The Great Animorphs Re-Read #54: “The Beginning”

125344._SX318_Animorphs #54: “The Beginning”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, May 2001

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: This is it! Yeerk ships are pouring in from all ends of the galaxy. An all-out war for the planet has finally begun. The winner will control Earth. The loser will perish. The President of the United States is a Controller, and the Animorphs have been forced to rally their own military force of 5,000. Will this be enough to defeat the seemingly endless onslaught of Yeerks? Rachel has always prepared for the final battle. But is she too eager? It’s her moment…and this time there will be no compromise!

Narrator: All

Plot: I again don’t have a quippy intro for this book. I will say that while I remember the major events at the beginning and end, I had very little memory of the details in between. Pretty sure it’s because as a kid I was completely traumatized by both of those events and blocked out the rest of the book.

So. Many. Tears.

Rachel is on the Blade ship. She knows what she has to do, and she’s afraid. But there was a reason she was picked for this mission and so she continues. She demorphs and remorphs grizzly, raining terror down on the Blade ship crew. But with all of the Yeerks having morphing abilities, she is critically injured, just shy of her mission. Tobias, watching through the view screen from the Pool ship, navigates a now-blinded Rachel to cobra!Tom who she finally kills. She demorphs to her vulnerable human self. Looking back at her friends on the other ship, she tells Tobias she loves him and is killed with one blow by a polar bear!Yeerk. The Blade ships speeds away, lost to space.

Back on the main ship, the Animorphs are all in various states of shock. Toby arrives to let them know that the remaining Yeerks want to surrender. Cassie and Marco manage to prod Jake back into action who meets with the Yeerks’ temporary leader who says they will surrender if given the ability to morph into another form permanently. Jake agrees, though Ax reminds him that the Andalites may feel differently and now that they’ve lost their blue box with the Blade ship, they don’t have many options.

Jake orders Ax to open a communication portal to the Andalite fleet and one to the public channel on the Andalite home world. He also forces Visser One to leave Alloran and be trapped in a carrying case. The Andalite commander is gruff as expected, distrustful that the whole thing isn’t a Yeerk trick. But with the Andalite world viewing them, they have to agree to meet peaceably. Once on the Pool ship, the Andalite War Prince informs Jake that they absolutely will not abide by the deals Jake has struck with the surrendered Yeerks and Taxxons. With nothing left to bargain, they are in a bind, until Ax steps up and calls a challenge. He needs the support of a Prince to do this, however, but Alloran throws his weight behind him.

The other Animorphs learn that a challenge allows a soldier to confront a leadership decision that they feel is against the common interests of the Andalite people as a whole. The consequences are dire if the judging is ruled against them. But it is also noted that the Andalites are wary and conservative when it comes to these things, so a challenge is only likely to go forward fully if the Andalite leadership think they have a strong case to win. Turns out they don’t think this, and the Animorphs are given 4 morphing cubes to fulfill the peace agreements with the Yeerks and Taxxons.

They then land in D.C. and the truth comes out to everyone. Speeches are made, and at some point Tobias flies off. A few days later, the Andalites bring in the body of a human girl they found floating in space. It’s Rachel. There is a massive funeral held for her and a monument built. Tobias shows up and flies away with the ashes.

One year later. Tobias has not been seen since Rachel’s funeral. Ax has been made a Prince and is the diplomat between Earth and the Andalites. Marco has found fame as the one Animorph who is capable of talking about the war experience in a way the public appreciates (Jake is too weighed down by it all still and Cassie moralizes too much about the ethics of fighting defensively). Cassie is helping work with the free Hork Bajir as they are set up in Yellowstone. She also helped the Taxxons all morphs large snakes and be relocated to the rain forest. Jake is struggling with depression and PTSD. Marco, who has been spying on him in his spare time, thinks that he hasn’t morphed since the war ended but has been heading to Rachel’s monument and spending a lot of time just sitting there, staring off. They theorize that he might be hoping Tobias will show up.

It all comes to a head at the trial for Visser One. Jake is called onto the stand and crumbles after the defense attorney calls him a war criminal and mass murderer himself for what he did to the Yeerks in the pool he flushed into space. When a break is called, the other three Animorphs capture Jake and dump him into the freezing ocean, forcing him to morph dolphin. He finally releases a bit and plays in the water. Back on shore, the other three confront him. Cassie tells him that they are all complicit and have had to come up with ways to manage it, and that the victim is not the same as the perpetrator. Marco says it doesn’t matter how vicious Jake’s thoughts were when flushing the Yeerks, he was still operating as a victim defending his home. Jake is unsure about any of this, but begins to work through it somewhat. The trial ends and Visser One is sentenced to hundreds of years in prison.

Two years after this. Cassie has moved into a subcabinet role with the federal government and continues to work with the free Hork Bajir. She has also begun dating someone, knowing that her relationship with Jake is over. Marco is thriving in his fame, though also showing signs of boredom (morphing lobster to retrieve keys from the bottom of his pool). And Jake has written a book (Marco and Cassie did earlier as well) which he sees as a way of bringing in the stories of the “lost Animorphs,” Rachel and Tobias, more. He’s also secretly training a select group of military personnel from a bunch of different governments to deal with the increasing terrorism that has come from aliens showing up on earth (all sorts of conspiracies, ranging from religious fanaticism to species-ism, etc.) Ax has been patrolling the galaxy as the Prince of his own ship. He comes across a strange, abandoned space craft and leads a crew aboard.

Jake is approached secretly by a group from the Andalite high command. They report that an Andalite has returned from Ax’s ship. The ship had been destroyed and Ax is missing. When he boarded the strange vessel, they found animal DNA and polar bear hairs. Jake immediately connects this with the Yeerk who killed Rachel on the Blade ship. The Blade ship itself then appeared in the wreckage and destroyed the Andalite vessel and shot away. The sole Andalite survivor claims that he heard a fragment of thought speak from Ax and all he said was “Jake.” But Ax has gone missing in a part of space that is home to a hostile race of aliens with whom the Andalites have agreed to not interact; they leave the Andalites alone if the Andalites leave them alone. Enter in humans and a stolen Yeerk craft.

Jake first approaches Cassie. But he’s come to tell her that she’s off the hook. She’s serving an important role, helping the free Hork Bajir, and she’s created a new life for herself. Instead, he knows that she must know where Tobias is and wants directions. He then finds Tobias in a meadow. He’s been camped out for years, living a solitary life as a hawk and mourning Rachel. Tobias’s first instinct is to blow off Jake, but when he hears that Ax is missing, he signs on. Marco is the last to be approached. He points out what’s really going on for Jake: that this is the life line that Jake was waiting for. And that Jake has been internalizing and doubting his every decision that was made during the war with the Yeerks and that this is dangerous. He points out that the only reason they won, 6 kids against an alien empire, is because Jake didn’t flinch and made the reckless, brave, and ruthless decisions. If he tries to fight a “perfect” fight or correct past wrongs, that’s what will get them all killed this go around. Jake doesn’t seem to have an answer for this, but Marco signs on anyways.

Jake enlists two of his students to round out their numbers and they steal the Yeerk ship (it has been oddly modified for humans and stashed with supplies; the Andalites’ work though they will never claim it). They name the ship “Rachel” and head off into space. It’s a long journey, and they’re out there for 6 months before they finally are approached by the Blade ship itself.

The polar bear!Controller opens the communication portal to them. They claim to be Yeerk refugees who have been looking for the Blade ship for the past 3 years. The leader seems to be falling for it, but says he has to check with with The One who is running things now. His image goes blurry and he seems to be suddenly spiced together with a bunch of other beings, including one that looks like Ax. A new voice emerges and he says he knows who they are and that Jake should reveal himself. He says that he has “absorbed” Ax and that they are next. Their ship clearly out-powers the Rachel, so Jake looks at Marco and asks if he’s ready for a reckless decision. He then orders them to ram the Blade ship. THE END.

Our Fearless Leader: While this is technically a book featuring all of the characters as narrators, at its core, this is a Jake book. Which is really only right and necessary, all things considered. He has had the biggest arc throughout the series, and he’s the one to come out of this all with the greatest burden. And we really see all stages of things for Jake as this book plays out.

The initial moments after Rachel’s death, you can tell that things are a bit surreal for Jake. Marco and Cassie have to pull him back into things and we see Jake’s amazing leadership on display once again when he deals with the Andalites (though Marco also has to keep pushing him through it to some extent, as the exhaustion of finally winning is also setting in).

And then afterwards…Through the other characters we see how far Jake falls. It’s an excellent portrayal of depression and PTSD, especially given how little page time is devoted to it. He withdrawn, doesn’t morph, doesn’t keep in touch with his friends. And then during the trial for Visser One, he is almost overpowered with flashbacks after being called a war criminal and mass murder himself. Even after he morphs dolphin and talks to his friends, it’s clear that the burden hasn’t been lifted. He’s again more capable of shouldering it, but it’s still there and he’s still just able to keep moving.

During the next two years, we see him settle in somewhat with the new role teaching others to morph. He also notes that writing his autobiography is helpful as he feels able to give a better voice to Rachel and Tobias, the two Animorphs that public knows little about. But the most striking thing is the notable difference that even the reader can perceive between the Jake we see throughout most of the book, and the Jake who seems to re-emerge after he’s given the mission to find Ax. Cassie and Marco both note that it’s a lifeline for Jake, to be called back to war. For all the talk about Rachel’s inability to live without it, it’s pretty clear that it was a family trait (Cassie even remarks that he has a smirk just like Rachel’s). And then it’s incredibly gratifying to see him back in his element on the Rachel making the typical, foolishly brave, quintessential Animorphs game call to ram the Blade ship.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Man, these first Rachel chapters are just as rough as I remember. Let’s face it, I think I probably cried even more this go around than as a kid. Sorry, not sorry. The parts about how she knows that this was the role she was born to play, and yet even so, she’s scared. And then when blinded how she asks Tobias for help, and he at first confuses it for help out of the situation. But then realizes that she just wants help to finish, to kill Tom before she goes out. And her last moments looking back at her friends, telling Tobias that she loves him.

