Book 2 of Avatar: the Last Airbender is even more tightly constructed than Book 1. As Team Avatar depart the North Pole to make contact with the vast but troubled Earth Kingdom, each member has individual goals and conflicts as well as the overall “saving the world” thing. Sokka continues to feel overshadowed by the two benders, Katara worries about the well-being of her brother and the Avatar as she struggles to master her arts, and Aang needs to find an earthbending teacher, trusting Katara’s natural ability and obvious passion to show him the ways of waterbending.
Earthbending will not come easy to Aang. Earth is air’s opposite, and proves just as stubborn as air is fluid and formless. With the world established in Book 1, Book 2 takes more time to flesh out our heroes as well as the villains and those in the middle, which I really appreciate. Aang’s fear of his own potential in the form of the Avatar State contrasts very nicely with the inner conflict of Prince Zuko, who continues to search for his own identity. Making characters continue to feel new, interesting, and compelling after almost 50 episodes is no mean feat, and The Last Airbender makes it look easy.
It’s not all old business, however, as Book 2 not only sees many returning characters but also introduces us to new ones. Perhaps the most prominent of them is Toph.
I love Toph. She’s Aang’s earthbending teacher, a straight-shooting cynic with an adoration for brawling and a tomboyish streak that neatly contrasts Katara’s more feminine aspects. She’s also called ‘the Blind Bandit’ because, without sight, she ‘sees’ through the earth, sensing vibrations in rock and everything from the tiniest pebble to the mightiest boulder. Even in situations where she’s not in contact with solid ground (flying on Appa, for example), she never expects special treatment for her handicap. Indeed, Sokka often forgets she’s blind. Rather than be restricted, she turns a weakness into a strength, at the very least playing it for laughs instead of drawing attention to it for extra sympathy or other advantages.
And the strong females don’t stop with Team Avatar. The big threat of Book 2, Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, is a conniving critical thinker, a master of manipulation and deceit, and a deadly opponent with mastery of firebending so potent she can focus it into lightning. She is often accompanied by Ty Lee, a gymnast with an encyclopedic knowledge of pressure points which deprives opponents of movement or bending, and Mai, a noble-born young woman with a penchant for thrown weapons that allows her to best multiple opponents even if they’re benders. Not only do they present an amplified threat to Team Avatar, Azula further complicates Zuko’s deepening conflict, often appearing when he is at his weakest with honeyed words that have caused him, in the past, to repeat to himself the words “Azula always lies”.
Needless to say, I cannot wait for Book 3.