This is the second part of an ongoing Animorphs retrospective - check out Part One and Part Three.
One pleasant surprise about re-reading the early Animorphs books was that they felt more vital than I’d initially assumed they might; each one introducing cool new elements of character or worldbuilding that kept the plot advancing. But after about the eighth book or so they became more of a mixed bag. Some were still essential. Some weren’t, but approached characters or ideas from interesting angles. Others were totally pointless.
I left off my last blog having reached book fifteen and feeling a little trepidatious as the inconsistency had begun in earnest. But, including the spin off books (and considering them in release order), the next quarter of the series contained what I think might be Animorphs’ golden age – an unbroken streak of home runs that made my weekend reading sessions something I greatly looked forward to. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, but the good in this chunk of the series was more than enough to make up for the less than good.
Things started off a little shaky. Book sixteen has one of the best moments of moral reckoning for the Animorphs as they confront a Yeerk serial killer who hunts and cannibalises other Yeerks – by murdering their human hosts. That by itself is chilling enough, but what really makes this book is how our protagonists (who are still kids by the way) more or less accept it and decide to let him keep doing his thing as he’s taking out Yeerks for them. There’s a suggestion at the end that Jake and Cassie might have eventually reneged on that decision, but the fact that they ever went along with it at all is pretty rough for a 90s children’s book. Or for any book, really. It captures what I love about this series and what I think is lacking in a lot of writing for young people today; a real willingness to engage with morally knotty territory and not preach but rather just let you make up your own mind.
All of that said, the above material is only covered by the end of the book – the rest is a pretty par-for-the-course Animorphs adventure, give or take Jake being traumatised after morphing a fly and getting swatted.
To be honest, that characterises most of the books to varying degrees – there’s powerful stuff, but a lot of filler and nonsense too and your mileage will vary on how much you’re willing to tolerate. For example, book seventeen ostensibly focuses on another moral dilemma as the Animorphs learn a way to seriously damage the Yeerks but to do so means attacking them in their most helpless state. Theoretically interesting – but given that the method of harm involves oatmeal being a Yeerk drug, it’s hard to take it all that seriously.
But then we get to an eight-book run of brilliance, encompassing books eighteen to twenty-three and two spin-offs published in the same period. Eighteen takes our heroes off world for an adventure that helps build the universe while also furthering the encroaching idea that the seemingly benevolent Andalites are not as great as they seem. Nineteen might be one of the best books in the series – pacifistic Cassie decides to quit the war only to end up stranded in a forest with a Yeerk controller. This book is written like a two-hander play, as Cassie and the Yeerk take turns justifying themselves and come away with a deeper understanding of each other, suggesting that peace and reason can in some instances make a difference. Cassie cops a lot of flack from fans for her perceived hypocrisy, but this book reads like a defence of her character and an argument for the necessity of the group having a moral centre, albeit a compromised one.
Around this time we also have a book that really surprised me – Megamorphs #2: In The Time of Dinosaurs. As a kid I adored this book because, well, take a wild guess. But reading fan blogs and whatnot, I got the sense that it’s pretty derided. On paper you can see why; the basic plot is that the Animorphs get caught in a nuclear blast that sends them back to the Cretaceous Period, where they have to morph dinosaurs to survive, try to get home and deal with a cold war between two alien races. It’s inherently silly, but the dinosaur angle keeps it fun and fresh – until the end.
Basically the Animorphs stumble into a struggle between the peaceful, crablike Mercora and the hive-mind, warlike Nesk. In dinosaur morph they steal a bomb from the Nesk, hoping the replicate the blast that sent them to the past. But the Nesk, in retaliation, leave the planet and direct an asteroid towards earth. The Mercora, who have sheltered and helped the Animorphs, ask for the bomb to destroy the asteroid before it enters the atmosphere. The Animorphs, however, realise what’s about to happen and the implications of changing it. They give the Mercora the bomb but secretly disable it, dooming the kindly aliens – along with the dinosaurs. The resultant impact replicates the initial explosion and sends them back to their own time, but not before they are treated to a fast-forward vision of mass extinction, including the haunting image of the last emaciated T-Rex wandering through a wasteland searching for non-existent prey until it finally keels over and dies.
Man, this book shook me. I was thinking about it for days afterwards. Applegate doesn’t shy away from the severity of the dilemma these kids face and the writing at the end there is exemplary. Not to sound like a crotchety old guy, but it made me realise that we bookish 90s kids really didn’t know how good we had it. It’s hard to conceive of any mainstream adult adventure story that would be willing to go there today, let alone one for kids.
But just in case you thought for a second that the trauma was over, it’s now that we come to the David Trilogy.
Everyone who read Animorphs in the 90s remembers these. Basically the Animorphs are forced to recruit a new member when a kid from their school discovers the morphing cube and becomes a target of the Yeerks. With his parents made into controllers and his home destroyed, David is understandably erratic. But as the Animorphs deal with a high stakes missions (saving the President from an attempted Yeerk infestation), David’s behaviour turns from mildly off-putting to genuinely disturbing, until the point where he is actively gunning for the Animorphs, isolating and attacking them in fiendishly clever ways that bring our heroes to the brink of defeat.