The replay of the scene with the Ellimist is just as striking a second go-around. Like I said when I re-read “The Ellimist Chronicles,” I’m not sure whether kid-me put two-and-two together that it was Rachel, but on this re-read I clearly knew it was her. So the first read of that scene, it’s powerful knowing that it’s Rachel. But this one is all the stronger as it plays out immediately after this ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice. I’m can’t help it, I have to quote it again. This has to be one of the best quotes in the entire series:

“Answer this, Ellimist: Did I .. . did I make a difference? My life, and my .. . my death . . . was I worth it? Did my life really matter?”

“Yes,” he said. “You were brave. You were strong. You were good. You mattered.”

“Yeah. Okay, then. Okay, then.”

A Hawk’s Life: Probably one of my biggest critiques of this book is the lack of Tobias chapters. I think we get only one at the very end when Jake comes looking for him. This is a shame on so many fronts. The first being that Tobias arguably has the most solid collection of books in the series out of all of the characters, so there’s clearly something particularly compelling about him and his narrative. And then second, we never get to see his immediate reaction and feelings to Rachel’s death. We know he demorphs to be human when she sees him the last time and so that he can cry. We know he takes her ashes. And we know that to some extent he’s kept up with Cassie enough for her to know how to direct Jake to him. But by the time we actually hear from him, it’s been three years. It’s good stuff, but I feel like even one more chapter, perhaps set during the “one year after” section would have rounded it out a bit better.

Also, in the re-read, I caught a very dark line that I didn’t notice before. When they’re all at Rachel’s funeral, Cassie mentions looking to the sky to see if Tobias was there, noting that “if he was still alive, he’d come.” What. If he was still alive?! In one throw away line it seems to be saying that at least Cassie thought that there was a chance Tobias would return to his semi-suicidal ways and off himself after Rachel’s death. This is so, so dark. And I didn’t even notice it the first time around. But there is is. IF he was still alive.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Marco considers himself and Cassie as the two “survivors” of the war. Ax is pulled back away. Jake doesn’t seem to recover. Tobias disappears. And Rachel died. These two are the only ones who seem to thrive and find places for themselves in the world. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that Cassie’s is a more stable, healthy version of a life. She is able to use her fame to further the cause of the free Hork Bajir, the Yeerk rebels, and the Taxxons. She ties this all together with her love of animals and conservation by helping set up homes for them in Yellowstone and the rain forest. She’s healthy enough to recognize that her relationship with Jake is doomed and to move on to find a new, seemingly solid, relationship. She even goes to school to pursue her dream of being a veterinarian. All this adds up to Jake making the call for her to stay behind. She immediately offers to go with him, but also doesn’t fight him much on staying back. He notes that she is needed; that the free Hork Bajir was their only clear win and she needed to protect it.

It’s all well and good, and it makes sense. But again, I was left feeling a bit underwhelmed by her role. All and all, she felt too passive in this last book. We only get a few lines about the loss of Rachel, and Cassie being her best friend, I would have liked more from her with this. And then her relationship with Jake just…fades away. I get why Jake wouldn’t call her; he’s falling apart. But Cassie, the girl who gave up the morphing cube to “save” Jake…she just lets him fade away completely? To the point that she’s asking Marco how he’s doing?? And Marco is the one who has been morphing and spying on him? It seems out of character that she would step back this far.

And, even if I just said how it makes sense for her to stay behind, a part of me still wishes that she would have went. That as an adult she would have recognized more than ever the important role that she played and  how needed she is as a member of the team to balance the others out. And, like Applegate says in her afterword, she wanted the Animorphs to go out as they came in: fighting. I wanted that for all of the Animorphs, no matter how much sense it made for Cassie to stay behind.

The Comic Relief: Marco ends up with quite a few chapters, almost serving as the primary narrator it seems after the war is over. But amidst all of the glam, cars (nice call back here, that he buys a bunch of fancy cars), TV shows, and such, it was great to finally see a return to the clever Marco of old. In the first negotiations with the Andalites, for example, he’s the one to keep pushing Jake through, knowing that if they come off as weak in this exchange, humanity will always be under the thumb of the Andalites going forward. It’s nice to see a return to his good comedic lines too:

“I guess we won, Ax.”

<Yes.>

“Shouldn’t someone be singing ‘God Bless America’?”

And as I pointed out in Cassie’s section, it is Marco who keeps an eye on Jake and works to keep up his friendship with him. Spying on Jake seems exactly up his alley. He’s also the one not to mince words when Jake finally approaches him at the end. He’s quick to tell Jake that the public has it wrong: Marco was the tactician of the group, not Jake. What Jake had going for him was his determination, bravery, and willingness to just move forward with the options he had, not second guessing himself. Marco is pretty frank about the fact that Jake’s habit now of looking back on the war and over-analyzing all of his mistakes is the trait that will get the group killed going forward.

I think Marco’s life after the war is one of the more interesting representations. On the surface, it could seem very shallow, silly, and almost like a caricature of the character. But at one point in his narrative, Marco himself says that he expects the reader is waiting for him to say his life was meaningless and he was just filling a hole with all of these superficial things. But no, he says he was happy. I think this is a good balance to Jake, Cassie, and Ax. They all show different ways of coming out of the war. And Marco’s makes sense. One of the reasons he was successful with his strategies and ruthlessness was his ability to compartmentalize things. That same trait it seems could allow him to come out of a war like this and be able to hop into a celebrity life like this and enjoy it. Everything is in its own tidy box. Though we do see, after three years, that he is at least somewhat bored, what with morphing lobster for no really good reason. And it’s not like that was a favorite morph of his or anything.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Without paging back through my book, I seem to remember only one chapter from Ax’s perspective as well, which is a shame. We don’t get anything from him immediately after Rachel’s death when he is negotiating with the Andalites or during the trial for Visser One, both of which seem like huge missed opportunities. I really liked the concept of the “challenge” and the way it played out, especially with Alloran stepping in to support them. It would have been great to get into Ax’s head during all of that. There’s a bit where they Andalites go off to confer and it seems like that would have been a perfect place to cut to Ax so that we could see some of his reflections on everything.

And then the one chapter we do get is many years later when he’s operating his own ship. It’s pretty brief even then. Though it was particularly nice to see how his experiences on Earth changed him as a commander. He regularly explains why he makes the decisions he does, something that Andalite Princes don’t do, but is clearly a reflection of his time fighting a war in a more democratic, small team where their missions were always discussed. We also see him lead the boarding mission, wanting to take a more active role in the missions he assigns.

As for the end, I’ve got to say, it doesn’t look too good for Ax. We don’t know much about The One, but I can’t imagine it’s ever a good thing to be “absorbed” into another being. Regardless of the outcome of the ship ramming, it seems like there is a fairly decent chance that poor Ax-man is out of it for good.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: For all that it’s the last book, there isn’t necessarily a lot of body horror in this book. I mean, definitely don’t think too hard about Rachel’s death and the fact that she was flushed into space (also don’t think about the odds of her body being found). It’s not so much body horror, but the fact that Arbron gets killed by poachers down in the rain forest is almost too real. Of course that’s what happened. Never underestimate the stupidity and cruelty of people. There’s a throwaway line about how maybe Arbron was relieved. And, maybe. But I really doubt that being killed by a poacher looking for bragging rights is anyone’s preferred way to go.

Couples Watch!: For me, it seemed like Jake and Cassie’s relationship was doomed ever since she gave up the blue box. There was a weird moment in Jake’s next book where he mentioned getting married after the war is over, but, to me, that read more out of character than anything at that point. Even if Jake forgave her, that moment was pivotal and not something that could be simply brushed past easily.

To go even further back though for Cassie, the writing was probably on the wall for her ever since she  went to Australia and caught herself being drawn to a nice, regular boy. Understandably, as the war became more intense, Jake became more and more singularly focused and was bearing a greater load on his shoulders than ever before. It seemed like he simply didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to be there for Cassie, too. And in some ways, Cassie herself seemed to recognize this and her decision with the blue box could be read as a last, frantic attempt to save the Jake she knows she’s already losing (not just romantically, but Jake is slowly turning into a different person than the boy she had a crush on in the beginning of the series).

I won’t rehash how strange I found it that Cassie just let Jake slip away after the war ended, but I do like that they showed a healthy end to that relationship, at least for her. That Cassie knew when to let him go and move forward herself. However, she does make a mention of the challenge it must be to be the boyfriend to come after Jake, pretty much having to compete with a guy who, in the public’s eye, is a combination of George Washington and Batman.

And then there’s Tobias and Rachel. Their last moments are about as tragic as you can imagine, especially the asking for help line.

<Rachel!> Tobias cried.

<Help me, Tobias,> I pleaded.

<l can’t. . . I . . .>

He didn’t understand. <Help me get him. Help me get him!>

And the fact that Tobias morphs human so that’s the last version of him that Rachel sees and so that he can cry. And her telling him she loves him. And then he steals her urn and disappears. And man, it’s all just a lot of sadness. These two have definitely had the more stable relationship throughout the series. They seemed to “be together” much earlier than Jake and Cassie. And then that “togetherness” was pretty solid. Cassie and Jake were pretty much tip-toeing around each other the entire time. Not to get super nerdy and everything, but it’s kind of like how in “Friends” Rachel and Ross were set up as the major romance of the show. But then after season after season of drama and will they/won’t they, the Monica/Chandler relationship, with all of its solid, normalcy kind of ended up overshadowing it at the end. I think Jake and Cassie were set up to be the big romance, but in the end, I think Rachel and Tobias were. You can’t beat the tragedy, sweetness, and uniqueness of it.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: We don’t have a whole lot from our villains in this book given that, well, they all lose pretty early on. Visser One had a few good quips, but we didn’t get to hear anything from him  during his trial. I’m pretty sure I would definitely have been down for an entire book of the trial of Visser One.

Tom’s death is also pretty quick in the coming and the event itself and the after effects are, rightly, much more focused on Rachel and her death. He only really showed up as a player in the last few books, so it’s not a huge loss really. Though you do have to question his decision to morph cobra there in the last fight. Kind of opened himself up for an easy take-down. Rachel was already on her way out, why even chance it with a morph that can be killed pretty easily by an even 90% out of it grizzly bear? She didn’t even need her eye sight to pull it off! But they did talk again about the difference between the Animorphs who are familiar with their morphs and the strengths that go with that knowledge as compared to the Yeerks who still don’t have much experience, so maybe that’s all it was.

