In Smoke and Shadow, we turn our attention to the Fire Nation. After finding his mother Ursa, Fire Lord Zuko returns to the Fire Nation in order to show her how it has changed. Mai, Zuko’s ex-girlfriend, is adjusting to her new life after her mother left Mai’s father Ukano, who was only interested in his political career. Now a secret organization, the New Ozai Society, threatens the tenuous stability by targeting Zuko and his family in order to return the former Fire Lord to the throne. As if that’s not enough trouble, the Kemurikage—dark spirits from local legends—begin kidnapping children, and Zuko’s enemies take this opportunity to further challenge Zuko’s rule. In his time of need, Zuko turns to the Avatar. Aang, Zuko, and Mai descend into the Dragonbone Catacombs in order to uncover the secrets of the Kemurikage and save the children before Zuko is completely undermined.
I became excited when I read about this latest Avatar story on Goodreads and so far it lives up to my expectations. Smoke and Shadow moves along at a quick pace, with plenty of action, twists, and the familiar humor of the series. The story ties in well with the themes of reconstruction and strength that have been part of the Avatar graphic novels. The conflict between the New Ozai Society and Zuko effectively demonstrates this continuing conflict over the direction the process rebuilding should take. The Kemurikage are a fascinating addition to the storyline—my understanding of them shifted as the plot revealed their origin and helped me come to understand the role the ones in the story are playing. Part Two ends with an excellent twist, which left me excited for Part Three (which, according to Dark Horse’s website, will be available March 30, 2016).
Smoke and Shadow also skillfully explores a number of side stories within the context of the main story. Mai, who is getting a significant role in this storyline, is caught between her loyalty to Zuko and to her father; her role allows readers to see past her gloomy facade and get into her head. Zuko’s mother Ursa must confront her past while repairing her relationship with her young daughter. Yang handles her story well—her anxiety and fear show in her actions toward her family, rather than exclusively toward Ozai. These two stories complement the main plot’s themes, and all of these stories combine together to create an engaging narrative.
Artist Gurihiru’s full-color illustrations beautifully capture the world, expertly portray the action, and, in some cases, help to foreshadow plot points. The character designs are skillfully rendered, and familiar characters’ designs remain consistent with those from the original series. A particular strength is how well the facial expressions add emotional depth to the storytelling.
Dark Horse places the starting age at eight, but given the Avatar television series’ popularity with teens and adults, these graphic novels will be popular from age eight on. These volumes do require familiarity with the events of the television series and previous graphic novels, but readers wanting to continue the Avatar journey will gravitate toward Smoke and Shadow. If there are Avatar fans among your patrons, the purchase of this new story will be essential.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadow, vols. 1 & 2
by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Gurihiru
Dark Horse, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 8+