Animorphs #23: “The Pretender” by K.A. Applegate
Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, November 1998
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: To Tobias, no one is who they seem. He has just heard a reading of his father’s last will and testament. That’s how he found out who his father really was: the Andalite Prince Elfangor Tobias is stunned, but can’t show it. Because Visser Three is watching his every move.
Plot: Tobias is having a problem: another red tail hawk is moving into his territory and food is getting scarce. Being Tobias, he’s feeling angsty about this, unwilling to fight the hawk in the usual manner OR the unusual manner (given he can morph other animals an all!) Also, obviously asking for help is out of the question! There is also a family of rabbits in his field that he and the hawk are vying for. Tobias has already ate one of the babies, and knows that humans would have a problem with that. But from his human perspective, sparing the mother gives her a chance to have more babies. And from his hawk perspective, adult rabbits can kick. Just as he’s going in for the kill on one of the babies, he has a flash from the POV of the rabbit, terrified by the shadow swooping in from above. He misses and gets whacked in the head by the mother rabbit for his trouble, while the other hawk gets the baby rabbit anyways.
We learn that this wasn’t the first time that Tobias has had a flash like this; it’s been happening for a few weeks, always just as he’s closing in on his prey. This has messed up more than one of his kills, leaving him almost starving. In a desperate move, he spots a dead racoon on the side of the road, and goes in to eat, hating himself for coming to this. In a terrible moment of timing, Rachel walks up and recognizes him, mid-feast. Humiliated, Tobias flees.
A few days later, Tobias flies to Rachel’s house. She tells him that someone has been asking around about him, a lawyer who is representing a woman named Aria who claims to be Tobias’s cousin. She’s also heard all of this secondhand, through Chapman, who was asking Melissa if she new a kid named Tobias, a conversation that Rachel overheard. Tobias is immediately skeptical. Apparently the woman was in Africa this entire time, but now is back and wants to give Tobias a home.
The next day, the Animorphs take up stations around the strip mall office of the lawyer, DeGroot.
Tobias morphs human behind a dumpster and heads into the office to meet with DeGroot. The lawyer asks where he’s been, and Tobias avoids answering. DeGroot claims that the man who died, Tobias’s “father,” may not have been his real father, and that DeGroot’s own father had an old file stating to contact Tobias on his next birthday to have his real father’s final statement read to him. He then says that this cousin, Aria, wants to meet with Tobias in a hotel the next day.
Back in the sky, Tobias flies away, wanting to be alone, not wanting to deal with the ways that he knows his friends will dissect these events. Wanting the choice, problem, hope, to be his own. Instead, he flies to the Hork Bajir valley where he is surprised to see them waiting for him. Through Toby, their seer, they relay the fact that one of the children, a boy named Bek, has disappeared from the valley. Through this story, Tobias learns more: the Hork Bajir have been raiding a nearby, secret Yeerk facility where they have been freeing more of their kind. Toby explains that this is very important, not only for her people now, but so that there are enough of them that if the world is ever freed from humans, people can’t just overrun them. Toby says that the Hork Bajir trusted the Andalites once, and look where that got them? They will trust the Animorphs, but not all of humanity. They worry that if the Animorphs know about the secret base, they will attack it and thus deprive the Hork Bajir of future opportunities to save more of their kind. Tobais says he will talk to the Animorphs to set up a search party for Bek.
Later, back in the barn, Marco is ranting, per the usual. Rachel shuts him down, also per the usual. And Tobias feels a flash of jealously at their easy, normal interactions. The Animorphs now have a lot on their plate, and Jake has Marco get on the Internet and see if he can find any mention of a strange creature spotted nearby, hoping to get a lead on Bek.
Tobias is paired with Rachel, and again describes her morph to eagle as her becoming on the outside what she is on the inside. Together, they go to spy on Aria. On the way, Tobias mentions the other hawk, but then immediately feels stupid for letting Rachel know about problems as if he can’t deal with them. They arrive at the hotel and begin spying. Rachel notes that Aria is changing into a dress that is three to four years out of date, cuz of course she knows this. After getting a call, Aria heads out and hails a cab, making it hard for eagle!Rachel and Tobias to keep up.
<Rachel, I have a plan even you will think is insane,> I said. <See that cop car? Going the same general direction as the cab? See the lights on top?>Rachel laughed. <0kay, that actually is insane. Let’s do it!>
They careen after the cab for a few miles, riding the the police car. But when the police get a call, it begins to veer away. Tobias spots a helicopter and has another brilliant plan.