The One, again, shows up only briefly at the end. I have mixed feelings on this. As a kid, I was pretty mad through this entire book over Rachel dying so didn’t spend too much time thinking about the rest of the story. The description of The One is terrifying for sure and definitely sets up a compelling new villain. But it’s almost too good. After an entire book filled with depressing scenes about Jake’s downfall, the loss of Rachel, Tobias’s potentially suicidal depression, Cassie pretty much checking out of the story, and Marco doing his own thing, the brief few chapters at the end where they’re teamed up again are so thrilling that you’re just left kind wanting more there at the end. You build the reader right back up, and then bam, the end. And there are just so many mysteries. Who is The One? Is Ax dead? Do they survive the ramming of the ship? One mystery, sure. But that many made it more frustrating than I would have liked for the end of the series.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Wow, so the entire book? Obviously, Rachel’s death is the worst of it. I do find it kind of funny that the tag line on the cover and the book description itself is trying to be all secretive about which Animorph dies. But then you open the cover and…bam!

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Yeah, not too subtle there. Plus, anyone who had read the previous book knew which one it would be. Anyone who read “The Ellimist Chronicles” and Megamorphs #4 closely knew who it would be.

Obviously, the one line about Tobias being potentially suicidal again is pretty bad. Marco and Cassie both address why this loss was so much worse for him than anyone else. Marco says:

I knew why Jake had sent Rachel to Tom. I agreed with his thinking. But then, I wasn’t in love with Rachel. I wasn’t some lonely kid trapped in a hawk’s body, half in one world, half in another with only Rachel’s love tying me to my humanity.

And Cassie says to Jake when he’s asking to find Tobias:

“He doesn’t hate you, Jake. He never did. His heart was broken, that’s all. And you know, Tobias never had anyone. No one before Rachel. No mother, really, no father he could ever know. Rachel was the first and only person who ever loved Tobias.”

When you really think about Tobias’s story over all, there’s really no competing for sadness. He had it the worst before. He had it the worst during. And he has it the worst in the end, losing the one person who grounded him and spiraling so far down that, while he doesn’t kill himself, he retreats completely from humanity, essentially killing his human side in the process. Those three years couldn’t have been good. The one strange thing about this is the lack of any mention of his mother, Loren. I can see how since the relationship is so new and Tobias isn’t one to form bonds quickly or easily, he might still have retreated from humanity. But I find it surprising that there’s no talk from Cassie of Loren trying to find Tobias and bring him back from the brink.

And Jake’s entire arc is sad, too. Even at the end, both Cassie and Marco don’t see his return to action as a good sign. Cassie notes that Jake seems almost like Rachel, which from Cassie’s perspective isn’t a good thing as she always worried that Rachel needed the war too much. And here, it’s like Jake, too, has gotten back his drug of choice. Marco, too, sees the problems with Jake’s renewed energy and knows that Jake will try to use this new fight as a way to correct the mistakes he sees in the past. But Marco knows that this return to action will just be more of the same, the same burdens falling on Jake’s shoulders, the same impossible decisions with no “right” answers.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: I mean, not to undermine what Rachel did and all…but what exactly was the plan here? I get that Erek kind of threw a wrench in things by depowering the dracon cannons, but it seemed like a lot of fuss was already made about how the Pool ship couldn’t really stand up to a major fighter like the Blade ship. So, was Rachel somehow supposed to take out Tom and destroy the ship? Were they hoping that the loss of Tom would make the rest of the Yeerks aboard suddenly surrender? It’s clear that things didn’t go to plan, but I’m not sure really what that plan even was. Jake knew the cannons had been depowered before telling Rachel to go for it and reveal herself. Were they just going to blow it up with her in it as Plan A? And then Plan B was a single Animorph somehow taking out the entire Blade ship from within? Tom was a factor, for sure, but either Jake had built him up into more than he was and expected the others to wilt under the loss of their leader, or it was really just personal, at the heart of things, and there wasn’t really a solid plan behind any of it.

On this re-read, I do really like the plan to ram the ship at the end. It ties in perfectly with that pretty major speech Marco gave Jake about why the Animorphs won the war and why Jake succeeded as a leader. And then there is a nice symmetry to Elfangor ramming ships and the fact that there is a precedent for characters surviving maneuvers like this, so readers aren’t left to assume that they all just died. We’ve been hearing about how indestructible cockroach morphs are for about 50 books…just saying.

Favorite Quote: There are a ton of really great quotes. It was hard not to just pepper them all throughout the review, and I still ended up including a bunch. But I think the one I want to highlight is this one:

The six of us stood there contemplating our dangerous-looking new home, set against the sunrise over Earth.

“So what do we call her?” Marco wondered.

<She’s beautiful,> Tobias said. <She’s beautiful and dangerous and exciting.>

I turned in surprise to look at Tobias. He stared back at me with his eternally fierce hawk’s gaze. Marco laughed, realizing what we were thinking.

“She would love it. A scary, deadly, cool looking Yeerk ship on a doomed, suicidal, crazy mission that no one can ever know about? She would love it.”

So it was that we went aboard the Rachel.

Scorecard: Yeerks 16, Animorphs 21

Obviously the Animorphs win this one. But I think the bigger win in this book isn’t so much the destruction of the Yeerks (that was pretty well covered in the last book), but the way that Jake and the rest set up humanity as a equal voice on the intergalactic playing board. The negotiation scene with the Andalites was crucial and the fact that a bunch of traumatized teens were able to manage it and put Earth in a strong position is pretty impressive. Jake notes that had that not gone well, humans could have very well ended up as second class citizens on their own planet.

This is the final score of the series. The Animorphs win, but the Yeerks held their own pretty well, too. (No reason to point out the fact that they may have won some of these points based more on my irritation at the idiocy of the Animorphs than on them actually winning a battle in a particular book.)

Rating: Well, we made it. 54 regular books, 4 megamorphs, 4 chronicles. I’m pretty sure if I did a word count for these reviews, I would find that I have written a literal novel about this series over the last 2 years or so. But what a blast it’s been! I found out that some of the opinions I held as a child remained the same. And some changed.

Things that stayed the same include my eternal love for Rachel and Tobias, as separate characters and as a couple. My struggles with Cassie as a character and several of her books and decisions. The fact that the series had a definite trough in the last third of the series, with a few notable exceptions. And that I cried way more often than is appropriate for a middle grade series.

Things that changed included my deeper appreciation for Marco as a character. I always thought of him as the funny guy, but failed to remember how supremely clever and with it he was. Of them all, in this read I think I identified with his approach to the war the most.

While most of my opinions on Cassie stayed the same, there were definite books and moments for her that I had forgotten were so good and important. So she’s now a mixed bag character for me.

My appreciation for the war story at its heart and the deep, sympathetic, and really tough to read look at the experiences of soldiers fighting a war day in and day out and what life can be like when that war ends.

 I still really wish Rachel had lived, just because she was one of my favorite characters and no one likes it when their favorite character dies. But I can now appreciate the huge impact her death has on the reality of the story.

And, most of all, my appreciation for the way the book ended. I was really pissed about that as a kid. While I wish there weren’t quite as many threads dangling there, I think it was an awesome way to tie things up, ultimately. There’s also plenty of evidence to make you think they live through it to fight another day. You have the fact that major characters have done the same thing in the past and lived through it, so the author has set the stage for that ending. And then the fact that in this very book Marco talks about how they won by not hesitating and making crazy decisions like this. Jake’s order to ram the ship is a triumphant return to the Animorphs who win and the Animorphs who live.

I really loved reviewing this series and I’m not sure what I will use to fill the hole in my reading that will now open up (not to mention the blog itself…) now that they’re gone. I’m so appreciative of those who have read along and still love talking about this series, twenty years later. Thanks for coming along on this journey! Also, if you have some “read alike” suggestions, leave them in the comments. That ending, while cool, definitely left me craving more!

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!

Kate’s Review: “The Last Astronaut”

40881567._sy475_Book: “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a paperback copy from the publisher.

Book Description: Mission Commander Sally Jansen is Earth’s last astronaut–and last hope–in this gripping near-future thriller where a mission to make first contact becomes a terrifying struggle for survival in the depths of space.

Sally Jansen was NASA’s leading astronaut, until a mission to Mars ended in disaster. Haunted by her failure, she lives in quiet anonymity, convinced her days in space are over.

She’s wrong.

A large alien object has entered the solar system on a straight course toward Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate and is ignoring all incoming transmissions.

Out of time and out of options, NASA turns to Jansen. For all the dangers of the mission, it’s the shot at redemption she always longed for.

But as the object slowly begins to reveal its secrets, one thing becomes horribly clear: the future of humanity lies in Jansen’s hands.

Review: Thanks to Orbit for sending me a paperback copy of this book!

Perhaps you are all looking at the title and the primary genre of “The Last Astronaut” and are thinking to yourself ‘well hey now, isn’t Sci Fi Serena’s literary wheelhouse?’ And you’d be right. As a matter of fact, I tend to avoid Science Fiction unless it meets very specific characteristics. But when I was reading about “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington, my interest was piqued. For one thing, a few of the early reviews used words like ‘terrifying’ to describe it. When you do that and throw around phrases like ‘large alien object’, something about ‘transmissions’, and ‘the future of humanity’, my mind is going to go to one place.

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Did he have the special? (source)

It turns out that “Alien” this is not, but ultimately that wasn’t a bad thing.

“The Last Astronaut” does mix some elements of horror in with sci-fi and character study, and it comes together to be an entertaining tale of slow burn suspense. We have the familiar scenario of a crew of different people with different motivations coming together for the purpose of investigating an alien object heading towards Earth, but the person at the forefront is astronaut Sally Jansen. Jansen was supposed to be the head of a mission going to Mars years before, but disaster struck and left other astronauts dead and Jansen in disgrace. Now she is hoping for redemption, and another chance at discovery. Jansen is a complex and strong protagonist, and has many layers that we slowly get to peel back as the story goes on and the stakes get higher and higher. She is competent and determined, but she is also headstrong and hard to trust, at least for the other crew members. Her actions had severe consequences for NASA and space exploration, but her talent is undeniable, even if her trauma and fall from grace is still haunting her. Her dynamic with the other crew members as they have to board the object is rife with tension, and their inherent mistrust of her makes for emotional conflict on top of the slow revealing other environmental conflict. While there were certainly other compelling characters, specifically ship scientist Parminder Rao who is elated at the prospect of alien life, this is Jansen’s story, and she is well centered and well developed.

