This is the final part of an ongoing Animorphs retrospective - check out Part One, Two and Three.
Not long after finishing the final Animorphs book, I was asked what I could read now to fill the gap. A few suggestions were thrown around – other YA or middle grade classics, other long running series that are easy to get lost in over an extended period of time. But Animorphs offered a very specific proposition with no real comparison. A series I was obsessed with as a kid but never finished, a series that still holds up to an adult audience, that is lengthy but has a very defined ending. Fundamentally, the opportunity to finish a story I first fell in love with some twenty-three years ago. No, replacing Animorphs will not be possible. Nor should it be.
Most of the books in the second half of the series were totally new to me. There were one or two I did read as a kid, but not as frequently as a lot of the earlier books and as such the only real memories of them I had were fractured and vague. That said, I couldn’t pretend that the endgame was a total surprise. Over the years enough major plot points had been spoiled in casual nostalgic conversations that that was never going to be the case; I knew who died, I knew what the final moments of the series were, I knew roughly how the war between the Animorphs and the Yeerks ended.
But honestly, the knowing didn’t do a lot to change the exhilaration of those final books. Weirdly, the series I was most reminded of was The Wheel of Time, another long running classic that I embarked on a complete read of a few years back, another series with several rough patches and a complicated final legacy. For so long in WoT nothing of note really happens, so when the final four books slam down the accelerator and the endgame hits, it’s impossible to be ready for it and you’re left hanging on trying to keep up with the sudden, drastic change of pace, the feeling that the author has thrown off shackles, whether self or publisher imposed, and just gone for broke.
The last stretch of Animorphs is like that. The meandering of the thirties continues into the forties. There are a couple of good books in there, but nothing that really stands out like any of the early classics. Then we hit 45. We start with a classic, high stakes Animorphs set up that you naturally assume will be defused to bring us comfortably back to the status quo. Except it isn’t. A handful of pages into the book, a game changer is dropped on you as for the first time an Animorph is forced to tell their family the truth, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to even more gasp-out-loud moments. By the end of that book, nothing will be the same again.
The next couple don’t exactly commit in the same way. There’s some progression and a definite sense that everything has escalated, that there’s no way back now, but the sheer scale of 45’s shift isn’t replicated. Not just yet.
Reaching the final Chronicles book, The Ellimist Chronicles, was a bit frustrating in the middle of an apparent move into endgame territory, but it was another great read, a top sci-fi novel in its own right with some wild, terrifying, fascinating ideas at the core of it. Following that, 48 is technically a standalone, but ultimately serves as a kind of coda to the seminal David Trilogy back in the series’ roaring 20s. Given how perfectly the David Trilogy ended, this would seem ill advised. Given how off-the-wall this book starts out, even more so. Then we hit the ending, an ending that somehow manages to make David’s already troubling story even more messed up.
The last six books are very much one serialised arc and it’s here that any lingering pretence of Animorphs being just a children’s series is thrown out the window. I guess Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant figured that by this point the ones still reading were the hardcore fans who were all in for the body horror, existential dread, terrible moral choices and emotional devastation, because that’s pretty much all you get for these last few books. 49 looks at 45 and basically says ‘I see your massive game changers and I raise you everything that’s about to happen in the next hundred and fifty pages’. I read that book open mouthed, stunned as every character’s life was upended, in some cases for the best, in other cases decidedly not. As plot threads seemingly forgotten near the start of the series were returned to, as character arcs reached culminations.
This basically didn’t let up as I tore through the last few books. The goofy humour and pop culture references of the earlier books were all but gone, replaced by discussions of war crimes, of how much bad you can do and remain on the side of good, whether you can sacrifice thousands to save millions. There is no attempt to soften the characters in these final books and while there have been plenty of moments throughout the series that left me staggered at the fact that these are n theory for kids, the conclusion left me wondering just how I would have dealt with it at nine or ten.
53, the penultimate book, of course ends on a cliffhanger. I finished that one and went back and forth over whether to dive straight into the finale. I had cleared the whole next day for it and felt that I still had to digest what I just read (anyone familiar with the series will know 53 is the real climax). I wanted to space it out a bit, knowing that once it was done it was done. But all the same, I needed to know.
That night I watched TV with my housemates. Did normal stuff. Then, when everyone went to bed, I poured myself a whisky and sat up reading alone. I woke up early the next morning and continued. I took breaks throughout the day, but returned until, that afternoon, sitting on my front porch, I finally read the last page of Animorphs.
I didn’t feel a lot in the moment. I went for a walk. I returned home. Lay on my bed staring at the roof. I started reading articles about the ending then put them away, unable to yet grapple with it.
Slowly, my feelings emerged. The ending isn’t perfect. But it’s good. It’s really good. It leaves you with big, gnawing, frustrating questions, particularly in its infamous cliff-hanger. But the truth is, it resolves everything it has to. It wraps up all the arcs we’ve spent sixty-two books following, and it does so in a way that proves with brutal clarity that Animorphs, for all the silliness and plot holes and filler books, is in the end a clear eyed but humanistic look at what war does to everyone touched by it. Which is all of us, even if we don’t realise it.
There are no easy answers at the end. No hand holding, guiding us through the difficult choices the characters made. The final books force them, and us, to sit with the ambiguity of it all and my god I love that. In a time where many authors trip over themselves to shove unmistakeable moral messages into their books, Animorphs leaves you to make up your own mind on whether its central characters are justified, or whether there can ever be a justification for what basically amounts to genocide. We see beloved characters make choices very similar to ones condemned earlier in the series, and we have to just deal with that.
Here's the big truth, the thing I only now fully understand about this mass-produced 90s series most famous for its tacky covers: Animorphs was never really a wish fulfilment fantasy, a superhero story or a disposable diversion for kids even though at times it wore the trappings of all those things. It's a tragedy. Not because it ends with everyone dying or the bad guys winning or anything that overt. Because we see our heroes win, and then we see what winning does to them.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo tells Sam ‘we set out to save the Shire and it has been saved, but not for me.’ The ending of The Return of the King has always stuck with me for reasons best summarised by that line, for its sense that there is no real reward for Frodo. He gets what he wanted all along only to find that he can’t enjoy it anymore. He's too changed.
That’s where Animorphs leaves us. Even the concluding cliffhanger, the specifics of which I won’t spoil here in case all of this has somehow convinced you to give the series a crack, underlines the fact that war might now be the only thing these people understand. And of course. It's not until the final books that the series directly addresses the fact that they will never, ever get back the innocence they lost the moment they walked through an abandoned construction site and accepted a call-to-arms from a dying alien. The Animorphs save the world by sacrificing their souls. And the implications of that are left for the audience to process.
I don’t have much else to say about Animorphs. Four blog posts, a reading guide and a two-hour lecture to my reluctant housemates are collectively more than enough. But I guess what I want to conclude with is this; for all the garbage books and frustrating logic leaps, I am so glad that a bout of nostalgia earlier in the year led me to re-read this series. Sometimes your fond memories of something you loved as a kid don’t match the reality of that something. But sometimes the reality is even better.
Writing words about writing words.