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:
Apologies in the delay in writing this review – it’s been a busy few weeks. This time, I’m going to be looking at books twenty-three to twenty-seven – The Pretender, The Suspicion, The Extreme, The Attack and The Exposed. In case this is the first of these reviews you’ve looked at, the Animorphs series was written by K.A. Applegate and ran from 1996 to 2001. It consists of fifty-four books and a further ten spin-off stories and specials. As always, this a retrospective rather than a true review, so there may be spoilers.
Tobias is left shocked when he is contacted out of the blue by his father’s lawyer. The man tells him that the person he thought was father was not really, and that his birth-father’s last will and testament is to be read to him on his next birthday. He also tells him that his long-lost cousin Aria has offered to become his legal guardian. There is just one problem. Tobias has never heard of Aria and so the Animorphs grow concerned that it may all be a Yeerk trap.
Following on from this, the Animorphs are forced to embark on a couple of high-risk missions when they’re faced by new alien threats. The minuscule Helmacrons don’t seem to be very dangerous at first, however when they shrink Cassie, Marco and Tobias down to their size, the Animorphs realise that the insane aliens are far more threatening on their own turf. Things grow more dangerous still when the Animorphs travel to the Arctic to destroy a new Yeerk facility. It soon becomes clear that the cold is not the only issue they face. The Yeerks have revived a long-extinct race – one perfectly adapted to fighting in sub-zero temperatures.
Yet their biggest challenge comes in the form of the Crayak – the Ellimist’s evil counterpart. Although not able to harm them directly, the Crayak is still able to send his deadly allies to destroy entire species. The Animorphs face their most dangerous foes as they protect the Iskoort home world from the monstrous Howlers, but the fight is brought much closer to home as the Drode – the Crayak’s twisted sidekick – sets his sights on the Chee…
Before I begin to look at these novels individually, I should probably note that this set marks a shift in the written style of the series. You see, K.A. Applegate didn’t write the entirety of the series. After The Suspicion, the only books that were not ghost-written are books twenty-six (The Attack), thirty-two (The Separation), fifty-three (The Answer) and fifty-four (The Beginning), as well as all of the Megamorphs and Animorphs Chronicles spin-offs.
While this shift probably wouldn’t be that noticeable to a younger reader, as an adult looking back over this series, it really does show. The two ghost-written books that I have read so far – The Extreme and The Exposed – carried a different feel in both the characterisations and general descriptions of the morphing process. While Applegate’s morphing sequences could be disgusting, they always made anatomical sense. In The Exposure in particular, this is lost. Wings sprout from people’s backs rather than their arms, and on more than one occasion the Animorphs are described as shapeless fleshy masses. This isn’t very creative and loses the realistic sense of what it’s like to become an animal that Applegate previously tried to create.
The shift in characterisation is a little more subtle and hard to describe to someone who hasn’t read the books for themselves. It’s more a lack of complexity. The earlier Animorphs books could be surprisingly powerful. For all its silliness, the series had some moments that were genuinely deep and moving. Cassie’s battle with depression, for example, or the scene when Jake confronted Rachel about her addiction to violence. There was very little of this in the ghost-written books.
Marco still had his sense of humour but beyond this, he felt flat. He lacked the self-doubt and cynicism that has characterised him up to this point. He instead existed just for entertainment. Rachel, on the other hand, now worries about boys. She doesn’t worry about how her violent inclinations drive her to doing increasingly horrible things. She worries about whether she will be satisfied in her relationship with Tobias, or if she should settle for a normal human. While this is realistic for a teenage girl, it’s not very Rachel. It’s almost like the ghost-writers worried about how dark Applegate’s books could be and made a conscious effort to lighten the tone.
Anyhow, let’s take a quick look at the five books in turn. The Pretender is the first Tobias-narrated story in a while, but I personally felt that it was also his weakest. The biggest problem was that it was more of the same for him. Tobias is a sympathetic character but he hasn’t developed at all since The Change. His trouble in deciding whether to identify as a hawk or a human is starting to grow a little stale.
The plot of this book focuses in two directions. The subplot featuring the kidnap of one of the free Hork-Bajir was weak, especially as Tobias isn’t really present for much of the rescue. The final strike on the Yeerk base is barely described and the ultimate outcome is left ambiguous. I’m not sure how many of the Hork-Bajir survived in the end, or if the dracon beam was even destroyed.
