Animorphs #36: “The Mutation”
Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, December 1999
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: Morphing into killer whales, the Animorphs discover a whole new world where humans with gills exist in the deep waters below.
Plot: Ah, yes, the Atlantis book. It’s at this point in the series where I very distinctly remember switching to this attitude:
Jake gets the always dreaded late night phone call to meet in Cassie’s barn. There he finds her and several of the Hork Bajir from the free valley along with another Hork Bajir that is clearly dying despite all of Cassie’s best efforts. The Jara Hamee and Toby report that this is one of 50 Hork Bajir that were experimented on by the Yeerks in a search to create a being that could thrive underwater in order to again pursue the Pemalite ship. The experiments went horribly wrong and all of the Hork Bajir died, including, shortly following, the one in the barn. When these experiments failed, the Yeerks turned to creating a new specialized ship called the Sea Blade and they will be launching it soon.
The Animorphs jump into action and conduct their usual airborne stakeout of the Yeerk pool. When they see a large, cloaked ship emerge, they know this is it and pursue it to the ocean where they all morph orca whales (because of course The Gardens recently got an orca). They follow the ship down and eventually decide they have to attack it and destroy it and the only real way is brute force. They start going after it only to be quickly spotted and shot at by the ship’s powerful laser weapons. The group takes a lot of damage with various members, including Jake, needing to demorph and remorph several times. Finally, their only option is to all ram the ship at once. The massive blow works, crippling the ship, and it starts to sink. The group follow it to make sure it’s really destroyed, but instead see it come to rest outside of a large, underwater cave where a bizarre set of beings emerge and pull the ship inside.
Jake decides they need to follow the ship, still set on the original mission to make sure the Sea Blade is completely destroyed. They all morph hammerhead shark and head into the cave. At the back of the cave, they pass through some type of force field masquerading as a dead end. Behind this field, they come out in a bizarre ship graveyard. The space is massive and is filled with various ships from throughout the centuries, old sailing ships to more recent Russian subs. But what is really horrifying is when the examine the ships more closely, they see stuffed, dead humans displayed as if they were mannequins in a museum. They continue through the massive cave and through another entrance. Past this door they discover Atlantis.
<We come here chasing Yeerks and we end up with this?> Cassie wondered. <Is this good luck or bad luck?>
<It’s our luck,> Rachel said dryly.
The city has clearly been constructed over centuries, with the bottom layer made up of older materials and the upper with more recent steel and such. The Animorphs decide to morph birds to get a better look. They find the Sea Blade and see the Hork Bajir on board being lead away be a group of underwater beings. The Atlantians look like humans, but with larger eyes and gills in their necks. They’re armed with a variety of weapons, from bow and arrows to handguns. As they continue their search, they begin to hear what sounds like the captured Hork Bajir screaming in pain. They decide that it might be best to leave.
When they land to demorph, however, they are captured, all but Tobias who remained in the air. In their human (and Andalite form), they are brought into the city and presented to a woman who is their queen. She identifies herself as Queen Soca and that her people are called the Nartec. She invites them to tour her city and join her for a banquet, though it is clear that these are orders and not invitations.
At the banquet, the group hears the history of the Nartec people. Long ago, their city began sinking below the water. Eventually the walls they built bent inwards and formed a cave which protected them as the city fully submerged. Below water, they found glowing rocks to provide light and their people quickly adapted to their new life. Ax theorizes in private thought-speak that the rocks that are currently lighting the area are radioactive and that it is this that helped mutate the people into beings who could survive underwater. Queen Soca then goes into her plan to use the Sea Blade to attack the world above. She then dismisses them to continue their “tour.”
The group now knows that they cannot simply flee. While the Sea Blade alone could only do limited damage, there is a good chance that the Nartec people also have access to a plethora of missiles (potentially even nukes) that have sunk over the years. They also discuss why Queen Soca would be wanting to attack the surface people now of all times. Ax again theorizes that the Nartecs are perhaps going extinct due to a lack of biogentic diversity. He suspects they are very inbred and have had to breed with past ship wrekc victims to keep their people alive.
They also suspect that Visser Three is lurking around somewhere, which prevents them from immediately morphing and trying to escape. As the tour continues, they eventually end up at the Nartec hospital. Jake is suspicious about this and tries to refuse to go in. The group is surrounded, however, and soon sedated using tranquilizers. He and the others wake up face down on operating tables. They are informed that their DNA will be harvested to help the genetic cause and then they will be mummified and added to their collection. Under heavy sedation, the team struggles to move until suddenly another Nartec enters and begins taking out his fellows. Nartec!Tobias rescues the group and they all morph their battle morphs and head towards the Sea Blade.
