Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search Library Edition
Release Date 05 February, 2014
Writer: Gene Luen Yang
Be warned that this is a spoiler-filled review.
First of all, the story in a nutshell: The story has two threads running, one being the search for Zuko’s mother and the other flashbacks to Ursa’s life and fate, revealed as someone promises to tell “start from the beginning”. In the past, Ursa falls in love with and promises to marry a man named Ikem before being found by Azulon. She is forced to marry his son Ozai and sever all ties to her past, while Ikem goes into seclusion in the jungle outside their town, Hira’a. Ursa continues to send letters to home, and Ozai intercepts one, the contents of which cause him to question Zuko’s parentage and commission Vachir of the Yuyan Archers to kill him. He later meets with Vachir and is informed that he was unsuccessful. He berates Ursa for her actions , and she reveals her previous suspicions of Ozai intercepting her letters. One night, Azula overhears Azulon ordering Ozai to kill Zuko for asking for Iroh’s birthright after the death of his son Lu Ten. Ozai confirms this to be true, and Ursa offers to produce an untraceable poison. In turn, Ozai accepts on the condition that Ursa be banished and that the children be left with him. Left without choice, Ursa leaves for Hira’a, where she meets an Ikem with a changed face. After revealing that a spirit called the Mother of Faces allowed him to change his identity, Ursa undergoes the same process, but also asks the spirit to erase her memories. The tale in the present begins in Yu Dao, as an Earth Kingdom scholar lectures about the parallels between the family and the nation. Zuko resolves to solve his family problems and find his mother. After allowing Azula time alone with Ozai to coax information out of him, Zuko is forced to bring his sister along with Team Avatar when she escapes and burns her mother’s letters to ashes. Leaving Iroh as temporary Fire Lord, they depart for Hira’a. On their way there, the gang encounter a giant wolf spirit, and are saved by an increasingly unstable Azula. As Zuko comforts his sleeping sister that night, he discovers Ursa’s letter that he is Ikem’s on her. Zuko discusses the letter and its implications with Aang the next morning before Azula attacks them to get it back. As Aang goes to see how the others are doing, Azula calms down once she realises that Zuko has not destroyed the letter. The gang begins inquiring about Ursa in Hira’a and meet Noren, who takes them home to discuss the matter privately in the presence of his wife Noriko and daughter Kiyi. Noren tells them of rumours that both Ursa and Ikem may have ended up in Forgetful Valley, where the gang head to the next morning. There they meet Misu and her brother Rafa, who search for the Mother of Faces to replace Rafa’s disfigured face, which he hides behind a mask. Aang enters the Spirit World and, riding on the wolf spirit from earlier, finds the Mother of Faces. Once they return to the human world, the Mother offers one favour, which Azula steals from Misu by demanding to know Ursa’s whereabouts. The Mother of Faces reveals Ursa to be Noriko. Azula runs off with Zuko and Sokka in tow, as Aang tries to convince the spirit to help Misu and Rafa. As Aang evades her violent rebukes, Rafa’s mask falls off, revealing him to be a victim of Koh the Face Stealer. The Mother of Faces admits that he is her son, and restores Rafa’s face. In Hira’a, Sokka and Zuko arrive before Azula and Noren admits his and Noren’s true identities. Azula attacks Noriko, only to flee into the Valley and leave the letter behind when Noriko admits she didn’t love her enough. Aang and Katar arrive later with the Mother of Faces. Noriko agrees to be given her old face and memories, and later admits to Zuko that the letter’s contents were untrue. As they speak, Zuko asks Ursa to tell him “everything”, to which she replies that she’ll “start from the beginning”.
