Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments of this series. You can read my reviews of these novels by clicking the links below:
Megamorphs: The Andalite’s Gift
Animorphs Chronicles: The Andalite Chronicles
This week, my Animorphs retrospective is going to be looking at The Warning, The Underground, The Decision and The Departure, which are books sixteen to nineteen of K.A. Applegate’s popular science-fiction series. If this is the first of my reviews that you’ve looked at, please note that these ones may contain spoilers. As the series has been out of print for a while now, it’s more a look back over my childhood obsession.
Over the course of their battles, the Animorphs have had many victories. They rescued a trapped Andalite from his crashed ship, protected the only two free Hork-Bajir in the universe, destroyed the Earth-based Kandrona and even prevented the Yeerks from creating an army of Shark Controllers. Yet they are at war and so sometimes things can go horribly, horribly wrong.
When Jake uncovers a chat room full of people who seem to know all about the invasion, he leads the Animorphs on a mission to find out more. However, when a lapse of judgement causes Rachel and Ax to be captured by their enemies, he begins to doubt his ability to lead. Things go from bad to worse as another attempt to sabotage the Yeerk Pool ends in a fierce battle, and a freak morphing accident leads to the Animorphs being sucked out into Z-Space.
All of these incidents prove to be far too much for Cassie. After a final gruesome battle against a Hork-Bajir Controller, she quits the team and vows to never morph again. However, even this does not end well. She finds herself stalked by a Yeerk who has taken the body of a little girl – a Yeerk who quickly comes to learn exactly what she is. Now, Cassie finds herself in a dilemma. Does she go against her moral code and kill the girl and protect her secret, or let her live and risk the lives of everyone that she loves?
If there is a theme to these four novels, it is failure. Over the course of the early novels in the Animorphs series, the team has generally come out on top. While battles could be fierce, affecting them both physically and emotionally, the Animorphs have found a way to overcome their hardships and succeed in their goals. Yet in these four books, we are painfully reminded that this is not always going to be the case. They are only a small resistance movement, battling against an empire of ruthless foes. As powerful as the Animorphs are, they are just teenagers and their enemies are powerful and numerous.
While the Animorphs books have had their dark moments, it’s clear that the series is growing increasingly grim. Applegate does not make the combat glorious, it’s always brutal and terrifying. It doesn’t even portray the Animorphs in an especially good light. Over the course of these four books, it becomes clear that they are starting to grow hard and cold. Their experiences initially lead to sleepless nights and the moral dilemma of lying to their parents. Now, after months at war, it is clear that all of the Animorphs are turning into entirely different people. Jake makes increasingly difficult decisions, Rachel grows more bloodthirsty by the novel and even Marco is starting to develop a cold logic – a sense that sacrifices need to be made, even if the sacrifice is someone that he cares about.
Before I take a quick look at each book in turn, I’ll just make a quick comment about the narrative structure, as I forgot to say this last time. Mainly that I’m pleased to report that the exposition dumps are now nowhere near as irritating as those in the first ten books. While each novel still begins with a chapter that recaps the basic things that the reader needs to know about the invasion (though I’m not sure how many people would start reading a series at book sixteen), Applegate no longer takes pages rehashing things that fans already know, which means that the stories are now get moving far quicker.
So let’s start by talking about The Warning, which is certainly the weakest novel of the four. My primary issue with The Warning is that it has not aged well at all. This novel was written in the days before social media – where websites took hours to load and people spent their time talking to strangers in chat rooms. At one point, Marco even gloats about his state-of-the-art modem and its 56k bits per second processing speed. How far we have come.
While the story itself is a bit forgettable, it did have one of the most horrifying twists of the series to date – one that put Jake in the terrible position of deciding if a serial killer should live or die. While Animorphs has had its share of moral dilemmas, this one is by far the most far reaching. While Jake has shown his ruthlessness in The Capture, when he sentenced a pool of Yeerks to their death, this is the first time he’s had to consider killing a fellow human in cold blood and inevitably causes the first cracks to form in his relationship with Cassie (a staunch believer in the sanctity of all life).
The ethical issues continue in The Underground, which further delves into this Utilitarian way of thinking. In this book, the Animorphs discover a common foodstuff that acts like a drug to the Yeerks. They become highly addicted to it and it gradually drives them insane. Trouble is, it also removes their need for Kandrona rays, meaning that they never have to leave their hosts. The dilemma here is simple. The Animorphs could drive a large percentage of Yeerks mad and thus destabilise the invasion, but doing so would mean that their hosts would never be free again. The fact that the foodstuff is oatmeal (ginger and maple flavour only) is slightly daft, but it doesn’t eclipse the severity of the situation, or the shock that some of the Animorphs (particularly Rachel) have no moral qualms with condemning hundreds of humans to a life of slavery.
