-take his dojo from Toph due to Zuko retracting his support from the HRM. Even the Avatar Fan Club plot, whose origin does not owe anything to the main plot, becomes the catalyst for further reflection by Aang on inter-cultural relations and integration and the larger inter-nation scale. The way Aang perceived stronger nations just taking on some aspects of weaker nations’ culture as a costume was a great way to tie in the issues of colonialism and integration.
In interviews Yang explains that he was chosen to pen the sequel/s to the original show because he is a fan – referring his webcomic criticising the live-action film in particular - and it shows. Despite Nick perhaps wanting to target a younger demographic, Yang tries to imbue it with the same complexity of the original, and he does succeed (with help from Mike and Bryan, of course), as seen above. He also manages to get in some in-continuity jokes only fans would know, such as Sokka lamenting the loss of his space sword or commenting how Toph’s touchy about normal-sighted people complaining about the dark. Even Toph’s meteorite bracelet is brought back and becomes an interesting (though minor) plot device. Yang clearly reveres the original show enough to want to make a worthy successor.
In fact, the only major plot point which admittedly disappointed me was the climax. More than anything else, it’s not the actual story point per se, but the execution which irked me a bit. In two and a half books we were being told a battle was coming, but when it came, I was rather unimpressed. It just ended too soon before I was given a chance to take it in and get the sense of loss and destruction such a battle should have. The whole sequence just a felt a bit rushed and headed to a peaceful conclusion – which happens off-screen - too quickly. I get it that The Promise is about the eponymous promise, but I would have also liked to see the actual meeting between Kuei and Zuko to see how much the two have learned from the experience. My first impression upon reading the ending was that I had basically gone through an inflated prelude to The Search. While it makes sense that Yu Dao does not instantly become the Republic City we know of in The Legend of Korra (and it will continue to evolve in that direction organically judging by the preview of The Search), it would have been better to get a holistic sense of closure with just a hint of things to come. This in no way takes away from the other merits of the story, but it leaves me hoping some threads are picked up again in future.
First of all, I’d like to point out that all returning characters’ voices are written such that they really do capture those of the original series. I had no problem projecting the original voice actors’ performances onto their respective character’s dialogue in my head.
While all characters get the same treatment in that regard, The Promise is squarely focused on Aang and Zuko dealing with and moving on from the legacies of their respective predecessors (I’m sure you’ve deduced it already from the cover). Aang tries to live up to his responsibilities as the Avatar in the post-War world and avoid Roku’s regrets and mistakes, thus accepting to make the promise to Zuko. In the end, however, he chooses not to live up to his promise because of their friendship, and to go on his own path. His relationship with Roku also changes in parallel with this realisation, which is just a pleasure to watch. Roku was marked by the fact that his leniency towards Sozin as a friend was not returned in kind and led to the War. I don’t know how Aang initially expected Roku to go past that, considering how he already had told him to kill Ozai and saw Zuko’s promise as a moment of clarity. Seeing Aang realise this and decide to break off his link to Roku was heart-wrenching, as it should have been with the loss of a mentor and friend. Aang has already shown himself to favour his relationships to the traditional detachment expected of the Avatar in The Guru, so it’s great to see that trend continue here. He actually goes further when he comes to accept this fact about himself and that he doesn’t want to change it, even if future (and past) Avatars may want to. Aang first missing his culture and then realising he’s responsible for its survival was also a great step forward for his character (as has been discussed above).
Here we also get to see Aang as Katara’s boyfriend; well, I have to agree with Sokka about the oogies on that one. They’re naturally still going through the initial lovey-dovey phase of their relationship, something I’ve seen quite often with my own friends. I’m quite willing to let it pass as it is realistic, just as long as we see them move on in future to a point where they don’t have to call each other ‘sweetie’ so often.
Zuko is in a similar situation, trying to live up to his newfound responsibilities as Fire Lord without turning into his father. Much like Aang, the pressures of the throne and the expectations it carries lead him to search the advice of his predecessor. I’ve seen some fans criticise this development as a regression of the character, but I couldn’t disagree more. Being the leader of the Fire Nation places Zuko in a situation where he must protect the interests of his people against the interests of other sovereigns. Irrespective of his ideals – and here I remember Iroh calling him an idealist in the show’s finale - he must fulfil his duties as a statesman. The only person who can really understand this is his father, Ozai, who really does have some “wisdom of experience” (note that he was right about the Earth King’s intentions not to show weakness, for instance).
