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:
Sorry it’s taken so long for me to post this – life is busy. Anyhow, let’s return to my retrospective look at K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs books. As with previous reviews, please note that there will be spoilers. In case you’ve never heard of it before, Animorphs was a science fiction series for young teens that ran from 1996 to 2001. It consisted of fifty-four main novels, as well as ten spin-off stories. For the purpose of this review, I’m going to be looking at books twenty-eight to thirty-two only – The Experiment, The Sickness, The Reunion, The Conspiracy and The Separation. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started!
The Battle for Earth is drawing on and the Yeerks are being forced to grow craftier in their approach. When the Chee come to learn that the Yeerks have taken control of a research lab and meat processing plant, the Animorphs know that they have to infiltrate both to discover why. What they find is a complex plot to change the food supply in order to remove human free will. However, can they destroy the Yeerks’s research without winding up as hamburgers?
Following on from this, the Animorphs are forced to embark on a number of sensitive personal missions. Cassie’s trust is put to the test when she is contacted by a Yeerk who claims to be part of a peace movement. His ally, Aftran, has been captured and will inevitably reveal everything about the Animorphs once Visser Three tortures her. Yet, with all the other Animorphs sick, it’s up to Cassie alone to rescue her and, to do that, she must morph into her worst enemy…
Jake and Marco face crises of a different source when their families are targeted by the Yeerks. Jake must pull out all the stops to protect his unknowing father as Tom tries to either infest or destroy him, while Marco learns that his mother is still alive and is forced to make the impossible choice whether to risk his friends to save her or let her die. Meanwhile, Rachel is forced to face the danger within when she finds herself split in half. With the threat of the Yeerks developing an Anti-Morphing Ray, the team needs to be more focused than ever. But how can they stop it while Rachel is at war against herself?
Before I begin, it’s time to bring up an old bugbear of mine. We’re now over halfway through the series, and yet the introductions are still in every book. Why? Just why? Who starts reading a series at book thirty-two? Why, at this stage, do the long term readers need to be reminded what Andalites and Yeerks are? Is anyone’s memory this short? While these introductions are shorter than they once were, it annoys me no end that they’re there at all. I just can’t see the point in them at all and have taken to skipping through the first few pages of every book to get to the actual plot. I know it’s a small thing but – gah! – the books are short enough as it is. Why do we always spend a good five pages at the start of each story retreading this ground?
I think it’s best to look at these novels one at a time but first, just a quick comment on the themes. This little block of books is interesting, because it once again makes the battle seem personal to the Animorphs. Over the course of the last ten stories, it’s become easy to forget that they’re all just kids. They’ve battled in space, under the sea and in the Arctic, but we haven’t seen all that much of their families and friends. While the stories in this collection aren’t quite as action packed or dramatic, they do show how the Animorphs have been changed by their horrifying experiences.
When compared to their introductory stories that I reviewed last year, it’s clear how dark this series has now become. The Animorphs are still kids, but now they know that they’ll have to make impossible choices before the war is through. Scarier still, they’re starting to prepare themselves for this. It makes me wonder how different we’ll find them when we reach book fifty. Will they be recognisable at all?
Unfortunately, not all of the books of this series are quite so introspective. Let’s talk about The Experiment before we begin. The saving grace of this novel is that it’s an Ax story, which are always good fun to read. Yet this can’t detract away from the fact that it’s one of the most pointless of the Animorphs stories so far (and, if you remember, this series previously contained a story about a space toilet).
So much of The Experiment is filler. The truth behind the Yeerk experiment isn’t revealed until the penultimate chapter, and a good chunk of the book leading up this is just taken up by Cassie and Marco debating the ethics of animal testing. For the first time, I really got the impression that a ghost writer had an agenda with this book as the argument isn’t all that fair. Marco comes across as being an insensitive jerk (well, typical Marco really) and Cassie’s dialogue is just filled with loaded terms. While she briefly acknowledges the benefit of animal testing for medical purposes, she then quickly describes such laboratories as being “Hell on Earth”, which isn’t a very balanced opinion for the crux of a serious debate.
As the Yeerk experiment ultimately failed, you could probably skip this story will little trouble. If you choose to read it, be warned that some of scenes are not for the faint of heart. Ax’s experiences in his bull morph as he’s lead to slaughter are pretty terrifying, as the treatment of livestock in this novel is very inhumane. Believe what you want about animal testing and the meat industry, but this novel doesn’t portray either in a very good light and it’s not the most pleasant thing to read.