The plot, while not as heavy on the horror as I had hoped, is still filled with suspense and tension, which made it an engrossing read for me in spite of the genre clash. The Alien Object is reminiscent of the recent space object ‘Oumuamua (and it is referenced in the book as well), but is larger and seems to have a clear path, heading straight for Earth. When the NASA crew finally encounters it in hopes of learning more, not only have they been beaten by the private company KSpace, but that the crew from the KSpace mission isn’t answering attempts at communication. And once they board the object, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that they are in way over their heads, and that this object isn’t what it seems. I really don’t want to spoil anything in this review, as the slow reveal is effectively creepy and well done. What I will say is that the alien being in “The Last Astronaut” is effective because it feels like something we haven’t really seen before. If you take elements from space horror classics like “Annihilation” and “Event Horizon”, you might be part way there, but Wellington has created a mythos that feels original, at least to this reader.

You may be wondering why this isn’t rated higher, as it seems that I liked a lot about it. And the reason is solely based on personal preference. At the end of the day, “The Last Astronaut” is still pretty heavy on the sci-fi, and it’s done in a way that didn’t really connect with me as much as I had hoped it would. I think that had the horror elements been ramped up more it would have left more of an impression, but as it was, this ultimately isn’t my genre. That said, I really do believe that sci-fi fans would probably find a lot to like about this book, as even I can appreciate the trajectory and story elements that it had. It may not achieve genre crossover as much as I thought it would, but don’t let my words discourage you from giving it a try if it has grabbed your attention!

Rating 7: While the story was more sci-fi than horror and therefore not my usual wheelhouse, I liked the originality that came with “The Last Astronaut” and its main character, and think sci-fi aficionados will find a lot to enjoy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Astronaut” is included on the Goodreads lists “Upcoming 2019 SFF With Female Leads or Co-Leads”, and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2019”.

Find “The Last Astronaut” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Kindred”

60931We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Kindred” by Octavia Butler

Publishing Info: Doubleday, June 1979

Where Did I Get This Book: I borrowed it from my Mom!

Book Description: The first science fiction written by a black woman, Kindred has become a cornerstone of black American literature. This combination of slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction is a novel of rich literary complexity. Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.

Kate’s Thoughts

Usually when only one of us can read the book, we will forego our book club review. But even though Serena was otherwise indisposed for our book club meeting, I really, REALLY wanted to make a post about “Kindred” by Octavia Butler. One reason is that it has been on my personal reading list for awhile now, even though it was fellow book club member Alicia’s pick for this session. But the second, and more pressing, reason is that “Kindred” blew me away and I want to talk about it. Why did I wait so long to read this book? Why? It is still as powerful and relevant today as it was in the 1970s when it was first published.

While it may have similar conventions to what we’ve come to expect of time travel stories, “Kindred” pushes the bounds of what the reader thinks they are going to read. Our protagonist Dana is a 20th Century Black woman who keeps getting sent back to the Antebellum South to save her white ancestor, slave owner Rufus Weilan, from danger, as he needs to live to father her great great grandmother. Butler doesn’t explain why this is happening, nor does she go into the details of various time paradoxes, but honestly, that didn’t bother me at all when usually it really, really does. The more pressing and immediate danger for her, however, is not the existential crisis of her very existence, but whether or not her trips back will ultimately leave her broken, hurt, or killed because of the fact she’s a Black woman in a slave state, and a culture that treats her like chatel and property. She learns to care for Rufus, as her initial meetings with him are when he is a vulnerable child, but as he grows older and more entrenched in the violent white supremacy of his time period their friendship becomes more strained, toxic, and abusive. Dana has every reason to try and keep him alive, but doing so becomes more and more dangerous for her and for the slaves on his family plantation. Butler tackles this complexity with a lot of nuance, but doesn’t shy away from the horrors of chattel slavery in the American South, and the monstrous actions of many white people during this time period. From Rufus to his mother and father to patrollers, the psychological and physical abuse that many white people in this book throw towards the slaves is historically accurate, and therein very upsetting. She doesn’t hold back on the violence and cruelty, and there are many moments in this book that are hard to read, but also necessary to confront. “Kindred” has more gumption on tackling these issues than a number of stories about slavery that have been published after it, and it really says something to me that a book written forty years ago feels braver than more recently published books about slavery. 

On top of the compelling and powerful social commentary, the time travel story had a well developed and interesting system that I could fully buy into. When Dana goes back in time and lives out the timeline then, weeks for her could be minutes for the modern day. This is demonstrated by her relationship with her husband Kevin, who tells her that after her first encounter that she was gone for only a moment, while to her it felt like quite a bit longer. This plays out in more dire, and somewhat tragic, ways later, as a time separation extends for years for one of them, and days for the other. As mentioned earlier, we don’t know how this time travel happens, or what the origin of it is, but it’s well established and believable enough that you don’t find yourself questioning it. You know how she gets there, how she gets back, and that is all you really need to know. The rest doesn’t really matter. This is a significant piece of science fiction, and Butler completely owns and deserves the status of a Sci-Fi heavyweight.

I am so, so happy that I’ve finally read “Kindred”. I now absolutely have to take on other works by Butler, as while Sci-Fi isn’t really my jam, I have a feeling that anything she does in the genre is going to work for me. If you’re a science fiction fan and haven’t read this, you absolutely must do so. 

Rating 9: A stellar, gripping, complex, and compelling piece of speculative and historical fiction, “Kindred” remains one of the best science fiction books that seamlessly combines the all too real with the fantastical.

Book Club Questions

  1. “Kindred” was written in the late 1970s, but still has a lot of resonance today. If it was written today, what, if any, differences do you think there would be in the narrative? Do you think that the social commentary would be the same? Different?
  2. What did you think of the science fiction aspect of the story? Do you want more details? Did it hold up within the narrative?
  3. Dana’s husband Kevin is both a supportive, caring, and sensitive husband, but he also has moments of ignorance and naïveté when it comes to her experiences as Black woman. What did you think of him and Dana as a couple?
  4. Do you think that Dana ever had the ability to change Rufus? If you think she could, what do you think she’d need to have done?
  5. Slavery is a large theme within this novel. How does to content of “Kindred” compare to other slave narratives you’ve read?
  6. What did you think of the ending of the book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Kindred” is included on the Goodreads lists “Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color”, and “Best Time Travel Fiction”.

Find “Kindred” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Kate’s Review: “Wanderers”

32603079Book: “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley

Book Description: A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and are sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I have been totally enthralled by post-apocalyptic fiction ever since my Dad handed me his copy of “The Stand” when I was thirteen years old and told me to read it. While I have a whole lot of anxieties about the potential ways that the world could end, the genre itself has always thrilled me, be it pandemic fiction, nuclear holocaust, zombies, or what have you. “The Stand” has always been the crown jewel of the genre for me, and so when I heard about “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig, and saw that comparisons to that masterpiece, I requested an eARC from NetGalley and was lucky enough to be sent one. The comparisons were apparent straight away: not only is the book a story about a devastating pandemic, it’s also a deep character study of a huge cast, AND it’s a LONG book (though at 800 pages it’s still only roughly half as long as the uncut version of “the Stand”, which is a mighty beast unto itself). Having this comparison in my head did a weird thing, where it both made me enjoy “Wanderers” more, and also made me more critical than I think I would have been had it not been there. Buckle up, everyone. A long book means a lot of dissemination.

The pacing and content of the plot immediately sucked me in. It’s told when the ‘sleepwalker’ phenomenon starts, and then slowly builds and builds until we have met the big, actual threat, which is a fungal-based disease that has already infected enough people to take out the world population. We have a number of different perspectives we follow, all of which show different group factions as society starts to panic and slowly break down. My favorite perspective, both in terms of characters and approach, was that of Benji, a former CDC scientist whose brilliance was overshadowed by a scandal. I was deeply invested and interested in the science aspect of this novel, and being able to see Benji and his colleagues, which include access to an AI called Black Swan that has been predicting numerous outcomes to the various situations, kept me enthralled and interested as the pandemic began to unfold. Benji is complex and nuanced, and his determination mixed with his anxieties, be it regarding his past, the AI aspect, or the very real catastrophe unfolding, made him very appealing as a character.

I also liked seeing other consequences and cause and effects that you might see in this society as it starts to deteriorate, and especially liked Wendig’s take on how white supremacist and other racist nationalist movements prey on fear and uncertainty. While it did feel heavy handed at times, this plot was mostly seen through Matthew, a preacher in a small town who gets caught up with a charismatic, and incredibly dangerous, militia man named Ozark Stover. While the pandemic is the main driving conflict in this book, it’s Stover, his militia, and the ideas that they hold dear (which are being elevated by a far right and opportunistic Presidential Candidate) that were the scariest by far. Matthew tries to look past the way Stover, and the other right wing groups, use the Bible to promote fear and hate, and you see Matthew fall for his own elevated hype as he becomes a ‘moderate’ voice for their radical views, which in turn promotes violence against the ‘sleepwalkers’ and those around them. Apt and timely, these parts really kept me interested and on the edge of my seat. It was probably also a little heavy handed, but given how these groups and voices just seem to be getting louder and more violent I can’t really fault the non-subtle portrayals of them as dangerous and fanatical.