While the A Plot was a lot stronger, it still felt very rushed and its ultimate twist – the identity of Tobias’s father – didn’t come as any sort of surprised as it had already been revealed to the reader way back in The Andalite Chronicles. While this twist is still an interesting one, it was annoying that Tobias didn’t share it with any of the others. I would have especially liked to have seen Ax’s reaction, given that this makes Tobias the nephew that he never knew he had (finally giving him family on Earth). I hope that this gets handled in a future novel.
Yet the tone changes dramatically in The Suspicion. This isn’t the first “light” Animorphs book (and it’s a million light-years better than the alien toilet debacle in The Unknown), but it does feel really out of place following right after The David Trilogy. Everything about this book is just silly and it feels like a waste of Cassie, given that The Departure proved that she was way better than that. I felt a bit sad to see that one of her stories was being used for comic relief once again.
Yet, this aside, I do have a grudging appreciation for this book. It’s silly, it’s fast-paced and it makes very little sense, but it’s also incredibly funny. I absolutely love the Helmacrons. While I hope that they don’t appear too often, they make a hilarious subject for a one-off story. I love their absurd hierarchy, I love how easily manipulated they are by Marco, I love their brash over-confidence and I especially adore their interactions with Visser Three. This book is worth reading purely for them.
Of these five books, the worst is certainly The Extreme. I’ve already talked about the issues with its writing yet, on top of this, they story is pretty slow moving for the most part. While it’s first few chapters (especially the escape from the Blade Ship) are rather exciting, things slow right down when the Animorphs begin to traverse the Arctic. It’s just a lot of walking on the snow and complaining about the cold. It took a lot of time for the assault on the base to occur and then it’s over alarmingly quickly. This was far too much build up for ten pages of action.
The Venber also don’t feel like a concept that could easily be reused. They’re not as versatile as some of the other Yeerk races as they can only function in sub-zero temperatures, dying horribly the second they are exposed to warmth. As the Animorphs are unlikely to spend much time at the North Pole, I can’t imagine they’re likely to face the Venber again, which caused this story to be a bit pointless in the greater scheme of things.
Yet the last two stories brought something far more important into the series – the Crayak. In my opinion, The Attack has been one of the strongest books in the series to date. It was action-packed and filled with well-integrated twists (I certainly didn’t see the one about the nature of the Iskoort race coming). It’s only the second book to turn the focus away from the Yeerk invasion and allows Applegate to begin revealing the bigger picture. While I’ve been quite vocal in my dislike of the Ellimist, I have to admit that I find the addition of his chaotic-evil counterpart to be oddly compelling. I like the idea of there being two massively powerful opposing forces (neither of whom can interfere directly) controlling the fate of the entire universe. I look forward to seeing how this will affect the war going forwards.
The story also has some great character development for Jake. It’s not as heavy-handed as some of the other stories and it’s interesting to see how deeply the battle against the Howlers affects him. As Jake comes to realise the creatures’ motivations, it leads to some powerful scenes that show just how much he’s grown since his moral dilemma concerning a human serial killer in The Warning. While this is also the first book where Cassie and Jake kiss, it’s clear that their relationship will not be easy due to the terrible toll that the war has already taken on them both. This scene is surprisingly powerful, leaving me curious to see what will become of Jake in his next book.
Yet The Exposed is not quite as strong. Like The Extreme, it just felt a bit frivolous on the whole. While the story did have some entertaining moments (I especially liked the voice of the Pemalite ship), it really dragged on and didn’t feel as though it had much of a point to it. The Chee suddenly stop working, forcing the Animorphs to go on a lengthy quest to find their ship and turn them back on again. Yet it’s never clear how the Animorphs succeed in this. They just kind of start back up to allow Erek to save their bacon in the climax with no real reason as to how.
I’m also not really sold on the necessity of the Drode. It didn’t seem to me like the Crayak really needed a sidekick, especially as the Ellimist doesn’t have a counterpart for him. While I’m sure that he will serve some purpose in the future (even if it is just to antagonise Rachel further), in this book he felt like a pointless addition to the cast.
Wow, sorry, this review is really dragging on. While these five books are largely underwhelming, I do recommend The Attack as it added so much depth to the greater picture. Keep an eye on the blog because I’ll be posting my opinions on the next five books very soon!
These five novels are currently out of print. If you’d like to read them, try Amazon Marketplace or your local library.