Spoiler-free review: bounces between awesome and guilty pleasure
Strengths: Embers is excellent at making interesting, fascinating additions to the Atl A worldbuilding that often fit seamlessly into the universe. The author appears to have an in-depth knowledge of history, military tactics and agriculture that she works into the fic to its advantage. It deals well with itty-bitty-but-important details of gritty realism that most works don't even think about, such as "what does it mean for the local grasslands if a herd of air bison hangs out there?" Some very inventive, creative uses of bending are featured that mesh quite well into canon. The fic adds depth to the airbenders and more nuance to the Fire Nation and even some villainous characters (such as Azula), and is big on the role cultural differences would realistically play in a world like At LA's. The fic also comes down HARD on some of the liberties the show took due to being a kid's show, such as the assumption that Aang has never killed anybody, or the collateral damage the characters leave in their wake. As such, the fic would be a delight to anyone who wants to see a version of the world the way it might have been imagined for a more adult audience. Last but not least, the fic features excellent and memorable OCs to fill out the world. The weaknesses: That said, personally I was able to really whole-heartedly enjoy only the first half or so of the fic. The deeper it veers into alternative canon territory, the more prominent its flaws become. The features listed under "strengths" above are indeed gripping, but they affect the narrative in unbalanced ways. Specifically, they come out to the benefit of Team Zuko and to the detriment of the Gaang, and pretty much everyone else, effectively turning Zuko into an author's darling and undermining the attempt at careful, balanced and in-depth storytelling. (You can see a symptom of this early on: this is, after all, loosely based on the one-shot in which Zuko does not steal that dodo horse in Season 2. The author is uncomfortable with Zuko showcasing his genuine flaws, and it shows.) Some of the additions to the worldbuilding effectively add excuses for the Fire Nation's imperialism even if the author claims that they're not meant as such ("an explanation is not an excuse"). On top of that, the author sees fit to add certain... features to Zuko's character that make a character who's already pretty unique and incredible in-canon even more special, such as features of his bloodline, and they're just unnecessary. The Gaang gets some much-needed reality checks and examinations of their prejudices in a more satisfying way, IMHO, than was sometimes done in the canon, but with some of them, the author goes too far and crosses over into unforgiving character-bashing territory. So roughly the part till the end of the Ba Sing Se arc is good or great. After that, it becomes a little more eyeroll-worthy despite the author's good intentions. Worth a read, but keep these things in mind when you progress further.
Has some interesting parts, and many bad ones
This fanfic is an AU fic of the Atl A verse. An AN says it came about to make a world where the Ocean killing the Fire Navy was a VERY BAD THING. This gives us an AU where the spirit world and spirit interaction is much more important and is expanded to a truly impressive degree. The writing is also full of good action scenes and small moments of humour, compassion and awesome. This is the good parts. The bad part comes mainly from the failure to have the AU knowledge be taken into account, from bad characterization and from a focus on the Fire Nation that seems to say it is not their fault they turned evil. There were good reasons for it. The ocean spirit part is bad. Only Zuko and the people he talks to seem to know why this was a bad idea. Not even the Water tribes knows what is bad about having a spirit drown people (but Earth kingdom people do?). This despite that one of the most important duties of a shaman in a warrior culture is to keep away enemy spirits/ghosts and the the story says that the water tribes were raiders. By the logic of the story NWT shamans should know how to deal with "enemy" ghosts. But even worse than this is how the author treats Katara. The Gaang does not get to have any of the new knowledge implicit in the AU, but Katara also gets her character changed to a disturbing degree. In this story she treats all Fire Nation the same way she treats Zuko after he betrays her in Ba Sing Se and helps kill Aang. The rage she has in canon after Zuko takes her offer of kindness and friendship and spits on it, she now feels all the time, even though this never happened in this AU. Katara also does not get to defeat Hama. The canon episode with Hama is one that shows Katara's nature and how she recognizes the diference between justice, revenge and cruelty. In this AU the focus is on the cool new OC that deals with Hama after Katara holds her off from killing Sokka and Aang off-screen. The worst thing about the story is what it does to Zuko. It takes an awesome and conflicted character who grows and turns him into a superbender that always knows best. Very soon every growth and revelation the Gaang have is "turns out Zuko was right". The author claims unreliable narrator, but uses 3rd person omniscient narration. 3rd person Omni is the closest we have to author is the narrator. So the author is unreliable. Trollfic?