On board the ship, Ax struggles to get through the security protocols. As he works, the Nartecs assemble outside and begin attacking the ship. They fire canons at it and blow a whole in the back end. They also begin squeezing their way through the door. The Animorphs try to hold them back, but start to become overrun through sheer numbers. Luckily (?), Visser Three shows up in a morph that has super-hot skin and can incinerate things. He starts taking out the Nartec’s himself and proposes they strike a deal: they work together and get out of this hellhole. Jake publicly agrees, but privately instructs gorilla!Marco to go to the back of the ship and try to hold the hull hole shut. Marco won’t be able to hold it against the full force of the ocean, but it should work for a bit, and Jake suspects that Visser Three doesn’t know the ship is damaged.
Visser Three gives them access to the ship’s controls, and Ax takes over as pilot with Rachel on weapons. They blow their way through to the next cavern with the museum of ships. There Jake tells Marco to let the hull go and the ship quickly begins filling with water. The Animorphs all escape and re-morph to sharks. They spot Visser Three escaping as well. They make their way out of the last cavern and return to shore. They are horrified by what the Nartec people, especially by their desecration of the dead, but, of course, the fight with the Yeerks comes first.
Our Fearless Leader: For the narrator of the book, Jake goes through very little personal growth or exploration in this book. It’s primarily focused on the action of the story. And look, when you’re going to try to sell a “Atlantis is real!!!” storyline, I get not wanting to cram in a lot more. But it’s always disappointing, too, when we miss out on these character building moments. And typically, Jake, Marco and Rachel often have the best in this area, so missing it from him is even worse.
What we do get is a lot of evidence of how far Jake has grown as a leader. In the beginning of the mission, he evaluates the group and where they are at with the new plan. He notes that with most missions, at least half of the group is having some issue or another (here, Cassie seems to be in it for the wrong reasons, Marco is rather indifferent, and Tobias is also potentially more emotionally invested than is good, while Ax and Rachel are behaving normally). It’s a good example of him quickly identifying where each member of the group is at, and also an interesting reminder of the group dynamics. Thinking back on it, this seems pretty right: it usually is about 50% of the group who has some particular struggle with any given mission with the other 50% behaving mostly normally. Ax and Tobias probably fall in the normal group more often than the others, but the stats are generally the same.
Then, throughout the story, we get the usual Jake stuff with his concerns that he is risking his friends’ lives for nothing or made the wrong choice. However, we never see any outward expression of this. He doesn’t have any freeze up or spirals of anxiety like we’ve seen in the past. Instead, at the very end of the book we get this:
My own mistakes would keep me awake at night for a while to come. But I’d been in charge for a while, now. I’d gotten past thinking I would always be right. It’s a war, I reminded myself. You did what you could, Jake. You tried to do what’s right. You tried not to make it any worse than it had to be. And you got everyone home alive.
This is a very mature outlook on things, and the first time we’ve really seen this settling of Jake’s thoughts regarding his role as leader.
Xena, Warrior Princess: Other than her usual gung-ho-ness, Rachel doesn’t have too many moments that stand out in this book, other than a scene at the very end. When they’re on the Sea Blade fighting off the masses of Nartecs, there’s a pretty badass image of Rachel standing in the doorway alone, using one Nartec as a body shield and taking out tons of others with a single paw. It’s a pretty neat image of the absolute warrior that she is.
A Hawk’s Life: Tobias to the rescue! It’s often confusing why he stays in hawk morph some of the times he does (another example comes at the end of this book when they’re all fighting on the Sea Blade. I HAVE to think that another morph would have been better against the Nartecs than staying in his hawk form). But arc of this story goes to show why it’s also a good thing for him to remain as a bird. As such, he doesn’t get caught with the others and is able to acquire a Nartec morph and rescue them in the end. From his experience as a Nartec, he’s also able to report that the Nartecs are misrepresenting their own strength and that the Nartec giving them a tour is one of the few stronger ones that is able to walk on land for long periods of time. Most of the Nartecs, like the one he morphed, are only strong in water and don’t do well on land for long.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie has a very strong reaction to losing the Hork Bajir in the beginning of the story. She even has to be strong enough to advocate for letting the Hork Bajir die rather than prolong his suffering with extra measures, which is Jake’s knee-jerk reaction when he sees him start to fade. But she then takes these feelings to a very blood-thristy and un-Cassie-like level which leads to Jake placing her on his “problem” list. This reaction seems in line with Cassie, both with the stronger aspects of her personality and weaker ones. She is incredibly empathetic and, especially being the one who is tasked with healing others, it is not surprising that the death would hit her hard. But she then quickly succumbs to a revenge attitude which is another example of her moral weakness (in that her much vaunted “morality” often falls away at convenient (for her) moments.) Marco even calls her out on this poor attitude:
“What they did to the Hork-Bajir was evil,” she said.”Over the line. Way over the line. We need to teach them a lesson.”
Marco said what I was thinking. “Hey, we don’t teach lessons. And we don’t do revenge. Besides, everything the Yeerks do is over the line. We stop them. That’s what we do.”
