Animorphs was a massively successful science fiction series that ran from 1996 to 2001. The main series spanned for fifty-four books, as well as four longer Megamorphs novels, four special “Chronicles” that focused on expanding the universe and two choose-your-own-adventure Alternamorphs books. It also inspired a TV series, a Gameboy game and a line of Transformers toys. For the purpose of this review, I’m going to be looking at the first five novels only: The Invasion (1996), The Visitor (1996), The Encounter (1996), The Message (1996) and The Predator (1996).
One fateful night, Jake, Cassie, Marco, Rachel and Tobias cut through a construction site on their way home. They witness the landing of an alien spacecraft and meet its mortally wounded pilot, an Andalite by the name of Prince Elfangor. Elfangor warns them that their planet is being invaded by Yeerks – parasite aliens capable of taking over the minds of human hosts. In order to help protect the Earth, Elfangor shares his race’s greatest power with the five teens. This is the ability to morph – to become any animal so long as they first touch it to “acquire” its DNA.
Moments later, the Yeerks arrive. Their leader, the terrifying Visser Three, is the only Yeerk to have ever taken an Andalite as a host. The teens witness his morphing power first hand as he transforms into an alien monstrosity and tears Elfangor apart. Barely escaping with their lives, the teens realise that they are now the only ones who can stand up to the Yeerks. It will be at least a year before any more Andalites can come to Earth to save the human race. In the meantime, they must use their morphing power to ensure that humanity is not enslaved.
The first five books introduce each of the Animorphs as they try to save their friends and family from the Yeerks. While they are at first reluctant to put themselves in the line of fire, each of them quickly finds their own reason why they must fight…
Before I begin, let me just say that this is going to be a bit different to my regular reviews. I normally don’t consider books if they’re out of print and unfortunately most of this series currently is. Think of this more as a trip down memory lane. I was about ten years old when I first discovered the Animorphs series and I still consider it to be one of the biggest influences on my childhood. While the books might not all be as great as I remember them, I’m still curious to see how they will hold up and so I intend to review my way through the entire series over the next few months. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the first five books.
I still think that the concept of this series is really something special. It mixes two different kind of story. Primarily, it is an science fiction tale in the same vein as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Yeerks’ methods are interesting because they’re so down-played. Yeerks in their natural forms are nothing but slugs, completely defenceless without their hosts. Because of this, their plan is to take over the planet without struggle. The Predator reveals that they’ve actually been on Earth for at least two years, gradually taking over the minds of humans one by one. It’s slow and meticulous but that makes it all the more frightening. It’s easy to stand up against violent invaders but much harder to stop something that’s going on unseen.
The other element that the story has going for it is the morphing technology. Again, shifter stories aren’t anything new but the Animorphs books really do take this concept and develop it into something interesting. The ability to morph does not come naturally to Andalites but is instead some kind of advanced technology (though the science behind this is unknown). It also carries some strict restrictions. The Animorphs need to touch an animal to acquire its DNA but after that they can use the morph as often as they like. They can only morph skin tight clothing (anything loose just gets shredded) and switching between morphs quickly exhausts them. Most importantly, they can only remain in a morph for a maximum of two hours. This restriction is the most vital to the series as to exceed the two hour limit means to be trapped in that morph forever, leading to some pretty tense scenes where the Animorphs need to find a way to demorph quickly without being discovered by their enemies.
Despite the interesting ideas, the writing of the first five novels isn’t always fantastic. One thing that soon started to wear on me was the repetition. These early books were clearly written in such a way that a reader could come in at any point and still understand what was going on. Unfortunately, if you read the books back to back like I did, you start to realise that a lot of descriptions are repeated again and again. It quickly gets tiresome to read multiple explanations of what Hork-Bajir look like, what kind of spaceships the Yeerks use and the personality traits of each Animorph. As each of the books is less than two hundred pages long, it felt that it was time that could have been better spent elsewhere.