That said, in terms of characterization, Benji and those in his sections were really the only people I found myself caring about in this book. I wanted to like Shana, the teenage girl whose sister was the first ‘sleepwalker’, but I found her inability to see nuance in many situations to be frustrating, and it made me not care for her too much. I also wanted to like Pete Corey, a nearly has-been rock star who gets caught up in protecting the ‘sleepwalkers’ and their companions (aka shepherds) initially just to get attention for himself before making a true connection. But unfortunately he fit the trope of ‘he’s closeted and therefore pushes everyone away and embraces a hedonistic lifestyle’, and it’s well worn, almost overdone, territory now. And while I enjoyed and was invested in the content with Matthew and Ozark, I had a very hard time with Matthew as a person, and found no one in that arc very sympathetic either. And this is where the comparisons to “The Stand” hindered this book (and given that the narrative itself makes reference to “The Stand”, I feel that the door has been opened to compare the two). Say what you will about the ending of that book, but it is hard to deny that King really knows how to write a multitude of different characters, and to give all of them complex, multifaceted things to do within their character arcs. While some characters are definitely more black and white than others in that book, for the most part you get into the head and motivations of almost every member of that ensemble, for the good and the bad. In “Wanderers”, I felt that Wendig sometimes got lost with his balancing, and because of this the characterization suffered, and therefore so did my ability to care about them.

On top of all this, the ending (and I won’t go into why or how) had a big final ‘gotcha’ twist that felt unnecessary. Sure, it was set up in a way that I could track out and map, so it didn’t feel completely out of nowhere. But when it was revealed I did kind of wonder what it added to the overall story, outside of confirming other well-worn tropes that I had thought we’d left behind.

Finally, there’s one more thing that I really need to address within this novel. This ties in with the HUGE content warning that I want to give it, AND along with that I’m going to be talking about plot points in no uncertain terms. Therefore, we are getting a

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Chuck Wendig used to write “Star Wars” content for Marvel so I had to use this. (source)

There are many characters within this book, and all of them touch upon certain themes such as bigotry, racism, white supremacy, and using religion as a weapon and how these things can all go hand in hand. Matthew, our preacher who lets his own ego get him caught up with a white supremacist movement, becomes friends with the aforementioned Ozark Stover. After Matthew stops towing the line for Stover and white supremacist Presidential Candidate Creel, Ozark beats him, tortures him, and locks him in his bunker on his property. He also violently rapes him. I had no idea that this was coming, and when it did I had to put the book down for awhile and go do something else. While I am never going to be a ‘fan’ of sexual violence in books I read, as how could one be, if I can see a reason behind it or if it’s done in a responsible way I can be more forgiving of that plot choice, even if I’m going to be upset about it. In “Wanderers”, I felt that there was absolutely no reason for it to be there outside of sensationalism. We already know that Ozark Stover is an evil motherfucker. He’s manipulative, he’s violent, he incites hatred and violent actions amongst his followers, and he’s a murderous, misogynistic white supremacist who uses religion as a way to froth up his following. WE KNOW HE IS HORRIBLE. It felt like this scene was just a ‘and how can we REALLY hit the point home that he’s a bad guy?’ when we have rounded the bases of badness MULTIPLE times. On top of that, I didn’t like the framing of it. Matthew is a piece of shit in his own way, and while I know that we were supposed to feel bad for him and see him as more ‘flawed’ than anything else, I personally couldn’t abide him. BUT ALL OF THAT SAID, making him a victim of a graphic and violent sexual assault made me feel sick, because to me it felt like a ‘and now you know why you never should have gotten tangled up with this guy in the first place’ moment, which to me is unnecessary. Like I’ve said, I am NEVER going to be fully on board with a scene like this, but I think that there are ways that it can be done with sensitivity and with responsibility. This felt like it was for shock value, and I didn’t like that.

Overall, “Wanderers” is definitely a worthy contribution to the ‘post-apocalyptic pandemic’ genre, and I think that it’s going to stand the test of time. There were aspects that I greatly enjoyed, and aspects that fell flat, but I definitely can see myself as recommending it to people who like this kind of thing. I am very curious to see what Wendig does next.

Rating 7: While the world building, pacing, and downfall of humanity ticked all my boxes, I had problems with some characterization, a final GOTCHA twist, and a scene of exploitative sexual violence.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wanderers” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Books for a Pandemic”, and “This Is The End..”

Find “Wanderers” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #53: “The Answer”

125347Animorphs #53: “The Answer”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, May 2001

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The war is raging on, and the Yeerks are everywhere. Jake tries to convince the government to help him and the Animorphs destroy the Yeerk pool. But when that plan fails, they try to do the job themselves. In an effort to deter new arrivals and finish off the ones still around, the Animorphs and Ax blow holes throughout the Yeerks pool. In these gallant efforts, some innocent bystanders are hurt, but that is the way of the world they live in. But the plans go awry, and Jake and the Animorphs find themselves trapped in the new Yeerk Pool. They have lost all hope, when they find unexpected comfort and comradeship from the disgusting Taxxons — who have always been associated with Yeerks and have their own problems with the destroyers. They might just be able to save planet Earth — but has the end already begun?

Narrator: Jake

Ha. I realized I posted this without an intro and just a placeholder text saying “INTRO.” Well, it could have been some sort of artistic thing where I had so few words due to the trauma this book inflicts that I just skipped over the intro right to the crying gif. But alas, it was just an error that I just now caught, weeks later. Ah well. Anyways…yeah, I still don’t have a quippy intro for this so….on to the crying!

Me trying to hold it together during this book.

Plot: The Pool ship has landed and all out war has begun with Yeerk Bug Fighters easily taking out any jets and weapons the military sends against them. The Animorphs know that this is an opportunity they can’t pass up. They also know that Visser One will fully expect an attack of this sort on his precious Pool ship. But simply blowing it up comes with too many casualties, both human and Hork Bajir. Instead, what if they captured it?

Jake calls a meeting of only the original Animorphs but accidentally (subconsciously?) excludes Cassie, much to the anger of the others. They plan to set up a diversion of them attacking the Pool ship, all while the original Animorphs will already be on the Pool ship.

Over the next day, they learn that the Yeerks have the Taxxons building a new Yeerk pool out in the open. Marco also manages to locate the military general in command of the human forces arrayed against the Yeerks. All of the original Animorphs head off to meet with this general, General Doubleday. Jake and the others arrive in fly morph. Jake demorphs and is immediately arrested and put in a cell. After this happens a few times, with Jake always reappearing and demorhing in front of the general, he finally agrees to listen. After a few of his soldiers reveal themselves as Controllers, he even more fully commits to hearing Jake out. But in the midst of these talks, the Yeerks attack.

They manage to fight their way out, towing the general along with them. Jake is badly injured, but is saved by the others. After they get away, the general is quick to follow their instructions and lock down the base. However, they realize it will take 3 days before the general has enough men that are known to be non-Controllers and in that time the new Yeerk Pool could be completed. So now they have another mission: stop that project. Cassie points out that destroying a hole in the ground is pretty hard, and instead they need to go after the builders themselves: the Taxxons. With this in mind, they, the auxiliary Animorphs, and the free Hork Bajir go in with only one mission, to kill Taxxons.

They go in, staggering the battle with forces arriving at different intervals and from different approaches to prevent the Yeerks from forming a solid defense. They do a lot of damage and Jake begins ordering the retreat. But the ground opens up beneath him and he finds himself alone in a Taxxon tunnel. He is met by a handful of Taxxons with Dracon beams, and his shocked when one of them speaks to him in thought-speak and identifies himself as Arbron, a friend of Elfangor’s. He has a proposal: that he and the Taxxons have seen a way out of their perpetual, driving hunger by using the morphing cube to become nothlits in another form. If Jake and the Animorphs agree to help them with this, the Taxxons will fight with them to capture the Pool ship.

Jake meets back with everyone to discuss this sudden turn of events. Cassie reveals that she had secretly been hoping this would happen. Ax makes it clear that the Andalites will never go along with the idea of giving Taxxons access to morphing power, and Cassie calls him out, telling him that now is the time to reveal his secret, that he has been in secret communication with Andalite command (she followed him as a flea on his body). Jake and the others feel very betrayed by the knowledge of what Ax has been up to and even more horrified when they learn what the Andalites have in mind for Earth. This decides it and they know they have to at least try to make a deal with the Taxxons. Cassie comes up with an anaconda morph has a potentially intriguing alternative for the Taxxons.

The next day, Jake, along with several flea!Animorphs, makes his way to the meet Arbron. He gets in an abandoned car that then rolls down an opened tunnel into the Taxxon lair (definite callback to “The Andalite Chronicles” and  you have to imagine that Arbron got the idea from that). There are tons of Taxxons gathered and after Arbron makes a speech about the potential idea, Jake does a neat little show of morphing, ending with the anaconda morph, emphasizing its calm mindset, not driven by an insatiable hunger. Arbron reveals that he knows the other Animorphs are there, and they demorph. And then he invites Tom to come out.

Turns out that Tom, too, has a plan and wants to turn against Visser One who he feels has deprived him of the promotions and respect he deserves. In exchange for his help, he wants the Animorphs to allow him and about 100 of his Yeerk compatriots to fly off in the Blade ship. As an extra wrench in the deal, he informs them that he has updated the security codes in the Pool ship and the way they are currently, Ax and the others have no chance of cracking them.

On the way back Jake contemplates his option. Cassie points out all of the problems with allowing Tom to fly off in the Blade ship (which is surely where the morphing cube is located as well). Jake also knows that there has to be more to the story, and that Tom can’t be trusted. With these facts in mind, he begins to form a plan.

First, he talks to Marco telling him that he has to find the Chee at all costs (sending Marco into a pretty dangerous part of the city to do it). Then he talks to Rachel. He doesn’t come out with what her role will be, but we know that it has to do with Tom, that it’s a last gamble that could be deadly, and that it’s bad enough that he doesn’t want Cassie to know about it, because she loves both Jake and Rachel and would blame herself for not trying to stop it.

Marco returns with Erek the Chee and Jake has to go to extreme measures to motivate him. Essentially, he tells Erek that if he doesn’t go along with their plans, Jake will kill Yeerk prisoners, starting with Chapman, who they had captured. It’s a new low for Jake and Erek is none too pleased about it, but his programming won’t let him resist. Jake then has Ax call the Andalite flight and tell them that he is going to deliver a major Yeerk ship into their grasp and they better get here quickly.

