Animorphs #14: “The Unknown” by K.A. Applegate
Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, January 1998
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: There’s a new rumor in town. Someone has discovered an item that proves life on other planets exists. And they’ve been hiding it on a base called Zone 91. The Most Secret Place On Earth.
Cassie, the other Animorphs, and Ax already know about life on other planets. Too well. They also realize the Yeerks will try to access Zone 91 to find out if what’s there will threaten their mission. So the Animorphs decide to pay Zone 91 and the Yeerks a little visit. But what they discover is not at all what they expect.
Plot: As we know from my last rant, ahem, I mean, review, I have some struggles with Cassie books some times. But, while this book continues the tradition of giving Cassie some of the more stupid missions, we were at least spared the awful drama and holier-than-thou whining that ruined the last Cassie book for me. In fact, this book was a lot of fun…when it wasn’t being entirely stupid.
Through a mall-trip-related deal, Cassie convinces Rachel to travel out with her and her dad to the Dry Land (a nearby semi-desert area) to check out a sick horse. But this isn’t a normal horse. In fact, this horse seems to be trying to make a phone call using a paid phone booth! What’s more, Cassie and Rachel see a Yeerk squirm out of the horse’s ear (the horse is clearly suffering from a snake bite), and then almost get shot by Dracon beams.
Returning to the other Animorphs the next day, they convince the very skeptical group that the bizarre horses really are worth checking out. Understandably, the group can’t seem to figure out why Yeerks would want to Control horses of all animals. Maybe it has something to do with the nearby Zone 91, a military base rumored by conspiracy theorists to host proof that aliens exist (I see what you did there, Applegate).
Cassie, Marco, Rachel, and Tobias decide to check it out. In an unfortunate bit of timing between morphs, Cassie, Marco and Rachel are captured by a military patrol and brought into the base. They only escape by morphing cockroach while the man in charge, Captain Torrelli, is away checking out their names and numbers. Somehow he doesn’t get the fact that “Fox Mulder,” “Dana Skully,” and “Cindy Crawfod” (Cassie really sucks in the lying department) might, MIGHT, be fake names. After escaping the building, and in Cassie’s case, proving that roaches can survive anything after being run over by a tank, the group witness a herd of horses with a particularly modest horse that moves to be behind a bush while it does its business. (And here we have the first example of what is an unfortunate trend for this book. Potty humor. Never fear, I will point out the other examples as we go!)
Now convinced that something is up with the horses here, the group decide that they should morph horses themselves to try and figure out why exactly Yeerks would be doing this. What follows is a bizarre escapade at a racing track where somehow Cassie ends up morphing a famous race horse (Minneapolis Max!) and winning a horse race. Ultimately, they all get horse morphs and fly back to the desert to join the herd of the horse!Controllers.
The Yeerks seem to have the brilliant plan that going in as Controlled horses they can discover what information, if anything, the humans have on any alien lifeforms on Earth. To do this, they decide to simply charge into the base as a herd of horses. The Animorphs join in and they discover some strange alien contraption that neither the Yeerks nor the Animorphs recognize. Heading back into the desert, the herd is intercepted by a Yeerk Bug Fighter and none other than Visser Three himself checking on how the mission went. After being displeased with the results, he decides that they should go with Plan B and infest some humans that work on the base. He also is displeased with the presence of other horses with the group, thinking they could be Andalites in morph. Cassie decides to take a dump as a way to convince them that they’re just regular horses. (Potty humor again!) When this doesn’t work, they simply run away, only escaping when some officers from the base show up and the Yeerks retreat rather than expose themselves.
On the way home, Ax reveals that he actually did know what the strange alien artifact was: a primitive Andalite toilet. So yes, the whole crux of this little story is centered around a LITERAL TOILET.
Through shenanigans, Cassie realizes that the Yeerks will likely try to infest Zone 91 officers while they’re at a company day trip to The Gardens. The Animorphs show up, get chased around through a log ride by Captain Torrelli who recognizes Cassie and Marco as “those punk kids.” Finally, they find the Yeerks camped out in the Horror House. They’re just standing around pretending to be part of the ride, including Visser Three himself. The Yeerks nab the Captain, and the Animorphs morph their battle morphs and give chase through the Horror House, and then, conveniently, into a parade. For some not super clear reason, the Yeerks pretty much let Captain Torrelli get away and fly off. Somehow all of this is hand waved away by the general public as “just part of the amusement park.”
So…there you have it. There were several really fun scenes tied up in all of this nonsense. We get a whole chapter of the kids at school, which is always fun. There were some good character moments with Cassie and her parents. And, tone wise, this book was very, very funny.