As a kid, I never finished the David Trilogy, but I so vividly remember the ending of the second book, with Tobias apparently dead and Jake bleeding out after a fight with David. Never reading the third one, the story remained in a permanent state of horrifying stasis. I remember standing in a circle at school as our teacher led us in a German folk song about summer being over and winter coming, thinking about Jake and Tobias, certain they were dead despite knowing they couldn’t be, shaken to my core.
I was eight.
Obviously they didn’t die, but that doesn’t stop the third part of the trilogy being maybe the darkest as David heads the Animorphs off at every turn, ultimately murdering then morphing Jake’s comatose cousin and taking his place in the family. Finally the Animorphs manage to trick David into morphing a rat then keep him in an enclosed space for more than two hours, trapping him in rat morph forever before abandoning him on a deserted island. The book ends by telling us that people don’t go near that island anymore because they’re certain they can hear screaming.
Yeah. Sit with that one for a moment.
Now, had I read strictly in release order it was at this point I should have been reading The Hork-Bajir Chronicles, which as I mentioned in my last blog is probably the jewel in the series’ crown. But due to the timing of my actually receiving the books, I read that earlier in place of The Andalite Chronicles, which for the purposes of my re-read took this spot.
The Andalite Chronicles was one of my favourites as a kid. It’s the full story of Elfangor, the Andalite who gave the Animorphs their morphing power, and ends right as the main series begins. I was really looking forward to reading it again, especially after the emotional wallop of The Hork Bajir Chronicles. But The Andalite Chronicles doesn’t quite hold up the same way. The story itself is kind of all-over-the-place, veering between nightmare tragedy (Elfangor’s friend getting trapped forever as a monstrous, cannibalistic Taxxon) and straight up silliness (Elfangor, a blue alien centaur, driving into battle in a Mustang). But the conclusion, where Elfangor runs away to live as a human, fathers Tobias, then gets pulled back to the war by the all powerful Ellimist, is still powerful and beautifully written. One of the things I’ve most loved about rediscovering these books is how the writing is way, way more solid than you might assume from something with this much onomatopoeia.
The prose also shines in the very next book I read, twenty-three, which fittingly is the one where Tobias learns the truth about his parentage. It’s a big, game-changer of a book but it also finds time for some haunting reflections on war and the truth that humanity kind of sucks. If you’re the kind of person who’ll turn your nose up at Animorphs because of the silly covers and sheer number of books then I doubt there’s a lot I can say to convince you you’re wrong (and at times this series does itself no favours), but even the most hardened cynic has to concede that given what these books were intended for they absolutely could have gotten away with being a lot less than what they are.
Unfortunately the winning streak comes to a grinding halt after that – book twenty four is just dumb through and through; a supposedly “fun” story about miniature warlike aliens shrinking the Animorphs and Yeerks that in practice is just sort of tedious. Then there’s a largely pointless North Pole adventure. But Applegate again knocks it out of the park in twenty-six, another childhood favourite of mine, taking place on an alien planet where the Animorphs are chosen as the Ellimist’s champions protecting a species from his rival omniscient being The Crayak. Put up against the Crayak’s most vicious killing machine aliens, the Animorphs have to find a way to beat the unbeatable while also figuring out the significance of the seemingly awful species they’ve been enlisted to save. The answers to those questions are clever, satisfying and surprising – giving a more universal overview of exactly what’s at stake and, for my money, serving as the clear (in storytelling terms) midpoint of the series. After which the actual midpoint, twenty-seven, comes off as a pretty disposable underwater adventure.
Reaching the halfway point of anything encourages reflection on what’s been and what’s still to come. As it stands, I’ve enjoyed re-reading these books so much that I’ll definitely continue to take my time getting through the rest – I’m in no hurry to reach the end. That said, there are certain things that become a lot more grating after thirty-one books than after three. The tedious recaps. The two-page descriptions of morphs the characters have gone through countless times before. The resignation of getting through another 150 pages of filler. When your series comprises sixty-two books, not all are gonna be necessary.
I’ve also now reached the point where going forward, the majority of the books are ghostwritten. I’ve had a couple already and they were fine, but I’m aware that there are a couple of notoriously rough reads coming up. However the flipside is that from here on there are only a couple of books that I’ve actually read, as kid-me had, by this point, largely moved on to other things. While a lot of major events have been spoiled over the years, I still don’t broadly know how things play out in the back half of the series, and I’m so excited to find out.
Criticisms aside, if anything I’m now more passionate about this series than I was to begin with. I keenly look forward to cracking a new book every weekend, even when they’re lesser instalments. Reaching the point where there are less books I have fond memories of, I think the biggest surprise is how nostalgia has given way to a genuine need to know what happens next.
Writing words about writing words.