When it's good, it is very good and when it isn't...brrr
Up untill the point where Aang gets involved in Zuko's colloney the characterisation is (with two notable exceptions) consistant, deep and generally very good- likewise for the plot. However Katara and Aang come in for some vicious character bashing- though even some of these lead down interesting roads. The main problem is the inconsistant use of anthropology - which vears from insiteful and thought provoking to subjective and disturbing at regular intervals. Similar levels of cultural relitivity (violence vs nonviolence and religeon vs family spring to mind) are used to either exclude all members of one culture from wrong doing or to condemn another completly. Furthermore after around chapter 60 major author favouritism becomes apparant annd screws with the otherwise brilliant writting.
Take It With a Grain of Salt
As polarizing a fic as Embers is, I'm going to try to give it a fair review. The good points:
- The author has a very good mastery of English overall, and from a purely technical standpoint the prose is well-written and easy to read.
- The world-building was well-done, especially what with filling in the gaps in the history of the Four Nations and the Dai Li in particular.
- The OC's were likeable, well-developed, and felt like real people—Shirong and Amaya were personal favorites.
- The plot points of the story can often be rather unclear. Often one of the characters will have an epiphany or reveal a plot point that isn't clear at all to the reader, and that sometimes makes it hard to understand what's going on.
- The treatment of the canon characters. Whatever the author may claim, the further the story goes the more it veers away from Zuko being an Unreliable Narrator, instead pushing him toward a Canon Sue who's never allowed to be wrong. Aang and Katara are Flanderized to truly ridiculous levels. Aang, who was canonically an occasionally flighty Reluctant Hero, is portrayed as having the emotional maturity of a four-year-old, incapable of understanding other cultures or thinking about anything more than two feet from his nose. Canonically, Katara was willing to give Zuko a second chance before he betrayed her, was angry and hurt over her mother's death and occasionally took it out on Zuko, but wanted revenge specifically on the man who did it. Here, she sees everyone of Fire Nation heritage as a monster, is willing to hurt and manipulate her own family and friends to get back at Zuko even though he didn't betray her in this timeline, and is incapable of seeing the truth even when it's slapped repeatedly in her face by people whose word she should trust. And the less said about the treatment of Avatar Kyoshi, the better.
Like any of the characters in ATLA?
Then you will not like this fic. Because none of them are actually in it. And everybody acts dumber than the idiots from Game of Thrones. Prose is somewhat decent, though.
Outshines all other fiction; Published or otherwise
To avoid latecomer spoilers, this troper will instead list reasons WHY "Embers" is so mind-blowingly awesome Vathara doesn't write flat characters, period. From the main cast to the villains, right down to the spear holder roles, Vathara gives every character a real, human feel. Flanderization? Not in Embers. Hand Waves, Fridge Logic, A Wizard Did It, and every "Rule Of" trope have no place in this fic, and Vathara does her best (which is pretty darn impressive) to explain canon fridge logic, point out unfortunate implications, and make sure everything is not just plausible, but believable. A lot of world-building gets accomplished this way. All actions actually have consequences. Even if it means disastrous results, nothing gets left as a loose end. (ESPECIALLY if it means disastrous results!) Hero Insurance? Status Quo Is God? Both have been munched by Vathara's thorough Deconstruction. Gambit pileup is prominent here. While the canon plot of ATLA gives the protagonist (Aang) a task (defeat the fire lord by the end of summer) that ends the series when completed, the cast of Embers finds the gambit pileup to be higher and higher the farther in they go. Defeat the fire lord? Sure. The REAL problem is WAY bigger in scope, complexity and overall gravitas; and Vathara doesn't do the cast any favors by leaving a Trail of Breadcrumbs. The crumbs they DO find aren't even in the Convenient Correct Order. Vathara has to be the most extreme case of Writer Did Her Research that this troper has ever seen. She applies an extensive knowledge of psychology, biology, mythology, real world history and an absurd number of other studies to Embers. She will often have a list of recommended reading in her author's notes that she herself has read, and used while writing the fic. To wrap this all up, Vathara's "Embers" is this troper's favorite work of fiction. This includes ALL works of fiction, published or otherwise, and yes; including the canon ATLA series. This troper holds Embers in such high regard that an update for Embers holds significance on par with a religious holiday. Make sure that your schedule is clear when sitting down to read it for the first time. It's a powerfully addicting read.
This is probably the best Avatar: TLA fanfic I've read. Most of the characters are spot on, simply taken to their logical extremes. The author also has a good grasp on Unreliable Narrator, effectively getting the points of the character across.
An unsigned review
An unsigned review
Though still obviously less than half-finished, it's a fascinating in-depth examination of Fire Nation culture, as Zuko's surprisingly good motivations and Iroh's experiences humanize the Fire Nation like few other works, including canon. Don't worry about slow updates — Vathara has yet to abandon a fic, and does have classes. Currently the schedule is every three weeks.