While on the issue of Ozai, I have to say I like the fact that he is somewhat humanised and calmed down in the story. His behaviour and words confirm something that wasn’t delved into in the show: his political thought is Realist. Ozai believes that sovereignty requires amorality for the sake of safeguarding the interests of the state. Whereas the original series showed him to be a more evil character in other aspects of his life to be sure, at least here we get to see some more motivation and understanding for his decisions as Fire Lord apart from his just wanting to ‘take over the world’ . These represent much more complex issues of what is right and wrong, which is seen in Zuko’s decision not to ignore his father’s advice completely. Much like Aang begins to see Roku as not completely good, Zuko begins to see his father as not completely evil. Aang moves away from Roku’s absolutes, but Zuko does decide not to let the Avatar decide right and wrong for him, as Ozai told him to do. It’s the intention behind this decision that distances him from his father, as he does have a good moral compass and does want to judge his actions as morally correct.
Indeed, Iroh does represent a better mentor for him, as his behaviour and words of encouragement at the end of The Promise are a lot less stifling than Ozai’s and show a lot more faith in Zuko. In fact, it left me asking why Zuko didn’t contact his uncle sooner. I can understand his intentions to give him his well-deserved peace, but Zuko’s stubbornness in the face of his previous respective experiences with his father and uncle is, perhaps, a bit too convenient.
With Aang and Zuko being the focus of the story and get fantastic character development, the other main characters are, admittedly, more static. Sokka remains just the same meat and sarcasm guy we all know and love. He cracks jokes, invents names for things, comes up with ideas, and his bickering with his sister is just as fun for us to watch as ever. His interactions with Toph are also fun as the two form an great duo in Part 2. Katara doesn’t do anything of real consequence other than being Aang’s counsel until Part 3, in which she shows his and Zuko’s flawed approaches to Yu Dao. Suki doesn’t get much to do either, apart from that one panel which had so many of us thinking we were going to see something between her and Zuko. Supporters of the strong female characters of the series may not like them being relegated to supporting their male counterparts, but the scope and size of the story couldn’t really leave room for other options. Mai in particular suffered most, as she’s written off rather quickly in what was, in my opinion, a rather out-of-character moment (considering all she went through for the sake of her love for Zuko).
Toph, on the other hand, gets the most attention of the remaining main cast. We see her take on the role of teacher as a calling – while still being, well, Toph - and have her first doubts about her teaching methods. Toph was always great for not only being such a fun character, but also for occasionally demonstrating great self-awareness and a human fragility. We get to see more of that here when she doubts if her treatment of the students is simply her inflicting her own pain onto others. It was a great touch to see her visibly moved when everything seemed to work out, even if she had to show her students the affection behind her tough exterior unintentionally to get results.
Other minor returning characters’ development varies. Smellerbee and Longshot remain understandably hardened adversaries of the Fire Nation, considering the War recently cost them their leader, Jet. (While on this topic, I would have loved an actual comment from them on Jet’s fate and how they escaped!) Sneers goes through the most development as he comes to terms with the fact that he values his relationship with Kori more than his ideals, gaining a more nuanced vision of the world like other Freedom Fighters before him. Earth King Kuei is shown to have learned from his experiences during the events of the show, and now understandably seems determined not to show the same weakness as before. However, befitting his greatly sheltered life, he is still afraid to lead the troops personally. I find it strange, though, that he did not encounter other towns like Yu Dao during his travels around the world while in exile.
So where does this leave the new characters introduced in The Promise? Well, for the most part, are pretty one-dimensional and serve more as agents of the story than actual characters to be developed. Kori remains the same until the end, her most defining feature being her will to protect her home and way of life. In his commentary Yang says he thinks of Toph’s students as personifications of certain vices and compared them to the different Lanterns from Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern, which you may agree with. (However, I don’t this comparison does the latter justice as at least all Johns’s characters do develop.) Sure, the students learn to see something else in themselves other than their stereotypes, but we don’t see their newfound self-confidence go much further than allowing them to metalbend.
