The book is now out (At least in comic stores, February 7th elsewhere) so time for my full spoiler thoughts on the book.
Very quickly my overall thoughts on the book before talking about the big moments. This for the most part is a very well written book featuring a couple of the best done moments we have seen in the comics, it does unfortunately lead to a somewhat messy ending where we are in a spot where we really do not know where things are going. The book could definitely have left off on a better moment as the cliffhanger and where the main characters end off here is very much in mid air with the cliffhanger feeling a bit forced and not having a lot of impact, the complete opposite of the ending of part 1. Malina and Maliq are much more fleshed out and we can really form proper opinions on them now, which is a huge success of the comic. Katara and Hakoda are very well written for the most part, but unfortunately Sokka, Aang and Toph feel like they are too far to the side and not massive players in this book while our main villain Gilak continues to be fascinating with his extreme views on the North. I think most fans will enjoy this book, but will probably agree that it is one of the more frustrating middle parts of one of these comics in that there is not a lot to base speculation for Part 3 on.
Now I will completely ignore structure and just talk about the key moments.
- We get some focus on the odd set up moment from Part 1 where Pakku said that Katara would be very interested in what is happening at his waterbending school. We get 2 pages in part 2 covering this plot, it is certainly interesting, but given so little time. The jist is that we now know of at least 2 more southern waterbenders, Pakku found the 2 of them in a more inland village in the south that was quite isolated. The 2 kids are revealed to be decent benders, but they seem to hide their abilities from everyone and only use them when they think no one is watching.
I feel there is a theme being explored here that is meant to link more into the main plot, but again it is only given 2 pages so we get no time to explore this reveal. Katara doesn't even seem to react to the reveal of new southern benders. If I had to speculate I would guess that these kids keeping their bending to themselves is meant to highlight the idea that the south is a very isolated place, even the North seems to have a certain connection to the other nations as we see with Malina and Maliq spending a lot of time in Ba Sing Se and Maliq attending the university there. Katara's view on what is happening seems to be that she doesn't want her home to change, the idea that potentially she is without realising it wanting to keep the south isolated and not part of the larger world. There is a slight hint of this hypocrisy from Katara that she can suggest in The Promise that the Earth and Fire Nation should allow Yu Dao to become a nation of its own, she can help Aang accept that the airbender culture will have to change to adapt to modern times, but when it comes to her own home and own opinions she is perhaps not as open to the change she often suggests to others. It is a super stretch as it is given so little time, but it is the only connection I can make. I assume there is potentially a story behind why these kids don't want to be so open as benders, but we have nothing to go on right now.
- Next let's talk about the big Hakoda and Katara talk. While the beginning of this book opens up a bit after the end of Part 1, we do fairly quickly address Malina X Hakoda and Katara's thoughts on it. I found it interesting that for Katara the issue was not that her father was moving on and was in a relationship again, it was not (for the most part) about her thinking Kya is being replaced, it is more about who Hakoda is moving on with. Katara took issue to much of what Malina said about the south in Part 1 and that informs her opinion on her as to whether she is right for her father. There is certainly a small sense of Katara not wanting Kya to be forgotten, but it was not the huge wall between the characters that I expected it to be. When they talk Hakoda is SO understanding of how Katara feels about this, he apologises for not being open about the relationship immediately upon his kids returning home and knows that Katara is a bit embarrassed about bringing it up to him, so he jumps straight in and is incredibly honest and open with his daughter. He urges her to be completely honest about how she feels and she goes as far as to express that she feels Malina is up to something nefarious, Hakoda immediately explains that that is not the case and that he knows her well and that she has a good heart, even saying that he loves her.
This for me was a big moment in the conversation, his relationship with Malina is not something that has just happened, this has been developing for a good while and is at the stage where they are very close. This is not a case of Malina manipulating Hakoda, this is a 2 way relationship and the whole book does a great job at highlighting that they do both love each other. Katara's reaction to this reveal is that she feels that her father is blinded by his feelings, but Hakoda turns it around on her noting that she also knows what it is like to be in love and that she should know that when love is real it does not blind you, it instead helps you to see. They choose this to be the moment when Katara spots Appa coming into view, an amazing scene transition that works on so many levels.
Katara more or less sprints over to Aang as he lands and jumps into his arms and we get a lovely Kataang relationship moment as Hakoda watches on. Immediately Hakoda's point in proven, Aang's arrival has helped Katara to see the issue in what she has been doing. She asks Aang if her father has always been good to him and Aang says he has, she at this point makes her mind up to try to be nicer to Malina, Hakoda has been nothing but supportive of her relationship with Aang and up to now she has just seen issues with Malina, she wants to treat the person her father loves as well as he treats the person she loves.