There is also some particularly weak plotting. In my opinion, the first five books varied wildly in quality. I actually felt that The Invasion was one of the weaker stories of the bunch. Although it did set the scene for the series very efficiently, it just didn’t felt very polished. Sentences were short and choppy and everything just moved too quickly. For example, when Jake spies on Chapman at school, he comments that it could take days of surveillance to learn the location of the Yeerk Pool. Chapman then proceeds to immediately lead Jake right to it.
It also clearly took Applegate a while to iron out the kinks in her concept. In the first novel, the Animorphs can communicate by thought-speak while in human form, yet this proves to be impossible by The Visitor. We also see Tobias nursing an injured hand because he was savaged while acquiring his cat morph, yet in The Message we see Marco morphing to avoid serious injury (although his dolphin morph was wounded, his human DNA was not so he could morph his injuries away). I probably wouldn’t have noticed these errors if I hadn’t been reading the books back to back but they both showed a noticeable lack of care.
I personally felt that The Visitor was the best of the early novels. While some readers might not take to its more sedate pace, it made an interesting contrast to the constant movement of The Invasion. This story felt a lot more personal than the other four. Its scope is very narrow, focusing primarily on Rachel trying to save a friend from being made into a Controller (human host for a Yeerk). It really brought home the true tragedy of the invasion by showing how the Yeerks were eroding the bonds between families – stealing away parents and turning them into uncaring shadows of their former selves.
Both The Encounter and The Predator were a little on the average side. The Encounter was hampered by the fact that Tobias is trapped in his hawk morph and is therefore absent for most of the action. The Predator was better but still felt a little disjointed. While the early chapters are very good fun (especially as Ax first discovers the joys of food), its conclusion felt rushed and marred with convenience, as though Applegate had written herself into a bit of a corner.
Yet the weakest novel of the five was definitely The Message. I actually remembered this as being one of the better books but it just didn’t work for me on the reread. Cassie’s moral dilemmas are very heavy-handed (I’m not sure how she could even come to the conclusion that morphing into intelligent creatures is as bad as taking control of a human’s body. The two aren’t connected at all). There is also a lot of silliness in the story, such as when the Animorphs manage to get directions from a telepathic whale. The other books all try and portray animal instinct realistically, such as the terrifying experience of a hive mind in The Predator. Psychic marine mammals seem to throw this out of the window. The only thing I appreciated about this book was the introduction of Ax, Elfangor’s younger brother, who becomes the sixth member of the team.
The strongest aspect of the first five books is the narrative voices. Each of the stories is told in first person by a different Animorph and I felt that this was really effective. The different personalities of the characters really come across in their dialogue and it’s interesting to see how each of them perceives the others (for example, Rachel pities Tobias while Marco is terrified of becoming like him). The strongest voices of the group are probably Tobias and Marco, as both of them have faced tragedies that the others have not. This made me readily able to sympathise with them in a way that I didn’t really feel for the likes of Jake and Cassie.
Yet the most interesting thing was seeing why each of the Animorphs chose to join the fight. This is a running theme in the introductory novels as each of the characters find themselves facing something that makes them question themselves. While the power to morph is amazing, Elfangor’s death weighs heavily on each of them and they’re forced to come to terms that they’re facing enemies that will kill them on sight. Each of the protagonists quickly finds something worth fighting for, ranging from saving the environment (Cassie) to protecting family (Marco). While their reasons are very different, all are valid and help make the characters to feel unique.
Well, this is now officially the longest review I’ve ever written so I’ll wrap up. The first five books of the Animorphs series are far from perfect but they do set the stage well for what is to come. Through the use of multiple narrators, Applegate introduces the five main characters and shows their individual reasons for risking their lives. While the novels felt a bit slow at times, I think that they will start to speed up now that the reader has had a chance to get to know the each protagonists.
At least, I hope that’s the case. Check back soon to find out if my feelings change over the next five novels.
The Invasion can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk
The Visitor can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk
The Encounter can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk
The Message can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk
The Predator can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk