I’m convinced the Airbender fandom is obsessed with Ursa. I’ve read a number of “Chessmaster Ursa” fanfics at this point (the others of which I’ll get around to reviewing eventually) and they all share two things: 1.) Ursa is a brilliant schemer who saw the results of her actions five years into the future of when she performed them, and 2.) Despite adoring Zuko to no end, neither brilliance nor a network of loyal spies within the fire nation were capable of overcoming Ursa’s supposed ‘banishment’ in order to see him again. Keeping in mind, of course, for several years of this ‘banishment’ Zuko was in fact roaming the world far from the Fire Nation.
I admit it’s a gracious portrayal for a character that was treated quite ingloriously by the series. Her survival past the assassination of Azulon is only ever hinted (scenes where it would have been confirmed were cut from the final episode and I’m a firm believer in the Death of the Author), and for all the fanwank I’ve read, I’m still not convinced Ursa’s actions were anything other than the desperate acts of a loving mother. Furthermore, I contend that anything OTHER than this portrayal sort of lessens Zuko’s character arc. By the above interpretation, Zuko’s turn against his father was a calculated result of a puppet master, instead of a moment where the strength of Zuko’s character was able to see past the lies his father always told him.
Alright, enough of my ranting about this. Let’s talk about ‘Exile.’
This is a fanfic that follows (mostly) Ursa’s point of view during the final episode of the Last Airbender TV series. It turns out Ursa has been spying on events in the capital and has come to leave evidence that she is still alive for her children to see. Instead, she bumps into Azula and has the conversation we see in that final episode where it appears Azula is shouting at phantoms. Given Azula’s frame of mind, Ursa escapes with the hopes of Azula believing it was all in her head. But she stops to have a lengthy conversation with a random spy in her employ about what happened five years ago when she was first banished and presume dead.
Technically this fic is well written, no glaring grammatical problems and scenes and descriptions are just enough to convey the scene and tension inherent them. There are perhaps two or three awkward lines spoken by Azula and Ursa’s spy that seem thrown in there as a bridge between this story and another that I haven’t seen or read yet. I got the feeling that they were needed but no passion was behind them because the whole scene where Azula questions and then banishes a random servant felt rote and mechanical which contrasted heavily against the morose but hopeful scenes with Ursa.
Story wise, I obviously question the logic of hanging around the palace while Azula is on a psychotic spiral. Ursa even lampshades how quickly she’d be extinguished by a master firebender like Azula. But if you choose to believe that Ursa was really there at the palace in the final episode, then this act is supported by cannon, so I can’t truly disagree with it.
More importantly, however, I question the point of this fic. A large majority of it takes place in flashback, or is focused on reminiscing and then verbally justifying things that Ursa has done, which seems weird. Why does this conversation occur here, at this time? Why should Ursa (seeing that she IS quite a strategist in this fic) feel the need to explain herself five years after the fact? What are we supposed to take away from this fanfic? That Ursa is awesome? The fandom hardly needs any reinforcement of that fact.
The best part of this fanfic is the flashback where Ursa talks to Azulon. It’s rife with ‘As You Know’ but forgivable given the circumstances. Ursa and Azulon come across as peers in that scene, which is fascinating, that they would so easily guess each other’s motives, and even hints towards a much more uncomfortable fact that could have used exploration: if Ursa and Azulon think so similarly, was Azulon perhaps redeemable or perhaps Ursa just as corruptible?
I understand the desire to ground a fanfic into the cannon of the original series, but this fic shouldn’t have bothered with the frame story. It’s one abstraction too far. Ursa confronting Azulon is exciting. Ursa telling someone how she once confronted Azulon is significantly less so. In the earlier case we could have potentially been held in suspense as to whether Ursa survives her confrontation with Azulon, but obvious in the second scenario, we already know, so any tension is defused.
Still, it’s well written, as I said before, and if you don’t have the same specific standards for fanfiction that I do, I think you could do a hell of a lot worse than ‘Exile.’ Recommended.