The helicopter lifted off and headed at right angles to us. It was goingthe same direction as the cab.<l have another really bad idea,> I said.
Tobias manages the crazy stunt, but Rachel misses. Turns out the whole thing was needless, as the cab had stopped just below them. They find themselves at a dumpy little mini gold and zoo advertising a new acquisition: “A deadly midget freak!” Tobias has a sneaking suspicion, and he and Rachel go in as humans. Inside, the place is as sad and pathetic as one would expect. Further in, they spot Bek in a cage. They overhear Aria trying to convince the owner to let her take pictures, but the owner says he already has someone on the way who will pay thousands. Aria berates him a bit for the treatment of the other animals and leaves. A limo pulls up and she climbs in and drives away.
The next day the Animorphs meet in the barn and quickly decide they need to rescue Bek. They morph birds and head to the zoo. The group splits into two, and Tobias morphs Ket Halpak so that Bek will come with them willingly. The others plan to turn of the power and have elephant!Rachel knock down a wall to gain entrance.
“Hey, did Jake say knock down one wall? Or did he say knock down some walls?” Rachel asked, dripping with fake innocence.<You know perfectly well he just wants you to get us into that place. He did not say you should knock the whole place down just because Frank is a creep and he mistreats animals,> I said sternly. <0n the other hand, it is dark. You might get confused. . . . >
The plan goes well, except that when Tobias gets inside he comes up against three Controllers, also there to nab Bek. Wolf!Cassie attacks, and gorilla!Marco forces the cage door open. A massive fight breaks out between the Animorphs and Controllers, and Tobias ends up shot in the stomach. Jake orders him to take Bek and run, but on the way out he runs into Visser Three who is morphing yet another of his alien monster morphs. Tobias feigns surrender and manages to take out several of alien!Visser Three’s legs, but as Visser Three falls, he shoots Tobias in the back with acid. In a panic of pain, Tobias rushes to a nearby lagoon, but loses Bek in the process.
Later, Tobias blames this on the human part of himself, thinking that the hawk would have been able to ignore the pain. Ax shows up and proposes that he and Tobias continue their investigation of Aria, also theorizing that they found Bek last time by following her as well. They watch her all day and note nothing of interest, other than the fact that she seems to like her hotel, and returns every few hours. Tobias thinks that it might be a “woman thing,” preferring to use the hotel toilet than public ones. On her next trip out, Aria saves a little girl from a bus that is barreling towards her. Tobias sees this as clear proof that Aria is not a Controller. Ax sees this as clear proof, but Tobias is too distracted by his excitement that Aria must not be a Controller to really ask about Ax’s tone.
Later that night, Tobias flies to Rachel’s room. He had missed a meeting of the group, and Rachel tells him they’ve decided that the Yeerks will likely use Bek as bait at their secret facility to try and lure in the other Hork Bajir. Tobias brings up Aria, and he and Rachel discuss the fact that she might be the real deal, and that Tobias could be a human boy again. They get into a fight about the tough life Tobias is leading lately, Rachel accusing him of his rather starving than asking for help. Tobias is defensive, saying that he’s a hawk and that whey they’re weak, they die. Rachel (rightly!) scoffs at this thought. She also mentions their quasi-relationship and how impossible it is now, with Tobias as a hawk the majority of the time. Tobias turns to go, but Rachel stops him, telling him that she and Marco hacked the school records and found out that his birthday is tomorrow. And to come find her after he meets with the lawyers and Aria, regardless of what he decides.
Tobias has a bad night, debating between becoming a human or staying a hawk. He is also weak with hunger, finally giving in and eating his fill of a cat that had been hit by a car earlier. The next day, the Animorphs meet up with the freed Hork Bajir. Toby comes up with the grim plan of attacking the base as a combined force, even if it means killing other Hork Bajir or losing Bek. She states that the Yeerks can’t be allowed to think they can use hostages against them. Jake is surprised by the wisdom of the seer. Ten of the Hork Bajir assemble with the group, and they head out. On the way, one of the Hork Bajir tells Tobias that he fought him once in the Yeerk pool and points to a scar on his head from Tobias’s talons. Tobias apologizes, but the Hork Bajir says he wasn’t free then, but is now, and they are friends.
They approach the base which is located in a valley that is hidden by a hologram. The base is made up of one building with a massive Dracon beam attached to the top, powerful enough, according to Ax, to take out the moon. They come up with a plan to have a handful of Hork Bajir pretend to conduct a raid and let themselves be captured, but they will have Animorphs in various bug morphs hitchhiking along with them. Once they are caught and put in a cage with Bek, Tobias demorphs, hidden in a circle of Hork Bajir.
I looked around and sighed. <No, Jara. You want to turn outward. This way it’s kind of obvious you’re shielding something.>
Tobias walks out of the cage, then hides and morphs Hork Bajir. He gets the keys to the cage and quickly he unlocks frees the others. Everyone morphs battle morphs. They plan on using the massive Dracon beam to blow up the base by aiming it down. They learn that Visser Three is expected at any moment, and soon see a helicopter coming in for a landing. Aria is inside.
Tobias is bereft, furious with himself for hoping, and for not noticing the two hour increments between her convenient “bathroom breaks” at the hotel. He feels that he, especially, should have caught on to this pattern, and retreats into anger, preferring that to the other emotions that are bubbling up. He crashes hard to the ground, completely destroyed by these realizations. Completely out of it, he isn’t able to help his friends who are fighting and is only saved when Toby snatches him off the ground and runs away with him, saying the weapon is about to explode. Toby saves him, then hands him to Rachel when they get away. At the barn, Cassie frantically looks him over, looking for the injury. Only then does Tobias confess what he’s seen and now knows about Aria.
He has no choice but to show up to the appointment, even knowing what he does, that it’s a trap. Not showing up would only confirm Visser Three’s suspicions about him, and then eventually this knowledge would lead him to Tobias’s friends. Tobias goes for a role as a tough street kid when he meets Aria and the lawyer, responding to all of their questions with scorn and indifference. But then they get to a big reveal…
I had forgotten how to use facial expressions. I was used to being a hawk and not a human.It saved my life.
It is a letter from his real father, Alan Fangor, Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul. Tobias is shocked, but able to maintain his outward indifference and sarcasm, saying it’s just typical that his father shows up and turns out to be a lunatic who didn’t even bother leaving him any money. Aria!Visser Three and Controller!DeGroot are visibly disappointed, and Aria!Visser Three suddenly realizes that she’ll have to delay taking in Tobias because she got a sudden call to go back to Africa to reshoot some lions.
Tobias realizes what had to have happened: DeGroot was a Controller, saw the letter, realized what it meant, and brought in Visser Three. Together they had hatched the plan to try and trick Tobias, hoping that he had some connection to the Andalite bandits, since he is Elfangor’s son. Thinking about Elfangor’s time on Earth, Tobias quickly deduces that the Ellimist must have been responsible for erasing his father’s time on Earth. Tobias wonders if he should be angry, but realizes that Elfangor had to do what he did if he was to be where he needed to be to meet the Animorphs and give them their abilities and maybe save the Earth.
Through this, Tobias realizes that he, too, much do what is right and necessary, and not just what is easier for him. He must stay a hawk and do what hawks do, but he will always be both a hawk and a human. He will have to kill to eat, but he is a human, so he will also regret this. He kills the mother rabbit, but only after acquiring her. He then morphs the rabbit, and vows to keep the babies safe from the other hawk.
Later, he flies to Rachel’s room, waking her up. She’s grumpy, but then shows him the cake she made for him, lights a candle, and wishes him a happy birthday.
A Hawk’s Life: As always, Tobias books are packed full of the feels. Through all of this, we have a lot of Tobias’s reflection on family, what that means, and the effects of not having this at all his entire childhood. We also see him beginning to lose his memory of what his life was like as a human. In the last book, he was forgetting what he looked like. Now we see him forgetting his own birthday and what his mom looked like.
We also get into the big conflict that he always has about how to balance the parts of him that are a hawk and those that are a boy. This is made worse by the bizarre flashes from the POV of his prey when he’s going in for the attack. It’s never really explained what these are all about, but I guess we’re left to assume it’s just all in his mind and is an extension of this existential crisis he’s having about feeling bad that he has to kill baby rabbits and such to live. But for a series that has so many other supernatural explanations for “visions” and such, it’s a strange leap to just have to assume that this isn’t anything more than Tobias processing his thoughts in a bizarre manner.
We also start getting the repercussions of the fact that he is now choosing to be a hawk. In his last book he received his own human morph, so he could go back to being a boy at any time, but he would lose his morphing abilities. This gets into probably my biggest issue with the whole series: why couldn’t he just get “stuck” as a human, and then they use the morphing cube to give him back his abilities? I can’t remember if this loophole is addressed later, but it always seems completely off that this wouldn’t have occurred to one of them immediately after getting the blue box back. And then, if it wasn’t possible, that needed to be said right away!
Anyways! He goes on to have a lot of thoughts about where his duty lies vs. his personal preference. The parallels between his choice and Elfangor’s are pretty stark. Elfangor had to leave his life as a human with the woman he loved for the duty of fighting in a war. Tobias is having to choose to remain a hawk, not be a human boy who can be with the girl he loves, because he needs to be able to fight in this war.
Our Fearless Leader: At one point when they are deciding where to look for Bek after Tobias loses him at the zoo, Rachel cynically wonders if Jake’s plan to ask the Hork Bajir for the location of the base is just an excuse to find out where it is so they can destroy it. It’s a small moment, but it speaks to Rachel’s new perspective on Jake and the decisions he makes. She says that he has become more subtle in his decision making, and, from personal experience in the last book, she knows that he is willing to use people and circumstances in whatever way is necessary to win the larger war. We never find out whether this was actually Jake’s reasoning, but you have to think that it was at least part of it.
Xena, Warrior Princess: As we will get into a bit more in the “Couples Watch” section, this is a big book for Tobias/Rachel. For one, when the possibility arises that Tobias could have a home and go back to leading life as a real boy, Rachel has a very vulnerable moment with him:
Then Rachel, in a whisper, said, “What am I supposed to do, Tobias? I’m a girl. You’re a bird. This is way past Romeo and Juliet, Montagues and Capulets. This isn’t Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio coming from different social groups or whatever. It’s not like you’re black and I’m white like Cassie and Jake. No one but a moron cares about that. We are … we can’t hold hands, Tobias. We can’t dance. We can’t go to a movie together.”<l . . . God, Rachel, don’t you think I know all that? Don’t you think I want to have all that? But I can’t keep changing. I can’t keep becoming something different.>
This is the beginning of an ongoing dispute between these two about Tobias’s choice to remain a bird.
Tobias also repeatedly notes the many things that he loves about Rachel. Yes, she’s beautiful. But he also notes that he loves it when she’s cranky about things, says she’s the bravest person he knows, and loves that she’s all-in on his crazy plans, like riding the cop car and trying to snag the helicopter. It is clear that Tobias regularly visits Rachel’s bedroom, and she makes him a birthday cake, regardless of what he chooses about Aria (back before any of them knew Aria was Visser Three).
It’s also noteworthy that Toby, too, recognizes the importance of Rachel in Tobias’s life, choosing to hand him to her when he’s in rough shape after learning the truth about Aria.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie doesn’t have much in this book. When Tobias and Rachel first scope out the zoo, Rachel notes that Cassie would be appalled by the conditions and says that if she, Rachel, doesn’t get to destroy it, she’ll simply tell Cassie about it who will then rope Jake in and that will do the trick. One has to imagine that Cassie was more than happy to see elephant!Rachel stomp the place later during their rescue mission for Bek.
The Comic Relief: Marco, too, doesn’t have any of big moments. In the beginning when Tobias first hears about the whole Aria situation, he predicts that Marco will be the most instantly suspicious of it, which he then is. Given that in the end Marco’s completely right about it being a trap, it might be good for the rest of the group to stop categorizing him as the “overly suspicious one” and more as the “one who’s always right so maybe we should just listen to him in the first place.”
E.T./Ax Phone Home: For the book where Tobias finds out that Ax is technically his uncle, we don’t even get a scene between the two of them after this is revealed! It’s kind of a bummer. Also, we never get any follow up on the fact that it is implied that Ax is instantly suspicious of Aria’s convenient save of the little girl from the bus, which is too bad. Why exactly was he so instantly suspicious? Up to this point, we haven’t seen that many elaborate plots by the Yeerks like this, so how did he know?
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: The description of Rachel’s elephant morph was particularly bad this go around. Tobias says that her morph presented as sudden lumps of flesh just popping out of various parts of her body, like her thighs and her head. I mean, the thigh thing is every woman’s worst nightmare, and the head thing sounds particularly disgusting looking.
Couples Watch!: This is probably the biggest couples book we’ve had in the regular series so far. Cassie and Jake always seem to be still tip-toing around their feelings for each other. Rachel and Tobias seem to be well past that. In the first few pages, we get this line from Tobias:
Rachel would be beautiful in the middle of mud slides and hailstorms. On a sweet, sunny day, she made my heart ache.