He then tells James that he needs him and the other auxiliary Animorphs on the ground with the military forces to serve as a distraction. It’s a dangerous role and James is hesitant. But Jake insists, telling him that this is what they were given these powers for, to fight. He gets into a pretty firmly worded rant, saying that he doesn’t care about the lives of any of them, that this is it, they either win this battle or it’s all over. Either the Yeerks will take Earth out or the Andalites will do it for them.

The next day they put the plan into action. Jake flies in to a truck that Tom is driving with Cassie bound and beaten in the back. He secretly confirms that Rachel is there in morph and the morphs a fly and makes it way to “Cassie” who is really Erek disguised. Tom gets them through security and then calls over Visser One to present the captured Animorph (he thinks Cassie is real). He reports that the Animorphs and humans will attack soon as a diversion while they try to sneak onto the Pool ship. A Taxxon prisoner is brought in and Tom explains how he discovered collusion between some Taxxons and the Animorphs. Tom maneuvers the situation so that he is put in charge of the Blade ship and gets Visser One to test his plan by having the Taxxon eat Cassie. This would have been Tom’s betrayal had the Animorphs simply believed him.

As it is, Taxxon!Tobias pretends to chow down as “Cassie” dies screaming but really Erek is just creating a show while slowly blending himself into the floor until nothing is left. Tom thinks that he has now killed off all of the Animorphs and won the Visser’s trust enough to be given the Blade ship. The other Animorphs wonder where Rachel is but only Jake hears her speak as she drifts away, hidden somewhere on Tom.

As the Pool ship lifts into the air, Erek and the other Animorphs retreat further into the ship. Jake remains behind on the bridge and gets to witness the horror that Visser One rains down on the fighting forces below as the military and auxiliary Animorphs attack. Jake frantically checks in with Ax and the others on their progress on taking over the ship, but as they work, Visser One picks off all of the auxiliary Animorphs. But the diversion prevents Visser One from firing off his largest canon that would take out thousands of the fighting human soldiers.

Just as he finishes killing them and decides to move to his larger weapons, Marco and the others gain control of the ship and move it up into low orbit. Visser One frantically calls in Tom with the Blade ship. Visser One and the Hork Bajir head to engineering. It’s a long trek and Jake understands why it took so long for Marco, Ax and the others to get there and take control. They blast away at the engineering room, killing most of their own, but the Animorphs had already escaped out a vent.

As Jake reports on what happened on the ground, that James and his people are dead, he is forced to admit that Rachel is on the Blade ship with Tom. Tobias is enraged. Cassie sad And Marco is grimly resigned, knowing that Tom needed to be stopped. While they have control of basic maneuvering for the Pool ship, Erek’s programming flatly prevents gaining them any access to the larger weapons systems: they’re sitting ducks for Tom’s Blade ship.

Jake and the others make their way to the bridge, fighting along the way. They pass by access to the Pool ship’s controls to the interior Yeerk pool itself. There is a flush option. But Jake needs Visser One to come to the bridge. He orders the flush, and 17,372 Yeerks are jetted into space to die. When they arrive, Visser One is there, staring out into space at the dead Yeerks. He has also figured out that Tom has betrayed him. He tries to say that it isn’t Jake who has beaten him, but the fact that he was betrayed because Visser One was “too trusting.”

Jake tells Visser One that he could disable the Blade ship, but Visser One notes that the Dracon beams are being drained of power. Erek’s doing, against their wishes, and to the detriment of the last chance to disable the Blade ship and save Rachel. They try to fire what they have, but the Blade ship avoids the shots and neatly disables the Pool ship itself. Tom hails the ship to gloat but is horrified when he sees Jake on board. He orders his ship to destroy the Pool ship, and Jake orders Rachel to go in.

Our Fearless Leader: Whelp, here’s where it all comes to a head for our Jake. Having gotten through the malaise that seemed to set in after the loss of his parents, he’s in full leadership form in this book. It’s action packed from the beginning to the end, and we see Jake needing to balance more and more moving pieces. Not only are there his own allies, but now we have the Taxxons and Tom and his people in play. Both of whom have their own goals and motivations and can only be trusted so far.

Jake’s strategic thinking is at the top of its form here, and his plan for the final battle is brilliant and ruthless. As he deploys his people we are in his head to see how, while he still struggles with the challenges of these decisions, he has really embraced the cold reality of the situation. The Yeerks will get them or the Andalites will. With those two fronts against them, any consideration for personal losses is now weighed against the loss of the entire planet. He’s brutal and efficient.

The hardest decisions to witness, as the reader, are the ones that affect our main characters directly. He sends Marco out into a war zone with an impossible task to locate the Chee, knowing he could be killed doing it. He keeps Tobias and Cassie back, not informing them of key pieces of his plan, knowing he needs to use them without the distraction of their opinions on other decisions. James and his crew get sent out onto a battle field that has already been lost but needs to serve as a distraction. And Rachel…in this book it’s not made clear what exactly her role is. But their discussion is enough for us to know that it is likely one that she won’t return from.

All of that aside, one of the biggest decisions Jake makes is one that is given very little page time and happens in the midst of a lot of other action: the flushing of all of the Yeerks. We’ll see how this plays out in the next book, but it’s a huge move and one that Jake didn’t plan in advance, but had to decide in the heat of the moment. We can see him trying to justify it in his head as he goes: The Yeerks brought this fight to them. He needs Visser One to come to the bridge if there’s any chance of saving Rachel. It has to be done. It has to be done. It has to be done.

Xena, Warrior Princess: For most of this book, Rachel is away on her secret mission, only checking in periodically with Jake. There’s a lingering sense of horror around all of this as it’s always strange when the group isn’t operating together. Throughout the last half, various members of the group wonder where she is. I do feel it’s a bit unbelievable that Cassie and Tobias wouldn’t press more for details on this, but oh well.

Rachel’s conversation with Jake is short, but so important. It perfectly illustrates how well they each understand and accept the role they play. Rachel knows the risks and knows how coldly Jake is using her to complete a goal. But she’s not angry about it and knows that she is the right choice. She also agrees to not telling Cassie ahead of time about it.

Lastly, Rachel is one of the more angry members when she learns about Ax’s betrayal with the Andalite leadership. This holds true for the rocky relationship these two have had throughout the book. Marco usually joins her in this area and, in form with a complaint I’ve had throughout the last several books, it’s strange that he doesn’t react more strongly himself. It’s pretty clear that while she’s betrayed by Ax himself, she’s also written the Andalites off as a whole, snorting her derision when Jake claims they are allies when talking to the Taxxons.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias really doesn’t have a lot in this book. At one point when Jake is assessing his use of people, he mentions that he has to use Rachel because of various reasons for the others and because he “needs Tobias.” I’m really not clear why this is exactly. I mean, obviously it makes sense that Rachel is the correct choice, just on merit of her being who she is. But Tobias specifically doesn’t seem to be needed. Seemingly it is because he needs to play the role of the Taxxon who “eats” “Cassie.” But Ax also has a Taxxon morph, so I’m not sure about this reasoning.

When Rachel’s role is made clear, Tobias is furious and inconsobale, alternating between cussing Jake out and begging him to save her. Jake mentions at one point that he can feel that Tobias now hates him.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie has some very interesting moments in this book. For one, when she hears about the Taxxons, she admits that she had hoped this would happen. Of course, this is another after-the-fact thought to her choice, but it does prove that she’s been thinking more creatively about the impact that morphing will have on the Yeerk forces. And when you think about it, she’s completely right that this would be a logical next step. These are the best moments for Cassie’s character when we see how her approach to things is so different than the others and often very ahead of the game. It almost makes up for some of her more boneheaded moments.

She is also the one to push Ax into confessing that he’s been talking to the Andalites, as she’s followed him in flea morph. The book doesn’t go into this very far, but again, it’s a nice highlight for her character. For all of her sometimes preachy ways, she’s not a blind optimist. We can guess that she may have thought that Ax might waver in light of recent events, and she’s suspicious enough to take it on herself to follow him. They may be team members, but she doesn’t simply blindly trust him in this instance. It does makes me wonder whether Tobias would have said anything at this point in the book. He’s the only other one who knew about Ax’s actions.

Lastly, unlike Rachel and Jake, we see Cassie’s embitterment about her own role on the team. At one point, she makes a few bitter statements about how Jake is expecting a morality lecture from her with regards to the choices they are making. Jake admits that he is waiting for that, but that he also values it, as he’s used Cassie to gauge his own actions for some time. It’s notable also that when it comes down to it, he chooses to make some choices without telling her about them, because he already knows what she will say and he can’t afford to be influenced by her completely, here at the end of it all.

The Comic Relief: My biggest complaint about this last section of books is the lack of good Marco action we’ve gotten. Seriously, it’s like he disappeared from the series. His action is almost always off page. We get only a handful of lines from his all told. And many of those are out-of-character, or at least out of the character we’ve know for so long. Yeah, his character has changed, and saving his mom is a big part of that, but there are things about him that would remain the same. Like what his reaction to Ax’s betrayal would have been. Marco, like Rachel, was always the slowest to warm up and most suspicious.

When forming the complete plan in his head, Jake references Marco’s “clear straight line” mode of planning, so that’s a nice connection. And then Jake entrusts Marco with quite a lot in this book. He has to locate Erek (the Chee base disappeared when the Yeerk Pool was blown up). And he and Ax lead the charge to try and disable the Pool ship.

There’s only a brief line, but Marco is the most resigned to Rachel’s fate. He clearly jumps quickly along the same train of thought that Jake has had and sees that Jake’s choice here was necessary. Brutal, but necessary. This is the Marco we all know and love. Practical to a point of coldness.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax has to come out with what he’s been up to in this book. More importantly, he has to admit to what the Andalites have planned. This book makes it pretty clear that all of the tragedies of the action in this book (the death of the auxiliary Animorphs, the Yeerks being jettisoned into space, Rachel) happen because Jake feels that they are being pushed into endgame level fighting due to the Andalites quarantine plan. They don’t have time to take things slowly, really figure out what to do with the Taxxons, with Tom, with all of it. The Andalites are coming; it has to be now. It’s pretty tragic, really, that the people who through much of the series have been heralded as the saviors they’re all waiting for instead turn into the catalyst that drives the Animorphs to the most desperate and brutal decisions we’ve seen. Here’s how Jake puts it to Cassie:

And when they’re negotiating with the Taxxons, Ax is also quick to note that the Andalites will never agree to the Taxxons getting morphing technology. So another blow against the Andalites. They want to beat the Yeerks. They often do this by removing host bodies from the field of play. But they’d rather just commit genocide against entire species than share their precious morphing technology with a different species. A technology that we know from other books isn’t even that highly valued by the Andalites.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: There are a lot of pretty horrible bits in this book, but I’m going to focus on a less obvious one in this section: Taxxon!Tobias eating Chee!Cassie. I mean, that has to be psychologically damaging. Even knowing it’s a hologram, we know how realistic the Chee can make these things. And this is your close friend and you’re having to listen to her “scream” and be torn apart with a close up view of it all, with it seeming like you’re the one doing it. I don’t know, it seems like that would mess with your mind.