But beyond all of that, it’s just dumb. The whole horse!Controllers idea doesn’t make any sense given how we’ve seen the Yeerks operate in the past. The campy nonsense at The Gardens is completely wacky. And the fact that the whole thing ends with the Animorphs pretty much hand-waving the threat to Captain Torrelli away as “well, now he’ll be on his guard” is ridiculous. The Yeerks could take control of him at any time! Beyond all of this, the central conflict is around an Andalite toilet. The stakes…they are not high or interesting in this book.
Actual quote from the book:
We had done some very important things as Animorphs. We had fought
some terrible and vital battles. This wasn’t one of them.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie, herself, is much more tolerable in this book. Part of it has to do with the fact that she hangs out with Rachel quite a bit in this story, and their friendship and banter is always enjoyable. Her relationship with her parents remains as one of the more fully developed families in the series. She has a few moments where she again reverts to her “this is all my fault!” whininess, but for the most part it was much more toned back from her last book.
Bizarrely, for a character that is often really smart in other books, she has some seriously dumb moments here. I mean, it was just a book or two ago when she morphed Rachel and was able to lie straight to a Controller’s face in a much more high stakes moment. But here, she has tons of issues coming up with a lie at the base with Rachel and Marco (Cindy Crawford??) and then messes up understanding military time when they try to disrupt the Yeerks’ plan at The Gardens. Seems out of character for her.
Another huge misstep she makes is while she’s at the race track and somehow ends up in the race itself, she goes and thought speaks to the jokey! Why??! What if he was a Controller! The Animorphs never do this for a reason, and it’s such an inconsequential moment, that’s it’s completely inexplicable why she would choose to break this rule now.
Our Fearless Leader: Jake doesn’t do much in this book. He plays his usual leader role, gets exasperated at the banter when they go off topic, and repeatedly tells Ax to stop calling him “Prince.”
Xena, Warriar Princess: As I said, there’s a lot of fun Cassie/Rachel friendship moments. In exchange for going out to the desert with Cassie and her dad, Rachel gets to take Cassie shopping for outfits. Then they go to school and Rachel is massively disappointed by the fact that no one notices. In fact, poor Cassie only gets talked to after boys come up to Rachel first, and then they forget Cassie’s name calling her “Kendra” and “Carla.” In desperation, Rachel pays Marco two dollars to make a scene over Cassie in the next class. Something he plays up quite a bit. These are the type of very fun “real world” scenes that we don’t get often, but are great fun when we do.
A Hawk’s Life: It’s super fun having Tobias around for more of this book! He gets to plan with the group while in his “human morph” at the mall. And then gets to morph horse along with everyone else, too. It’s explained that since hawk is Tobias’s “true form” now, that he has to acquire all of his morphs as a hawk. We miss out on the scene of how this worked out with the horses.
The Comic Relief: Marco gets in a lot of fun quips about “modest horses” and “phone call making horses” etc etc. He also proves to still be the most canny member of the group when he, Cassie and Rachel are captured at the base. While there, he insists on asking about aliens and generally making out like a conspiracy theorist. When they escape and Rachel and Cassie challenge him on this, he says that that’s the only way they would be dismissed. Three regular, sane kids out there without shoes are a real question. Three crazy kids…well, they’re crazy.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: While the group are morphed horses, Ax is able to understand the Yeerks because they are talking Galard, some universal alien language. Another stupid thing about this book: it never really says how the Yeerks are “talking” at all while in the body of a horse. If I’m not mistaken, horses don’t have the most advanced vocal cords…
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: At once point while morphing, Cassie gets to see her hand as just bones. Fun!
Couples Watch!: Not much of anything here. When Cassie comes home late from their mission, her parents make a point of embarrassing her, asking if she was out on a date with Jake. It’s another nice human moment in the book.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: I seriously don’t buy the fact that Visser Three would show up at The Gardens and pretend to be a part of the Horror House ride. It just seems like something that he would consider so beneath him. And really, wouldn’t it me? I mean, come on, the guy is the third most powerful Yeerk in the Empire! Does he really need to come along on the infestation mission of one little human Captain??
He does have this moment, though, when he meets up with the horse!Controllers and is upset with their findings (the fact that they didn’t know what the alien artifact was) and kills one of them in a fit of rage:
<Fools! Idiots! Incompetents!> the Visser screamed in enraged thought-
speak. <Weeks have been wasted setting up this effort. First we lose that
clumsy fool, Korin Five-Four-Seven, when he was bitten by a snake. And
now we’ve lost poor JillayNine-Two-Six!>
The Visser indicated the no-longer-in-one-piece horse-Controller, like it
had been someone else’s fault he’d been lost.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Can I cry at the sheer stupidity and at the fact that the book is pretty much potty humor wrapped up in an Animorphs story??