The Comic Relief: Marco is fairly reluctant throughout this entire mission. In some ways, it seems that this falls in line with his general and ongoing frustration with the Chee’s inability to manage some of their problems, like the ship. After the events of “Visser,” it is clear that Marco has an eye on the bigger picture and partially sees this mission as not worth their time. But he doesn’t push Jake too far and agrees when it comes down to it that he will follow Jake’s lead. We don’t get to see him holding the ship together in his gorilla morph, but we have to imagine that that was one of his cooler feats of strength.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax is the one to put together most of the pieces that make up the mystery of the Nartec people. He figures out how they could have adapted so quickly to life under water (the radiation) and is also able to figure out what is now suddenly driving their desperation to attack the surface world (their slow extinction). The Nartec queen also calls him the other Animorphs “pet” at one point, which he doesn’t take well.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Stuffed, mummified people is pretty horrifying. But what really sets it off is that when the group finally makes it back to the Sea Blade, it is already set up with the stuffed bodies of the Hork Bajir. They had just been alive and the team had heard their screams, and now here they are, stuffed and mimed to be performing functions on the ship. It’s pretty bad.
Couples Watch!: Jake gives Cassie a hug after the Hork Bajir dies in the barn and calls her his girlfriend at another point in the story. Rachel and Tobias also comment on their worry about each other when they are reunited after Tobias rescues them from the Nartec hospital.
<I’m glad you’re okay, Tobias,> Rachel said. <I hate it when you don’t get taken prisoner with us.>
<Yeah, well, I was worried about you, too.>
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: There was a noticeable difference in the way Visser Three’s dialogue was written in this one. He was much more savvy and well-spoken than his usual, corny, rage-induced mania. It’s always a bit strange when readers can notice changes in characterization like this that come down to different authors writing differently. Though his plan to find the Pemalite ship to prove a big point to the Council of Thirteen about his worth seems right in line. It’s also always interesting when we see the Animorphs have to work alongside the Yeerks, and this was a fun example of them taking advantage of the private vs. public thought speak modes to outwardly agree to Visser Three’s plan while also plotting against him.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: The beginning where the Hork Bajir dies is definitely cry worthy. The story doesn’t pull back on the anguish of the Hork Bajir and the sadness of Jara Hamee as he watches his friend die.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: It’s not really a plan, but they sure are determined to make sure the Sea Blade is good and destroyed. It seemed like there were a lot of opportunities where some good old fashioned sneaking would have worked better than what they were up to. Jake’s plan at the end to trick Visser Three about the damaged ship was probably the best plan in the whole book.
Favorite Quote: A good burn by Visser Three:
<One can always count on two things from Andalites: That they will adopt a sanctimonious moral posture. And that when it serves their purpose, they will quickly abandon that posture.>
And for some reason, we’re doubling down again on the weirdness of whales morphs and their “special knowledge.” It’s just as stupid this time as it was the first time. This just doesn’t seem right. Again, getting into the fact that the “orca” here is just the remnants of instinct. Its body is Jake’s body made up of his cells changed to orca cells. There IS NO ORCA. Ugh, I hate it when the story goes down this kind of nonsensical “but are we any better than the Yeerks??” hand-wank path. Luckily, it’s never touched on again, which just makes it all the more unnecessary to include at all.
I had encountered intelligence in a morph before. But there was something new here. New for me, at least. The orca was aware. Of me. Of something, someone directing its behavior. It knew, in some incomplete, simplistic way, that it was being controlled.
Scorecard: Yeerks 8, Animorphs 15
A point for the Animorphs! While it wasn’t the biggest mission ever, destroying the Sea Blade was their prime objective and they completed that, thus at least further delaying the Yeerks’ attempt to recover the Pemalite ship.
Rating: There was no where else to really put this bit, but there was a really strange portion of the book that briefly discussed the Nartecs using captured sailors as “breeding stock.” Cassie even goes so far as to say that that may end up being their fate as well. And then Rachel makes a joke about Marco finally getting a girlfriend. It was….very strange, seeing that in a middle grade/young adult book. I mean, if you actually think about what they’re saying there, that’s serious stuff and really seriously horrifying stuff. I get that the book was using the genetic issues as a motive for the Nartec wanting to attack the surface, but to get into the details of breeding stock and to even bring it up with relation to the Animorphs themselves (who are CHILDREN) is pretty messed up. It’s tough, because one of the things I like best about this series is that it takes a serious look at war and its effects on soldiers. But this was a story about freaking Atlantis for pete’s sake. I think if we’re that far down the nonsense path, we can maybe leave out the speculation about the rape of young kids in this go around.
Other than that, this book was enjoyable enough. I had to make sure not to let my mind turn on at any point, but the action itself was fun. I do wish there had been a bit more development for Jake’s character as I always feel like it’s a missed opportunity in Jake/Rachel/Marco books if they don’t add some good character angle.
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!