These 2 scenes are for me the best section of this book and definitely some of the best written scenes we have seen in the comics. I love how Hakoda is written, he is such an understanding character in being so open with Katara knowing how she must feel about his new relationship. I like that despite having only seen Aang and Katara together a few times he knows how deep their relationship is and because of this he knows she can understand how he feels.
With Aang I do wish over the whole book we had got more quiet moments with him to talk to Katara. As it stands this reunion moment is his only notable character moment in the book as the rest of his involvement is mainly being involved in the fights. The issue is that no one properly fills Aang in on what has been happening in the south, we assume off panel he was told, but the few things he says seems to imply he doesn't fully understand the details and thus cannot really form his own opinion and use that to help Katara who obviously has conflicted opinions on what is happening to her home nation.
- The book's big plot point is that Gilak interrupts Malina and Maliq's speech revealing their plan for the North to assist the South in extracting and using their natural resources (Oil). He and his group arrives via a giant drill and reveals the truth behind the sibling's plan since he has read the documents in the briefcase he had stolen from Maliq. The core of the issue is the difference between what the plan for the south was when Malina and Maliq initially arrived versus what that plan is now as well as creating a rift between Malina and Maliq about which way they wanted the plan to go. The short of it is that Malina actually began to like the south and so changed the plan so that instead of the North controlling the South's oil the North would just assist the south with how to make the best use of their oil and give them a chance to become bigger on the world stage, while Maliq reveals that he has never liked the south hating how tribal they are compared to "actual" civilisations and how they lack proper laws and that he never changed the plan like Malina wanted to, he hid this from her.
The way this plays out is fascinating in that we see the majority of the people in the south just don't understand what them having a huge oil deposit means nor what them being big on the world stage actually means. Maliq basically wants to take the oil from the south who do not know how to use it to help the world advance, he reveals a near obsession with advancing and using oil to fuel machines which will make the world more equal, hugely hypocritical that he plans to make the world more equal by basically not treating the people of the south equally, the idea that he wants to make all "civilised" people equal, but the people of the south are just savages. This heavily relates to Thod's story from Part 1 about the Snow Rat, that the north are just coming in and taking the resources of the south without actually treating them as people. Maliq really digs his own grave when Gilak reveals this as he in front of everyone rudely insults the south as Malina desperately tries to get him to shut up, eventually deciding that they will just abandon the plan overall as her brother and the implication of the plan initially has hurt and confused so many people. You do feel so sorry for Malina in that her intentions are in general good, she wants to help the south, her mistake is just that she is not asking herself the question "Do the south want to use their resources, do they want to create an oil industry in their nation?" she is just assuming that everyone will be happy with the wealth this will bring ignoring the relatively simple lives that most people in the south have, do they want to advance and change this much.
Maliq is so interesting in that in Part 1 he was so concerned for his sister when she was hurt, she is everything to him, yet he never changed the plans like she wanted, he kept the plans as they were initially with the plan to basically make the south a colony of the North even after Malina understood this was not right and they should just assist the south in helping themselves. This plus his mention earlier in the book of not feeling equal compared to benders and his obsession with machinery is to help non-benders to become equal makes for a unique arc that will need to be addressed in Part 3, he needs to understand the impact of betraying Malina's trust and how insulting (borderline racist) he is being to the south, understand that he is trying to help the rest of the world and himself by ignoring and in some ways pulling down the south even more. With Malina it is clear that her relationship with Hakoda helped her to see (Reference to Hakoda saying that Love helps you to see) the good in the south and change her mind.
The issue that Malina has is that Katara prior to this was trying to bond with her, but the reveal that Malina initially came to the south to take the oil immediately stopped Katara's attempts to try with Malina. It feels a bit like Katara and Zuko, in 220 she was open to seeing the good in him, but immediately her attempt and trust was betrayed and it was difficult for her to accept him later as a friend. The same applies to Malina, she needs to talk to Katara, but Katara is not having it which is where we end with these 2 in the comic. She wants Malina to leave, but Hakoda wants to talk to Malina, that is the last thing we see in this side of the story. Clearly Hakoda is going to say something very notable to her that may change things. He reveals earlier that he knows what their plan was initially, but that he knew that she changed the plan for the better. So there is no Hakoda X Malina issue.