Couples Watch!: I had completely forgotten this part, but about halfway through the book Jake and Cassie have a one-on-one conversation about their relationship and what they see for the future. It’s telling for both of them as individuals, with Jake thinking about the bigger impact on the world of the reveal that there are aliens out there, and Cassie focusing back in on her life, think she’ll just slip back into it and take over where she left off. They also briefly discuss their relationship and Cassie says that if they make it, essentially, she’ll marry him after a year. Woah nelly! They’re like 17 years old! I mean, I get that they’re older than this in most ways, having gone through all of this. And with that in mind, Cassie’s one year plan is sound in that it gives them some more time. But still. Funny the things you don’t even notice as a kid reading it, but as an adult, I’m like “But…but…you’re still babies!”

And then poor Tobias. I will always be bummed that we didn’t get much more from this couple for the last oh….tons of books! And we don’t even get a good scene between them in this last-ish book! Obviously, Tobias can’t know what’s going to happen, but throw readers a bone, why don’t you? The few lines we get from him after he finds out are so tragic. Even had Rachel lived, you can sense that Tobias would never forgive Jake for this.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: We haven’t seen a lot of Visser One for a while either, other than his token appearances where he morphs something freaky and then promptly exits the field for some reason or another. So it’s good to see him here. Tom mentions how Visser One is like a bludgeon, just hitting away at his enemies. This is definitely true, but we also see how he has changed after fighting the Animorphs for so long. He’s immediately suspicious when Tom shows up with “Cassie,” suspecting a trap right off the bat.

And when he’s in the Pool ship, he has massive weapons at his disposal that could quickly end the battle on the ground, but instead chooses to snipe at the morphed fighters, clearly taking personal satisfaction at taking them out after so many years of losses against them. I mean really, there have been 6 fighters against him (he’s probably been pretty clear on the number for a while due to the same morphs, regardless of any ploys the Animorphs have tried to play in the past to make it seem like there are more of them. Six fighters against all of the Yeerks and in years, YEARS, he hasn’t killed a single one of them. It’s more shocking than anything almost that he was ever promoted, given that record. And then when the Yeerks are flushed, the quieter moments when he realizes he’s lost. Not only are thousands of his people dead, but he knows that he has also been betrayed. But in that instance, the most important thing to him is to reconstruct it that Tom, a Yeerk, beat him; not the Animorphs.

Tom is also an interesting villain, for the short bits we get from it. Jake is on to him from the beginning, that a Yeerk who is smart enough to approach them in the way he did, is smart enough to not want to team up with them forever and will have his own plans in mind. It says something about how well Jake has grown to understand Tom’s Yeerk that he can anticipate him so well. Towards the end, Jake also breaks when everyone keeps referring to Tom’s actions as “Tom’s,” especially in the light of what he has ordered Rachel to do.

I exploded. “It’s not Tom! It’s not Tom, don’t call him that. It’s the Yeerk in his head. It’s the Yeerk, not my brother!” No one even looked shocked at my reaction.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Oh man, so many things. But everything to do with the auxiliary Animorphs probably takes the cake. It starts out early with the first attack on the Taxxons at the new Yeerk Pool resulting in the death of several Hork Bajir and Ray, one of the guys. And then, when Jake informs James of their role, James says he’s not sure they’re up for it, that they’re all still reeling from the death of Ray. Especially the younger ones. Oof. And Jake explodes again. But instead of the cool inspiration “Independence Day” style speech that make everyone feel uplifted, his is darker, and more brutally honest about what the stakes really are.

“Look, if we lose this battle it’s over, you understand me?!” I raised my voice to be heard by everyone. “If we lose it’s over. This is the battle. This is the last stand. We lose and here’s what happens: The Yeerk fleet fights the Andalite fleet. If the Yeerks win they’ll be free to enslave every living human being and kill the ones they don’t want. If the Andalites win there’s a very good chance they’ll sterilize Earth: kill everything in order to end the Yeerk menace once and for all. So, you don’t like me telling you what to do, you don’t like your job, you don’t like me, period? I don’t really care. Before this night is over the casualties will be piled high and some of you standing here right now will be dead and I don’t care because we are going to win. Is that clear? We’re taking that Pool ship and before this night is over we’ll have Visser One right here.” I held up my tight-clenched fist.

And then of course the end, with Visser One picking them off one by one. It’s by no means a short scene and the tension holds throughout, with the hope that Marco and Ax will get control of the ship at any moment. And Jake, like the reader, is trapped just watching it happen. Knowing that it is part of the plan and a risk from the start that they wouldn’t make it through. The dialogue from Visser One is just crushing, with his obvious glee in it all. He plays with them, like a cat, at one point and it’s just awful.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Obviously the final plan is terrible in the other sense of the word. But it’s also the most brilliant of the ones we’ve seen. Jake has the most moving pieces on the board that he’s had the entire time and that are various levels of deception at play throughout. Not only does he have to keep Tom in the dark about the real plan, but several of Jake’s own crew don’t know the full plan until the last minute, with regards to Rachel’s role. And then Jake is having to improvise to a certain extent along the way as well.

The one bad plan of it all, I have to say, is the morphing scene when Jake is trying to get the attention of the general. It plays for good reading, but as a solid plan, it’s super risky. Here you have a general who has just found himself in the middle of a war with aliens who have unknown technology at their hands, and Jake just bursts in, de-morphing several times. He’s just lucky that some trigger happy soldier didn’t shoot him the moment he showed up. It’s showmanship for the sake of showmanship and would have likely ended in Jake’s quick, needless death.

Favorite Quote: 

This quote gets at what I was saying about the Andalites’ role in all of this. It’s also a really neat reflection on how much more complicated and evolved this series became over time. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but it did start out as simply as 5 kids try to hold it together until the savior aliens show up.

<It’s never completely clean, Cassie. Doesn’t work that way. But you try your best to keep it clean. The fact that you know you’ll be dragged in the gutter doesn’t mean you don’t try like hell to stay out of it. You don’t get a lot of straight-up good or evil choices. You get shades of gray. I mean, we started this war thinking we’d hold on till the great and glorious Andalites came to rescue us. Now we’re making deals with Taxxons and Yeerks to gain a victory fast enough to keep the great and glorious Andalites from making their own shades-of-gray decision.>

<What are you going to do?> Cassie asked.

<I’m going to win,> I said

And, of course, the discussion between Jake and Rachel about his plans for her is just one of the most solid conclusions you could ask for for the two characters who arguably had the biggest arcs throughout the series.

<You’re sure, Jake?> she asked solemnly when I had finished. <Because if you tell me ” Go!” I’ll follow your orders. You know what that means.>
<Yeah, Rachel, I know what it means.>
……
<Okay, then. Get started. Make sure Cassie doesn’t know.>
<You still don’t trust her?> Rachel said angrily.
<She loves us both, Rachel,> I said. <I can’t make her part of this. I can’t let her know in advance, so, you know, if it happens, if it happens, I don’t want her spending the rest of her life wondering if she could have stopped it somehow.>
Rachel said, <Okay, Jake. You’re right. And you’re right to use me for this. Not exactly something I’m proud of, maybe, but later, you know, if — don’t be blaming yourself, okay?>

Scorecard: Yeerks 16, Animorphs 20

I’m actually going to give a point to them both for this one. Yes, the Animorphs clearly win this exchange, but it feels wrong not to acknowledge the terrible loss of James and his crew. It was the biggest blow the Animorphs ever struck and they pretty much won the war right here. But it was also the biggest blow the Yeerks ever dealt, too, with them taking out 20 of the Animorphs, plus tons of soldiers and Hork Bajir.

Rating: There’s still one book left, but man does this almost feel like a conclusion on its own. This has to be one of the best books in the series. It has everything, action, character development, romance, tragedy. And it’s by far the most complicated, not only the plan itself, but the tangled moral lines that are crisscrossed throughout the story. And theses decisions aren’t just blown through; the story stops and takes the time to really look into them, and, rightly, often ends with a big ole question mark remaining. The reader is left to wonder for themselves what is right or wrong in these situations, whether Jake made the right or wrong decision at any given moment. It’s made clear that Jake himself doesn’t even know.

It’s also so perfect that the series comes full circle with the final single narrator book going to Jake. It would be an interesting experiment to now go back and read book 1 again, right after finishing this one. I’m sure the tonal difference would be astonishing.

I could probably go on and on about this book, but since this post has already gotten super long, I’ll leave it at that. This book is gutting, which right there proves how great it is. How could this final battle be anything else?

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!

Kate’s Review: “Superman: Dawnbreaker”

29749094Book: “Superman: Dawnbreaker” (DC Icons #4) by Matt de la Peña

Publishing Info: Random House Books for Young Readers, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When the dawn breaks, a hero rises.

His power is beyond imagining.

Clark Kent has always been faster, stronger–better–than everyone around him. But he wasn’t raised to show off, and drawing attention to himself could be dangerous. Plus, it’s not like he’s earned his powers . . . yet.

But power comes with a price.

Lately it’s difficult to hold back and keep his heroics in the shadows. When Clark follows the sound of a girl crying, he comes across Gloria Alvarez and discovers a dark secret lurking in Smallville. Turns out, Clark’s not the only one hiding something. Teaming up with his best friend, Lana Lang, he throws himself into the pursuit of the truth. What evil lies below the surface of his small town? And what will it cost Clark to learn about his past as he steps into the light to become the future Man of Steel? Because before he can save the world, he must save Smallville. 