While I found The Underground to be one of the darkest and most disturbing of the stories to date, the one thing that annoyed me about it was its treatment of mental illness. Particularly, the language that was used to describe it. While it could be excused that the protagonists are young teens and simply don’t know any better, most of the cast spend the novel making jokes at the expense of a man who tried to take his own life. This includes multiple references to “the nuthouse”, and Rachel’s inability to grasp the reason why anyone would want to die when they could “obviously” overcome their troubles if they were still alive. At best, these comments are ignorant; at worst they are deeply offensive. They certainly left a bitter taste in my mouth and caused me to view the protagonists, particularly Rachel and Marco, in a very different light.
The Decision was the second story of the series to be told entirely from Ax’s perspective and this reason alone makes it an enjoyable read. I always love reading Ax’s narration for the unintended wit of his observations but beneath that, he’s a lost soul. As in The Alien, he’s still torn between obeying Andalite laws and acclimatising to life on Earth. The Decision gives him his first opportunity to return to his people, twinned with the discovery that his Andalite “superiors” aren’t all as honourable as Elfangor was.
The story really carries on from The Alien in the way that it develops the relationship between Ax and the other Animorphs. His human friends still don’t really understand or even greatly trust him. They know that, if given a choice between following Jake and following a member of his own species, he’d inevitable betray the Animorphs’ trust. Yet The Decision causes a shift in this attitude and it’ll be interesting to see how he develops in the next Ax story.
Yet the plot of The Decision is very weak. Little is resolved within the novel. We don’t find out what ultimately happened to Hewlett Aldershot III, or if the attempt to save Leera was successful. We don’t even learn why some Andalites would chose to side with their sworn enemies (especially if they’re not Controllers). The end of the story is very abrupt and doesn’t really tie up any lose ends. I hope that these points are picked up again in the future, otherwise I fail to see much point in this story at all.
Which leads me to the strongest novel of the four – The Departure. This book was, quite frankly, excellent. After some lacklustre characterisation in The Message, The Secret and The Unknown, this was the first Cassie story that really spoke to me. It builds upon the events of the previous three books, and her traumatic experience as a tyrannosaurus in Megamorphs #2, resulting in Cassie finally giving up being an Animorph due to her increasing depression. This leads to some interesting (and rather shocking) reactions from her friends, most of whom can’t accept her decision. Ranging from Tobias’s disappointment (as the Animorph refused a normal life to continue fighting), to Rachel immediately severing their friendship, to Marco who even shows reluctance to help save Cassie’s life if she’s no longer one of them. It further emphasises just what war is doing to these teenagers if they will turn on their friend so quickly.
The Departure is also the first novel in the series to really explore the motivation of the Yeerks. While it has been hinted a couple of times that not all of the parasites are invested in the war, this book marks the first instance where an Animorph sites down and negotiates with one of them. The debate is incredibly strong and raises plenty of food for thought. Despite the fact that Applegate has spent eighteen books making us hate the Yeerks, Aftran is a very sympathetic character and found that I really did feel for her. She was troubled by the act of taking the freedom of a child, yet compelled by the fact that the alternative was life as a blind slug. Her “them or us” attitude really echoes that displayed by Rachel in The Underground, making you wonder how different humans and Yeerks actually are.
Yet Cassie’s actions in the novel are harder to fathom, even though they were very in character for her. Seriously, in what world does giving a Yeerk control of your body – including your morphing power – seem like a good idea? Yet I admire Cassie for her moral beliefs and her courage to cling to them. I previously felt that she was the weakest character in the series but I’m starting to appreciate her much more. The only thing I didn’t really like about this novel was its ending. The caterpillar morph trick was practically a retcon and served purely as a way to ensure that Cassie did not get trapped in a useless morph. It also made her “sacrifice” feel a little worthless on the whole, as ultimately Aftran gave up everything while she lost nothing. Yet I suppose that the important thing is that Cassie was prepared to sacrifice herself, which is a more noble sacrifice than those volunteered by the other Animorphs over the last few books.
Wow, sorry that this review wound up being massively long – I just had so much to say! While these four aren’t the strongest novels in the series, they are interesting as they show just how much the war has changed the cast, rapidly transforming them into ruthless soldiers. Yet the cracks in their friendships are still starting to form and I’m curious to see where Applegate intends to take this over the next few books.
These four novels are currently out of print. If you’d like to read them, try Amazon Marketplace or your local library.