Much like The Promise before it, The Search thus has a lot of story content, although the synergy between the two main threads of the story is admittedly greater here than in the novel’s predecessor. Both the present and past narratives flow well and compliment each other perfectly, as the reader comes closer to finding out the truth in both as they converge by the end of the narrative. The fact that Ursa’s last spoken words are the first one in the book is a nice touch and a good way to bring things full circle. I will have to admit that the more fantastical elements of the story may, at first, jar with what should be the main attraction of the story, the search for Zuko’s mother. They do, however, serve to make the story a worthwhile companion to The Legend of Korra, which at the time of publication reached Book 2: Spirits. In fact, it’s worth noting the annotations revealing the synergy to be such that the capabilities of the Mother of Faces were shaped by those proposed for the spirits depicted in Beginnings. Moreover, Katara does tell Jinora that it’s “an incredible tale” in Welcome to Republic City, a claim which the involvement of grand spirits does justify. More importantly, the fantastical elements do ultimately serve as a reflection of the main story and its themes. In fact, for a journey featuring mythical forces, The Search remains a very personal story of discovery for both Zuko and Azula.
If there is a main theme theme to be elicited from this story, it is family. The main message that seems to come across is that, for better or worse, one cannot change one’s family. Through foils such as Sokka and Katara and Misu and Rafa, Zuko comes to realise that he has a responsibility towards his sister despite their differences. The Mother of Face’s reaction towards Koh’s handiwork also reflects her link to him by their familial ties. Much like Zuko tells Azula she remains his sister despite their troubled relationship, the Mother of Faces seeks to reverse Koh’s actions out of the responsibility she feels for them as his mother. Indeed, the abandonment of these responsibilities is shed in a negative light as the effects of Ursa’s decision become clear. While both Zuko and Azula are left at the mercy of their father, it is Azula who breaks down as she becomes convinced that her mother could only see her as monster and conspires against her to this day. Here I congratulate Yang and Bryke for handling this issue with maturity, as Ursa is given understandable reasons for wanting to forget the pain of her past life, but they leave the answer to whether it was the right decision to the readers. Masks and identity also prove to be a vital element in the story. Love Amongst the Dragons reflects Ursa and Ikem’s story, as they find each other while wearing different faces. Ikem also proves that his love for Ursa goes beyond her appearance as he accepts her with a plainer face and different memories. Ursa’s words to Zuko, “Never forget who you are”, take on a similar meaning here as they do in Zuko Alone, as Zuko is called to remember his identity as heir to the Fire Nation throne, despite Ozai’s attempts to convince him otherwise. The irony is, of course, that Ursa herself doesn’t follow her own advice, giving in to her pain and taking the chance to forget her past. Fittingly enough, it is behind the mask of Noriko that Ursa finally realises the mistake of her decision. From a narrative continuity viewpoint, The Search builds up the backstory shown in the episodes Zuko Alone and The Avatar and the Fire Lord, arguably two of the strongest episodes of the original series. We find out that the intertwining of the Avtar and Fire Lord bloodlines was known and intentional on Azulon’s part. Roku’s daughter is also shown to have the most natural reaction to the grandson of her father’s betrayer marrying her daughter, but being unable to do anything. It also explains how Roku’s headpiece found its way to Iroh. It’s also great to see other little nods to continuity throughout the book. We get to hear Ozai utter “Azula was born lucky. You were lucky to be born”, which Zuko referred to in The Siege of the North, Part 2. The presence Kunyo in the Fire Nation colonies from The Promise is explained by way of punishment for disagreeing with Azula during her training sessions. Vachir of the Rough Rhinos is also given some backstory explaining why he is not with the Yuyan Archers. Zuko’s Blue Spirit mask also makes an appearance among Ursa’s collection. These elements manage not only to please existing Avatar fans but, more importantly, make sense in context.
First of all, much like the previous volume, The Search does manage to capture the voices of returning characters quite well. (You can actually hear them read the lines here.) That being said, the returning main cast of the series admittedly remain defined by certain character traits rather than better-defined personalities. Aang helps the plot move along by being the understanding person he is and in his Avatar role as bridge between the human and spirit worlds. Katara continues to provide Aang with moral support and annoy her brother. Sokka is again almost reduced to an exclusive comedic role, but does get a couple of highlights. His expressions of fraternal love towards his sister do bring the depth we know he has and serve to spur Zuko to do the same, and he even gets to face Azula with his trusty boomerang quite effectively. The rest of the characters are rather one-dimensional and don’t get much character definition beyond the roles they have to play in the story and to serve its themes. Misu is a sister dedicated to helping her brother, Ikem is a childhood sweetheart of Ursa’s who loves her unconditionally and Kiyi is just adorable. The Mother of Faces is a proud spirit, which is a common trait among her kind, especially when it comes to dealing with humans. All character development is firmly reserved for the Fire Nation royal family, as it should be in a story highlighting their family history. Firstly, Zuko gets to be re-confirmed as Ozai’s son. Zuko’s reaction to this possibility is actually understandable and in-character, as it would help him rationalise his suffering at the hands of his father and free him from the burden of being related to a psychopath and having to rule a nation. However, as a fan of the character, I can’t help but feel that such a development would have nullified Zuko’s character development in the original series in such episodes as Zuko Alone and The Avatar and the Fire Lord. This development hinged on Zuko accepting being the heir to the Fire Nation throne and being the product of two conflicting bloodlines, thus in a perfect position to bring balance between both parts of himself. More importantly, Zuko develops and shifts his perception of Azula towards that of a sister in need and finally gets to embrace the reality that, while he cannot necessarily change his family – as twisted as they are – things are “as they should be.” Indeed, from Avatar Book 3 through to The Search, we see Zuko’s worldview mature and become more accepting of moral shades of grey. The series has him realise that his personal honour can come from his own actions – not his father’s approval – and he switches over to the good side. The responsibilities of the throne have him come against his perceived ‘good’ allies and approach his father, however cautiously, for his experience and advice. Here Zuko tries to reconnect with the ‘good’ side of his family, only to realise that his mother had her own flaws and that his sister is human too. He gets the chance to be free of his previous identity and move his life in a different direction, but his more balanced worldview helps him accept the burden of the throne and his family.
Azula becomes a strange mixture of the broken-down mess we see in Sozin’s Comet Part 4: Avatar Aang and her previous calculating self, thus creating a certain duality in her personality. Azula’s calculating side tries to rationalise what the unbalanced side tells it, resulting in her deciding that her mother should be destroyed for being behind all her woes. The tragedy is that the re-emergence of her calculating side makes Azula aware that there is something wrong in her mind, and yet doesn’t seem to realise that it is acting on the whims of the same irrational insanity. Azula’s encounter with her mother harkens back to her hallucination in Sozin’s Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno. In that instance, Azula asserts that her mother fears her while she imagines Ursa repeating that she loves her; as much as it visibly hurts her, Azula tries to keep herself together by maintaining the illusion that her power over her mother overcame the latter’s weak feelings of love. Azula had built up herself on the delusion that everyone feared her and that even her mother though she was a monster, which is why Mai and Ty Lee’s betrayal slowly destroyed what semblance of sanity she had. Once she hears her mother tell her that, in reality, maybe she didn’t love her enough, Azula’s vision of herself and her relationship with her mother is shattered and she breaks down. As much as I would have loved to see where Azula goes on from here, having her run off is an understandable story choice, as she deserves more space for her brilliant story to unfold.
The largest bit of character-building in the book is, in my opinion, in relation to Ursa. The Search manages to both emphasise and redefine her beyond her role of protective mother as presented in Zuko Alone. She has a love for theatre as a link to her past, giving context to Zuko’s comment in The Ember Island Players that he would be taken to see Love Amongst the Dragons every year, despite the eponymous acting troupe butchering it every time. Perhaps her love for theatre is what leads her to choose a somewhat theatrical flair for provoking Ozai into revealing his interception of her letters. Neither if them believe the contents of the letter, but Ursa understands the emotional outrage at her attempt would be enough to elicit some response. Of course, in her attempt to be devious, Ursa overplays her hand and underestimates Ozai’s penchant for cruelty. As Ursa deals with her mistake, it becomes clear how flawed, fallible and human she truly is. She is traumatised by Ozai and the fact that she has no real way of being with her remaining source of happiness, her children. The Mother of Faces presents with a chance to be free of her burden, be cared for by Ikem and with the high probability that Ozai will at least keep his word and not harm Zuko and Azula. She admits that she is horrible for forgetting her own children, and yet goes along with it due to her fragile emotional state. This is indeed different from the Ursa of Zuko Alone, and yet can still fit in as a cohesive character. Her previous appearances were the product of Zuko’s memory, which could easily emphasise certain aspects of Ursa’s character and situation by not being present to see her more contentious interactions with Ozai.
Ozai gains the least character development of the royal family members, as he is reconfirmed as the terrible person he has always been depicted as. In fact, I would say that one weakness of The Search is Ozai’s quasi-inhumanity. It would have been much easier to empathise with Ursa’s plight if readers were given any indication that she did share times of joy with Ozai and did have reason to trust his word, thus making his turn for the worse all the more traumatic. This lack of story-telling space, however, seems to be a unfortunate by-product the limited number of pages allotted to these graphic novels rather than the fault of the writers per se.
I really have nothing negative to say at all about Gurihiru’s work on this book; the art is an absolute treat. As noted in my previous review, The Promise suffered slightly from the understandable inability of the appealing bending action sequences to be translated well to the page. The Search fares much better in that regard as the action is kept to a minimum to service the character-driven story. I also have to comment the use of colour in certain parts of the book. During Azula’s attack on Ikem and Noriko’s home the ambient colour changes to blue, reflecting both the colour of Azula’s flame and the tension of the situation. It was also a nice touch to have the scenes set in the past having a somewhat different palette with brownish hies. It helps differentiate them from scenes in the present and gives them a feeling of age, much like an old photograph. The new characters and locations, for the most part, bring nothing groundbreaking design-wise, but I absolutely love the design of The Mother of Faces. Likewise, I don’t really appreciate Aang’s changing faces and their expressions, but Azula’s slight change in appearance when she thinks about her mother is used effectively to convey her manic state of mind.
Library Edition Additions
Here I have to begin by saying that reading the individual parts when they first came out was quite the experience which could not be replicated by waiting for the Library Edition. Months of speculating with the rest of the Avatar fan community what the possible change in Zuko’s lineage could mean could only happen once, so one can’t really put it against the collected book. That being said, the addition of annotations remains both a point of interest and minor frustration. The annotations only cover about a quarter of the story pages, and there is at least one long stretch of pages without any annotations at all. What is there, however, includes some very insightful information. One interesting annotation, for instance, is that the Mother of Faces is actually Gene Yang’s idea elaborated upon in collaboration with Mike and Bryan. This runs contrary to the impression Yang – understandably humbled by the work of picking up something like Avatar: The Last Airbender as any fan would be – sometimes gives in interviews that he merely fleshes out Mike and Bryan’s proposals. It’s a shame the annotations are lacking, as the process behind the story seems to appealing to people who would like to know more about the creation of such a brilliant series. The Library Edition nonetheless remains the better way to add The Search to your collection if you can afford it.
Fans have been waiting to find out what happened to Zuko’s mother ever since Zuko Alone and Zuko’s last question to his father in the last episode in 2008. We were teased about it again in the first episode of The Legend of Korra, whetting our appetites and promising us a great tale. I would probably be lying if I said that the story was exactly what most fans were expecting, but it did manage to answer that question in a brilliant and satisfying way. The Search is well-written and well-executed, and proves to be a vast improvement over The Promise; in one interview, Gene Yang states that he was more confident writing the former after the latter, and it shows. The book manages to flesh out the events of Zuko Alone in great ways and offers readers new insight into the inner workings of the dysfunctional Fire Nation royal family. Readers are also treated as adults as the handling of the themes related to family offers answers in some respects, but lets them make their own decisions and discuss in others. The characters of the royal family themselves are also given new depth and new directions going forward – Azula especially – which is sure to make anyone keen to find out what happens in future installments of this expanding universe. The rest of the characters don’t get that much attention and are mostly there to serve the story, which can surely be forgiven should they get their chance to shine will in the immediate future. The Search gets a definite recommendation from me for both fans and newcomers, as it is – to quote Doug Walker and Dante Basco – an engaging read. It has left me looking forward to reading The Rift, which should bring us back to Toph and her parents. Good times ahead!
- Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search ties up a loose end and raises an interesting question (racebending.com)
- Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search Library Edition: review (geek-io.com)
- Review: Avatar: The Promise and The Search (comicscube.com)
- The Search Library Edition Review (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) (avatarthelastairbenderonline.com)