Yet the three books that follow this are a lot stronger. I love The Sickness and would definitely say that it’s up there with The Attack as one of the best books so far. While the series is generally dark on the whole, The Sickness is a fantastic feel-good instalment. The plot this time is incredibly focused, maintaining tension very well. The threat that it builds is complex and multi-layered, with Aftran’s torture, the risk of Visser Three discovering about the Animorphs, and Ax battling against a life-threatening illness. The way that all three of these are resolved is massively satisfying. While the books often have a dark sting in the tail, this time I feel that Cassie came up with the best possible solution to a horrible situation. As the Doctor would say, this time everybody lives.
The Sickness is a brilliant character piece as it shows just how strong Cassie can be. As a book, in parallels nicely with The Solution and makes a strong sequel to The Departure, as we can see now how her act of mercy has sparked the seeds of rebellion within the Yeerks’s ranks. Although some writers (Applegate included) have portrayed Cassie as someone who is a self-righteous defender of animal rights, this book shows that she’s far deeper than this. Cassie is intelligent, resourceful, an excellent leader and capable of bravery that would put Rachel to shame. It’s also a book that adds a lot of depth to the Yeerks, showing them as being more than simple parasites by detailing why some people would welcome and even befriend them.
Following on from this are The Reunion and The Conspiracy, which were both incredibly similar in themes and structure. Both focus on how the war directly impacts the lives of the Animorphs. For Marco, this comes in the form of the return of Visser One – his mother – who has been missing presumed dead since book fifteen. Her reappearance makes Marco wonder if he can come up with a plan that will both save her and give them a chance at destroying their true enemy – Visser Three.
The result is, unfortunately, a bit of a mess. While the last few chapters of the novel – when everything goes wrong and Marco is forced to face the fact that he must kill his mother – are incredibly powerful, the lead up to this is a bit lacklustre. I couldn’t understand why the other Animorphs gave him such free reign to make mistakes. Maybe it’s a problem with the ghost writer but, as we’ll see in the next two books, they won’t extend the same level of trust to either Jake or Rachel. Really, it’s clear from the start of the mission that Marco isn’t thinking clearly. I can’t believe that Ax or Tobias didn’t step up to stop him before things get out of hand.
I personally found The Conspiracy to be a lot more effective. This one followed Jake’s attempts from preventing Tom from infesting his father and, when this attempt was foiled, simply from killing his Dad outright. While Marco’s story hinged on a single choice, Jake’s treads into more morally grey areas. The question isn’t just will he be able to save his father, but what lengths will he have to go to do so.
While it’s not the first story to explore how the pressure of leadership weighs heavily on Jake, it’s probably the most effective. The choices that he’s forced to make in this story noticeably change him. Although both Tom and his Dad ultimately survive, Jake has to live with the fact that he had to seriously consider letting one of the die which is a horrible thing to fall on anyone’s shoulders. The ending of the novel was suitably dark and it worked very well, leaving me curious to see what future impacts it will have on the team. Once again, none of them are shown in a great light by this story. Marco comes across as particularly cold (especially given his previous experiences) and Cassie’s lack of voice shows the first hint that she and Jake could be drifting apart.
Yet, finally, there’s the starfish book. The quality of this series has varied wildly but there have been none that I’ve hated as much as The Separation. Like The Experiment, it’s utterly pointless. It exists to lengthen the much more pressing Anti-Morphing Ray plotline, which is barely touched upon in this book. Instead, the novel attempts to be a character study of Rachel. I’ve got to admit, I’m not a fan of her. You might have gathered this in previous reviews, but I think that she’s incredibly shallow.
This book explores her personality by splitting her into two characters. Mean Rachel is the extreme side of her bravery. She’s rash, aggressive and has no qualms about murdering her team mates. Nice Rachel is more strategic and has a sense of duty, but is terrified of everything, has trouble focusing and would rather go shopping. This just came across as being unsubtle to the point of being offensive. Rachel has nothing about her, apparently, beyond being a psycho-killer and an air-headed stereotype of a blonde girl. From the point where this was made clear, the novel became an exercise in frustration. Neither Rachel could function alone and just kept screwing things up for the rest of the Animorphs. It should also be noted that this problem is very suddenly and artlessly resolved on the final page. It is not explained how Ax and Erek came by the solution either, making it seem really random.
Anyhow, this review is massively long now so I’ll leave it as that. These five books are rather varied, but The Sickness and The Conspiracy are definitely worth a read as they’re very strong entries to the series. While this run ended on a duff one, I am curious to see where the Anti-Morphing Ray story is going to go in the next instalment.
These five novels are currently out of print. If you’d like to read them, try Amazon Marketplace or your local library.