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: This time it’s the Yeerks with the terrible plan! I mean, come on! Why, oh why, would they Control horses to check this place out? At no point in this series have we ever seen the Yeerks hesitate to just infest whomever is convenient. And they’ve already gotten thousands of people, so it’s not like it’s even that hard for them to do. This just makes absolutely no sense. And the plan to capture the guy while at The Gardens is almost as stupid, too! Yes, let’s make a huge scene with Visser Three and Hork Bajir running around to capture this one guy while in the middle of a crowded theme park! Yes, that is the way to keep aliens on earth a secret (the apparent reason they’re so interested in getting a hold of the artifact in Zone 91 in the first place!) So stupid. Visser Three himself admits that Plan B was better:
“We still have the backup plan. It was always the better plan. We’ll simply
take control of a few of the humans working at this base.”
No one knows why this was ever the “backup plan.”
The level of exasperation behind Marco’s comment in this quote pretty much sums up my feelings about the plot of this entire book.
<You’re telling me the Most Secret Place On Earth, the fabled Zone
Ninety-one, the Holy Grail of conspiracy nuts, is hiding the secret of an
Andalite toilet?> said Marco.
<Only a very primitive model,> Ax said condescendingly. <Since those
days there have been huge technological improvements.>
Scorecard: Yeerks 3, Animorphs 6
NO POINTS FOR ANYONE! BAD YEERKS! BAD ANIMORPHS!
Rating: So, the plot for this one was pretty stupid. But there was a lot of really fun “real world” moments that we don’t often get, and there were a lot of really funny lines and running jokes, so much so that I actually still very much enjoyed reading it. The rating would then be somewhere in the middle. Not great, but its saved by a few things from being a complete disaster.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!
6 thoughts on “The Great Animorphs Re-Read #14: “The Unknown””
I know this post is really old, but I just gotta say that I love this one. I like it because it’s “so-bad-it’s-good”. And the jokes have been burned into my brain forever (ex. “That horse is dialing the phone”, “Fox Mulder, Dana Scully and Cindy Crawford = Marco, Rachel, and Cassie”, “the horse went behind the tree to poo”, or “We feed our blue horse food from cans”). I say it’s good fun, and a break after a fairly dark Tobias book.
Oh, sorry, that comment was by me, I forgot to put my infos in. 😉
I had a lot of fun with this one too. Was really worried when another Cassie book popped up (thus far, I like her a lot when she’s not the narrator) but she was waaaay less frustrating here than in The Secret. Yes, The Yerk plan was ridiculous, and honestly, Visser 3 has become a bit of a bumbling idiot at this point. I guess that’s why they needed to come up with other villains like Crayak down the track. But the horse dialing the phone was such an absurd image. It hooked me right in for what I knew was not going to be a super serious ride. Speaking of rides, I admit the climax in the theme park was genuinely dumb. They should have ended it before that point.
Oh and at one point Ax pointed out that the horse controllers would have been using some sort of alien tech to speak Galad. No need for vocal chords.
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I think this speaks to the quality of Applegate’s writing and the solid hold she had on her characters. So much of this particular story is just so crazy and whacky. But because by this point we all know these characters and are invested in their stories, just going on this wild adventure with them is fun enough regardless of the story points itself. I think this is the problem that some of the ghost written books fell into, There were some other genuinely insane story plots there, but the characterizations and dialogue were not as strong, so it was much easier to fall out of the story and start nit-picking some of the craziness. I’ll be curious what you think of some of those when you get to them! – S
As a kid, I owned the first 10 books and then, when my Scholastic book club supscription was mysteriously cancelled (I suspect my Mum probably just stopped paying the fee) I relied on reading what I could get my hands on at the local library so my memory of the later books is pretty sporadic.
Will definitely be interesting to see if I can spot the difference with the ghost-written books. You’re right – it’s the character work that really makes this series shine. The language may not exactly be poetry (how can it be when you’re pumping out a book a month?) but the characters are so well-realised, it’s impossible not to care about what happens to them.
I may have to revisit Everworld afyer this too. I only ever read the first two or three of those, but I remember them being oretty wild.
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Oh, Everworld. Such a dark, weird series (in many ways even weirder than Animorphs!). I read all of those when they first came out, but I never re-read them like I did with Animorphs as a kid. Might be a good idea for another review series here on the blog! – S