Megamorphs #4: Back to Before

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:

Animorphs:  1-5 | 6-10 | 11-15 | 16-19 | 20-22 | 23-27 | 28-32 | 33-37 | 38-41

Megamorphs: The Andalite’s Gift | In the Time of Dinosaurs | Elfangor’s Secret

Animorphs Chronicles: The Andalite Chronicles | The Hork-Bajir Chronicles | Visser

This review has been a long time coming, but I think it’s about time that I took a look at the final Megamorphs book. In case you haven’t read any of the previous instalments of my retrospective, this series is a spin-off of K.A. Applegate’s epic Animorphs series. There are four of these books in total and they stand out from the main series as they tend to be a little longer and contain more narrators. For today’s review, I’m going to be talking about Back to Before which was first published in 2000. In terms of chronology, it should be noted that this novel is designed to be read after The Other (the 40th book in the main series).

Jake just wants the war to be over. After a particularly brutal battle, he reaches his limit and finally considers throwing in the towel. It’s in his moment that the Drode appears before him. It brings a deal from the Crayak. His master has the power to erase all the horrors that Jake has experienced, to make it so the Animorphs never met Elfangor and got their powers. All he has to do is say please.

When Jake awakes, it is like nothing ever happened. He just gets on with his normal teenage life with no clue that things could have been very different. But then the changes start happening. Cassie begins to have dreams of a strange blue creature trapped beneath the sea and Tobias, with no one else to protect him, begins to take an interest in The Sharing.

When Marco comes face to face with his supposedly dead mother and gets fired at by thugs wielding ray guns, the teens suddenly realise that nothing is quite right. But, as bug fighters fill the skies and the full invasion begins, what can a group of ordinary kids hope to do to stop it?

Back to Before was certainly the most emotional of the Megamorphs series, if a little predictable. The plot of this story was a little bit tried and tested. It’s the It’s A Wonderful Life effect, where a character is shown what the world would be like if he wasn’t in it. Well, kind of anyway. In this case, it takes the form of a divergent timeline in which the Animorphs never visit the construction site on the night that Elfangor crash lands, thus never gaining the ability to form a resistance movement against the Yeerks.

While this is an interesting idea, I never really felt as though the novel embraced it. This novel focuses on how everything on Earth goes to Hell within about forty days. This roughly seems to cover the timeline of the first four books. Thinking back over the early novels, you may remember that the Animorphs early missions tended to end in disaster. Their first major victory was the destruction of the Earth-based Kandrona, and this didn’t occur until book seven.

I don’t really understand what went different in this timeline. Was it the fact that Tobias became the host of one of Visser One’s lackies? This seems unlikely, as surely in the regular timeline they would have just infested someone else. Was it that Ax made himself seen on national television? Again, unlikely. Visser Three could have easily just made that go away. In light of this, I’m not 100% sure of why Visser Three suddenly decided to go all out in his invasion plan. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if there was more of a butterfly effect, such as seeing that the Animorphs absence caused a dynamic shift in the Visser’s plans.

Yet the book is well paced and certainly kept my attention throughout. One of the things that was most intriguing was seeing how the protagonists made different choices when stripped of their knowledge of the invasion. The character most effected by this is Tobias. Without the ability to morph binding him to the rest of the group, he quickly loses his friendship with Jake and thus is the one who is drawn in by The Sharing. Of all the Animorphs, I would have thought that Jake would have been the most likely to become a Controller (because of Tom), but it makes sense that Tobias would be attracted to the sense of family that The Sharing promotes.

However, it was the opening chapters that I found to be the most powerful. It’s here where we see the event that breaks Jake – the aftermath of a bloody battle where he is forced to watch a frightened Controller die in agony. It’s a gruesome and frightening image which helps to illustrate the fact that the rebellion is not a game. It’s a deadly battle with high stakes, being fought by ordinary teenagers who should never have to see such horrible things. The years of fighting have now ground Jake down to nothing and he’s at the stage where he will accept any way out, even if it means giving up on their mission.

While this might sound like a pretty solid read, Back to Before is not without its problems. The most major of these for me is the deus ex machina used to resolve everything. Time travel stories have never been one of Applegate’s strong suits as she always seems to struggle to find a way to put everything back to the way it should be. As with some of the previous attempts like The Forgotten, there is no clear way to break the timeline and so she resorts to a very abrupt deus ex machina in the penultimate chapter which forces everything artlessly back to normal. It also erases the memory of the events of this story from the minds of everyone except for Cassie (who retains a dim memory of it), which makes this book entirely pointless in the greater scheme of things as none of the Animorphs learn anything from it.

The plot is also a lot more straightforward than the other Animorphs books. There is no morphing, hair-brained plots or sudden battles. As only Ax has the ability to morph in this story, it seems amazing that the protagonists live as long as they do. Really, the only powers that they possess are the ability to run away which does get a little tiring after a while. Especially because, even though some of the Animorphs do die in this story, you know that it can’t possibly be permanent. The reader knows that there are still thirteen novels left in the main series and so everything must be eventually set right again.

I think I’ve probably said enough. Back to Before isn’t a bad book, but it’s also nothing really special. The plot is a bit tried-and-tested and its wrap up is weak. Still, it has been one of the better specials that I’ve reviewed so far and it is interesting to think about how the entire invasion could have wound up so different if five kids hadn’t taken a shortcut through a construction site on one fateful night.

Back to Before is currently out of print. If you’d like to read it, try Amazon Marketplace or your local library.

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