I admit that my fist impression of the art was that it is too childish and bright. I had already seen Gurihiru’s art in The Lost Adventures, and couldn’t help but feel that others artists featured there would have been better-suited. However, the art grew on me and I came to appreciate it on many points. The covers are brilliant, and can be seen in all their glory in the Library Edition as all lettering and titles are removed. The facial expressions are spot-on, the panels are for the most part arranged with certain dynamism, and I liked the new designs both for returning characters and new ones. There is also a certain attention to detail which could be found in the original series. For instance, Aang subtly ages and becomes taller than Katara over the course of the story, and the metal boar used in Sokka and Toph’s scheme is not discarded but later adorns the entrance of Toph’s school.
My only complaint on the art is that I can’t help but feel that the fight scenes and choreography from the show didn’t translate well to graphic novel form. I actually do not blame Gurihiru at all on this count; bending is a fighting style which inspired awe due to a combination of precise movements and sound. Managing to achieve the same style in comic book panels and without the use of sound would be a great challenge for any artist.
Library Edition Additions
The most obvious addition given the Library Edition is, of course, the actual presentation. Like all similar Dark Horse books, the hardcover is great quality and feels durable. Additionally, the page size presented here is larger then the original paperbacks. Unfortunately I don’t currently have the regular edition of the three separate Parts, so I can’t compare sizes or the images properly. However, it should be noted that, despite the larger size of the page, the actual graphic novel panels are surrounded by a rather wide margin for annotations, so I’d calculate the images being only around 20-25% larger.
With regard to the annotations themselves, they’re a great addition to the actual story. They often give insight into the inspiration behind certain concepts, themes and/or the creative process behind certain visual elements. They can give certain trivia, like Yu Dao’s inspiration being partly based on Japanese islands previously under German rule which still produce beer to this day. At other points, the details provided help the reader read into the details of the story more appreciatively, like the place of euthanasia by consent and prayer in Buddhism and the theme of colonialism. Sometimes, Yang includes comments which exude his fan’s glee, like his weirdness at having to revisit the crucial final scene between Zuko and Ozai and his love of all things Toph. The only problem with the annotations is that they are too few and far between; there are simply too many pages with an empty margin.
The hardcover edition also features some minor edits, often to correct mistakes or goofs found in the original. For instance, the Zukos’s scar from his confrontation with Azula is added to Part 3, among others.
The concept art at the end of the book is good, even if nothing ground-breaking. We get to see the character models of the main cast (whose initial designs, it turns out, were actually improved upon), the initial sketches of the covers, and other minor tid-bits of information. While all fascinating, I think they could be improved upon. My guess is that with all the information given in the annotations throughout the book, not much was actually left for the final pages.
Even if with The Promise is not a perfect return to form for Avatar: The Last Airbender, it is most definitely a welcome one. Yang proves himself as both a good writer and Avatar fan, producing a well-crafted story, the complex themes of which elevate it from mere fan-fiction or kiddie-level fare. It’s obvious that the story was partly meant to be a side-story to The Legend of Korra and a premise to The Search, but that doesn’t detract too much from its merits. The returning characters are well-written and their respective story arcs drive them towards interesting paths, especially Aang and Zuko. The new characters are not given as much depth, but, given the brevity of their appearance, they serve the needs of the story well enough. The art style can require some getting used to, but it’s certainly good enough and the effort put in really shines through.
The Promise therefore gets a definite recommendation from me, especially to Avatar fans who want to get back in touch with their old friends in the Avatar world. Even if you don’t necessarily love the story, remember that it is well-written and fully part of canon, plus Nick and Dark Horse need to see these succeed to consider making more. While the story is fine on its own, I’d recommend non-fans to watch the series first to get the best experience.
Would I recommend the Library Edition over the three regular separate Parts? I’d say it depends mostly on your particular budget. The Library Edition offers some great side-notes, but the story itself can be enjoyed without them; I’m sure the more juicy information will reach the trivia sections of this wiki soon enough. If you’re short on money, go ahead and get the regular editions. Just make sure you read them all at once; I read them when they first came out, but they read so much better together in the same sitting (and even better in subsequent re-reads). If you can spare the extra cost (which is not that substantial, especially if ordering online), or would like a more holistic reading experience, then go ahead and get the collected hardcover.
Looking towards the future, The Promise has left me cautiously optimistic about The Search. The latter deals with one of the most pertinent questions left in the Avatar universe, teased at again in The Legend of Korra, so the story needs to be great. This may be easier with the singular focus on the search for Zuko’s mother. We’re off to a promising start, and if The Search lives up to expectations, I can easily see the graphic novels becoming a staple of the Avatar franchise which can further delve into Team Avatar’s future (and maybe Korra’s too later on).
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