The ending scene with Malina and Katara is where the writing struggles a bit, in that they try really hard to make this more than Katara being stubborn and not listening to Malina's explanation, but they cannot quite make it work. They end up having Katara effectively criticise Malina for, shock horror, changing her opinion, that because she changed her mind for the better who is to say she won't change her mind again for the worse, who is to say she won't fall out of love with Hakoda. Again I get it, Katara is frustrated, annoyed and a bit betrayed, she doesn't want to hear what Malina has to say, but her logic here is bad or at least badly written. The fact that this plot ends with this, means we end with an annoyed Katara an unreasonable Katara and that is a frustrating place to be in, even if it is somewhat understandable.
- Gilak's part in this is that he outs Malina and Maliq and after Maliq insults the south he orders an attack. Aang, Katara and Toph being present make this fight not much of an issue since they are so powerful. The key things that happen are that Malina and Maliq are chased outside of the city and captured, Gilak follows them and is about to literally cut them apart right there to send a message to the world that the south should not be messed with. Only the arrival of Hakoda stops him as we get another well written character interaction with Hakoda and Gilak, former allies in the war. Hakoda should hate Gilak for trying to kill the woman he loves and trying to kidnap his kids, but he offers his hand to his former friend (after besting him in a brief fight), but as Gilak takes his hand he stabs Hakoda in the gut with a knife concealed behind his back. A truly shocking moment as we rarely get to see big injuries in Avatar let alone a stabbing.
Thankfully Katara and Aang arrive and with Hakoda's men capture all of Gilak's forces as Katara begins to heal her father. We later find out he is injured, but will be ok because Katara healed him so quickly. I assume Hakoda is going to be out of action for the rest of North and South, I would question if he could recover from a stab wound that quickly even with Katara's healing. I wonder what he is planning to say to Malina? Will he propose to her? or what?
Another point that is never really touched upon is that in part 1 and now 2 his forces have been shown using some pretty advanced technology. The drill especially in this book feels like something Gilak, a southern purist, would not really use. So I am wondering if they just stole some machinery, or if there is someone Gilak is getting machinery from?
Overall I like Gilak and to a degree I understand his hatred of the North. For him he fought in the war with his southern brothers and lost many of them resulting in the south being a mess by the end of the war and all of a sudden the north, who didn't actively participate in the war, have decided to help the south and are doing it by taking over and taking their resources. He has the opposite view of Maliq, he sees Maliq and the northerners as being too civilised, unwilling to get their hands dirty, unworthy of being involved with the south who have proven themselves by helping to end the war. How they approach ending his arc in Part 3 will be fascinating. Especially because the cliffhanger of the book is one of Hakoda's main guards passes the key to Gilak in prison saying that she agrees with his views on the north. The only issue with this ending is that ultimately Gilak has forced people to think about things, but he and his forces have not really been a threat, so I don't know what he will do in part 3, especially with the part 3 description already telling us he would get out it doesn't have much impact.
- Another big-ish reveal during this fight is that Thod and a few members of Gilak's group are chi blockers. Katara gets chi blocked by Thod as the big reveal, but we get no explanation for how they know it or massive moment with it as it wears off for Katara quite quickly afterwards. Thod does ask Katara if she now understands the meaning behind his Snow Rat story, highlighting that as far as they are concerned the north will only ever see the south as snow rats and never as equals. He asks Katara to join him, but she refuses, interestingly after glancing over at Aang who is fighting nearby. This, for me, is a reference again to Hakoda's line about love "helping to see", suggesting that Katara could potentially have sided with Gilak if she let her emotions take control, but Aang being there gives her clarity enough to know that Gilak is an extremist.
So yeah, those are my general thoughts on all of the key aspects of the book. I do feel that ultimately North and South is a character focused story more than a big plot heavy book, this is about characters exploring the ideas of change, tradition vs modernisation and moving on. The core of this series is Katara, Malina, Maliq, Gilak and Hakoda and how they feel about how the south should move on with the war over, should they move to become more modern or just repair and remain as they were, in part 3 I think the focus will have to be on the compromises made to get to the right decision that no one is full on wrong and no one is fully right, this is a complex issue that is meaningful to a lot of people, that is why anger is coming out and violence is happening. I just hope that Part 3 uses Aang, Toph and Sokka much better than this part, Sokka without being forceful supports some degree of advancement and using the oil, but we really don't know how Aang and Toph feel and I think with Katara her talking to Aang about this situation is key, I hope we get a big scene with those 2 in part 3. Then let's not forget that both Zuko and Kuei are arriving in Part 3, I am slightly worried we may have too much to do in part 3 and not a lot of pages to do it in, but I have faith in Gene Yang as a writer so I think it will end well.
What are your thoughts on North and South Part 2?
Link to spoiler video review will be added when it is uploaded.