Such a small, beautiful moment. But it goes to show that Tobias is very honest with himself and readers about where he stands with regards to Rachel. Further, as I highlighted in Rachel’s section, these two are even at the point where they talk openly with each other about their situation as a couple. Man, I love all the angsty tragedy of these two, and as a kid, I was always kind of smug about the fact that, in many ways, these two had things figured out way before Cassie/Jake. And, even with all of the bird-related challenges, they kind of turn out to be the most consistent, solid couple of the series.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: When Aria!Visser Three sees the non-reaction on Tobias’s part with regards to the Elfangor reveal, he quickly walks back on the offer to take Tobias in, saying that “Aria” needs to go back to Africa on a reshoot of some lions. I take the fact that he chose lions specifically as yet more proof that Visser Three is a closeted cat person and secretly has an entire room full of cats somewhere on his Blade ship.
Right when Tobias goes to leave, he also says this:
“I … I knew your father. We were, shall we say, on the opposite sides of certain issues. But he was no fool.” Suddenly Aria/Visser Three smiled. It was a faraway smile, like she/he was remembering something from long ago. “Prince Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul was no fool. And the galaxy will not soon see his like again.”
Another example that Visser Three not only respects the Andalites to a certain extent (as we saw burgeoning in the “Hork-Bajir Chronicles”) but that he has particular esteem for his once-nemesis, Elfangor. It’s a nice humanizing (?) moment for Visser Three, making him more than the somewhat campy villain he sometimes comes across as, particularly early in the series.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Again, pretty much the entire book. Tobias books are all particularly rough, not only because of his current circumstances, but by the fact that he was the most messed up before all of this happened anyways. The rest of them were leading normal, mostly happy lives (perhaps with the exception of Marco, but even he had most of his childhood spent with two loving parents). In this book, we see how deep the damage goes for Tobias, having grown up completely uncared for and unwanted by his aunt and uncle. In the beginning, he’s honestly confused by why anyone would want to take care of him.
Also, after learning that Aria is Visser Three in disguise, he goes back down a somewhat-suicidal route, similar to what was going on way back in book #3. He has a mental dialogue running about hating himself and wanting to die. It’s pretty dark stuff. Finding out that his father didn’t abandon him and his mother for nothing hopefully makes a lasting difference for him in this manner. Plus, now he has Ax as family!
But there’s also this bit, right after he left the office knowing that Elfangor was his father. He had to demorph to hawk because time was running short, but then morphed back to human.
See, I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry a lot, for a long time. And hawks don’t cry.
For those of you who have read the entire series, omg, the WORST kind of foreshadowing.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Again, mostly good plans by the Animophs. And a very elaborate plan by our favorite villain. He really committed to playing up his life as Aria, what with the set up with saving the child, and the whole performance he put on at the zoo when Tobias and Rachel see him interacting with the zoo manager about Bek. For all of that work, it’s kind of surprising that he didn’t take a minute to demorph back to his Andalite form before racing to the complex when it was under attack by the Hork Bajir. Sure, the freed Hork Bajir had mostly attacked alone in the past, but the Yeerks know that the Animorphs have helped them in the past, so there’s always a chance that they would be there too. Kind of a strange misstep in a plot that took so much work to pull off in every other way.
Favorite Quote: Obligatory Marco/Rachel banter quote:
<We need to unlock the lock,> Marco said.<Do you think?> Rachel mocked. <With your intellect, maybe you could be our “seer.”><Hah. Hah. And also, hah,> Marco said.
And a more serious quote having to do with Tobias’ reflections on war and duty:
I guess it’s true what they always say about combat soldiers. They may start out fighting for their country, but they end up fighting for the guy next to them in the foxhole. I didn’t so much care about the fate of the human race at that moment. I wasn’t human. I was a hawk. But I cared about Jake, and Cassie, and Marco, and Ax-man, and Rachel. Always Rachel.
Scorecard: Yeerks 6, Animorphs 11
A point for the Animorphs for taking out that base. Between everything else that’s going on, it kind of gets passed right over that they managed to take out a massive laser gun that was capable of BLOWING UP THE MOON.
Rating: I always love the Tobias books. He has so many internal things going on. I also love the romance between him and Rachel, and I think throughout the series, Tobias’s books are the most romantic for our main characters. Rachel is always caught up in some of her own stuff, so while it’s there, we don’t get as much as we do from Tobias. And Cassie and Jake have their own issues. I also love the fact that we finally get the reveal for Tobias about Elfangor being his dad, though I think the book would have benefited from having a scene with Ax about this news.
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!