Review: Though I’ve come to terms with the fact that Batman is always going to be my choice of male DC superheroes (depressive demon nightmare boys are my weakness, as we all know) Superman is a very close second, and it’s probably because he’s the exact opposite of Bruce Wayne and his brooding tendencies. Clark Kent/Superman is an optimist who just wants to do the right thing, and to help people because he can. Sure, he has sadness about his home planet of Krypton blowing up, but overall he’s a cheerful and stand up guy whose motivation to do good is pretty much without strings. So it makes sense that the DC Icons Series, the YA books that have taken on DC’s favorite characters, has saved their Golden Boy for last. Therefore we come to Matt de la Peña’s “Superman: Dawnbreaker”, a new quasi-origin story for Superman set during his teen years in Smallville. 

giphy-6
But without the ‘somebody saaaaave meeee’ intro. (source)

Overall, this was a very satisfying and well done Superman origin story. We’ve seen so many different iterations of this, but de la Peña manages to make it feel fresh and original, if only because he takes it to places that aren’t as obvious as the usual plot points. There are still familiar faces, like Ma and Pa Kent and Lana Lang, but de la Peña tweaks the relationships a tiny bit. In “Dawnbreaker”, Clark knows that he has powers, but he doesn’t know why, and he hasn’t felt comfortable asking his parents for answers. He gets the feeling that something is being hidden, but doesn’t necessarily know if he wants to know what, and wonders if he can be okay with not knowing all facets of his identity if it means living a relatively uncomplicated life. But, given that this is a Superman origin story, one can guess that all will come out soon enough, but even this I felt was handled with nuance and complexity. You see both Clark’s AND The Kents having to come to terms with the fact that Clark isn’t of this world, and what that could mean in both the greater scheme of things, but also their own familial ties. I was also VERY happy to see what de la Peña did with Lana Lang. I’ve always been solidly a Lois girl, and portrayals of Lana that I have seen have made her into an uninteresting love interest that I can’t abide. Partially because she’s competition for Lois (YES I AM THAT PETTY), but mostly because she could be so much more than just the hometown sweetheart. And de la Peña allows her to be more than that! While it could be argued that she’s just kind of been turned into Lois (though to be fair the comics did this too, with her being a TV newscaster on and off), I liked the spunky and intrepid Lana we got on the page. Also, she isn’t relegated to love interest here! She and Clark are best friends, and while they have some romantic tension it feels more like a wink towards their original storyline as opposed to a ‘will they or won’t they’ scenario. It means the Lana can be her own person, and her story isn’t defined by Clark’s affection for her. This is the Lana that Lana deserves to be.

But what struck me the most about this story was the plot and themes that de la Peña was able to bring together in a seamless way. When people think of Smallville they usually think of the humble and down home hometown that Clark grew up in, and the positive Americana that such a place an evoke. de la Peña doesn’t exactly blow this notion out of the water, but he does bring up the notion that small town simplicity and charm generally favors a very specific population, aka white people. In “Dawnbreaker”, Smallville (like many small towns in America’s midwest and heartland) has seen a growing population of Latinx immigrants, and racial tensions are on the rise as some townspeople miss ‘the good old days’. Seeing Clark hope that at the end of the day the people of Smallville will do the right thing is SO very Clark Kent, but it’s also a sad reality that unless checked and questioned and called out, prejudice and racism can easily run amok. And given that the people who are going missing are from the local Latinx population, Clark learns some hard truths about why they aren’t being sought out so much, and why their loved ones are too scared to push the authorities too much. In fact, while the main plot and mystery surrounding strange people in town and a mysterious new corporation moving in was well done, I was more interested in the themes about racism and xenophobia, and how capitalism and capitalist interests can claim they want to help, when they actually want to make a profit. And while it’s true that sometimes de la Peña is more inclined to spoon feed these themes to his reader as opposed to trusting that they can pick up on it, for the most part the execution was fairly well done.

“Superman: Dawnbreaker” was a strong end to the DC Icons series. I’m glad that they saved this one for last, because I think that it was my favorite of the bunch.

Rating 8: A strong end to a fun series, “Superman: Dawnbreaker” gives Clark Kent a timely and fun new origin story, while addressing social issues that remain incredibly relevant in today’s societal climate.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Superman: Dawnbreaker” is included on the Goodreads lists “Super Hero Books (Not Graphic Novels)”, and “YA-Fiction: Super Powered Fiction”.

Find “Superman: Dawnbreaker” at your library using WorldCat!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #52: “The Sacrifice”

125338Animorphs #51: “The Absolute”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, April 2001

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Yeerks have abandoned all secrecy. They are loading people onto underground trains that run directly to the Yeerk pool where they perform mass infestations. The vast army of Controllers is growing rapidly and will soon be unstoppable. Ax and the Animorphs can think of only one solution‹to use one of the trains to blow up the Yeerk pool. But the cost will be measured in hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent human lives. 

Narrator: Ax

Plot: This really start to heat up in this one, and unlike the previous book, we get a lot more of the emotional fall-out of Cassie’s decision. There’s a good balance of character work with some significant (and important!) action. Unfortunately, for all of that good work, we also have a huge retread and out-of-character thinking for our main character, Ax.

Really? We’re doing the “Ax questions his loyalties” thing again?

The Yeerks have taken the war more and more public. Now they’ve started rounding up people by the hundreds and herding them onto subway trains that the Animorphs can only assume run directly to the Yeerk pool. Ax, Rachel, and James see the horrors for themselves when out on a scouting mission: people dragged out of their cars and herded down to the station. In a rash plan (lead of course by Rachel), the three head off into the subway system to try and save people. Instead, they end up on a wild ride, chased by falcon!Yeerks. Most of the Yeerks are taken out, inexperienced as they are in their animal morphs. Ax catches up with one that pleads with him to let him go, that he only has a few minutes left before he is trapped in his falcon form, which he sees as a vast improvement on his original Yeerk form as a slug. Ax lets him go.

Back in the camp, the team discusses what they’ve seen. They know that something must be done, and slowly come to the realization that only an extreme action can be the next step: bombing the Yeerk pool. Cassie is opposed, but Jake snaps at her that given the morphing abilities of the Yeerks now, they’re left with fewer options. Ax and the team are surprised by this. They decide that a nuclear weapon would be too hard to get and do too much damage, but that there might be some large bombs at a nearby National Guard station. But it would also take them all, original Animrophs, parents, and auxiliary Animorphs, to get in and find the bombs before they are detected.

Later that night, Ax sneaks away into the forest and makes contact with the Andalites. It is clear that this isn’t the first time, and they ask for a report. Ax dutifully gives details of the situation, noting that the human resistance seems to be fraying under the increased pressure of the more open war. He does hold back the information about the Yeerks now having morphing abilities, however. For their part, the Andalite leaders inform him that the plan of action is to quarantine Earth and try to hold the Yeerks there. Ax knows this terminology for what it is: they have decided to surrender the humans to the Yeerks, and, to enforce the quarantine, they will eventually take out the planet and wipe out humans and Yeerks alike.

The next day as they continue to put their plan in place, Cassie informs them that she won’t be participating. This leads to another fight between her and Jake and during it she confesses to having let Tom escape with the blue box. Everyone is horrified, especially Ax who immediately labels her a traitor. Cassie cries and apologizes for her actions, saying that she doesn’t know what made her do it, and she’s sorry to see where it has taken them all. Jake forgives her, hugs her, and informs the team that they now have to work in the reality they have, that there’s no point wishing for what was. Ax, however, is not really listening, too angry at Cassie to hear.

They continue to plan and decide to give a 5 minute warning before the bomb explodes to allow as many people to escape the Yeerk pool as possible. Cassie agrees to this, and Jake reflects that their new motto will be to defeat the Yeerks, but not to become them. Ax, however, is more focused on the fact that while before he had thought Rachel’s reckless pursuit of battle was the most dangerous, maybe the opposite extreme is the more deadly: Cassie’s kindness, so like Seerow’s.

Later he makes time to speak to Cassie about why she did what she did.  He calls her out for betraying her friends, humanity, and even Elfangor who entrusted them with the awesome power. While she says that in the moment she didn’t know why she make the decision she did, now, later, she’s begun to think that the morphing ability could provide a wedge in the Yeerk forces. That those who are less interested in war may see the morphing ability as a legitimate alternative. Ax mentions the falcon!Yeerk he ran into earlier and Cassie sees this as proof that there may be Yeerks out there who just want a way out. Ax isn’t sure, but thinks he won’t ever feel the same about Cassie or (bizarrely) humans in general.

Even later that night, Tobias approaches Ax and asks him what he’s going to do, having followed him the other night and seeing him communicate with the other Andalites. Ax admits that he doesn’t know and the two of them continue the discussion about how morphing now changes the situation with the Yeerks.

They finally put the plan in action. Ax leads adults from the group through the woods where they run into a National Guard station and the parents pretend to have been lost in the woods. Cassie’s dad fakes heart problems, and they’re all loaded up on trucks and headed towards the base. Several Animorphs and auxiliary Animorphs hitch a ride in various morphs and the Hork Bajir follow in the trees. Once at the base, they all split into groups and begin searching the many, many buildings for the bombs. They manage to locate them eventually and load as many as they can on a few trucks. On the way out, however, they’re stopped by a head operative of the National Guard. With no other choice, they reveal themselves and explain that what the Governor said on TV a while ago is true: aliens are really invading Earth. Ax plays his usual role, demonstrating that he is, in fact, an alien. Luckily the head guy is not a Controller, though they do have to capture a few Controllers in the mix of witnesses. He also happens to know Rachel’s mother, and this connection further helps them convince him to let them pass.

They make their way with the bombs to a subway station and prepare for a confrontation. Many of the Yeerks morph as well, including several to wolf form. Just as things are beginning to look bleak, the National Guard guys show up and help them win the fight. All of the wolf!Yeerks are dead and Ax has a brief moment of panic thinking that Cassie died, too, since how could anyone tell the difference in the midst of the fighting. She’s ok, however, and he realizes that he doesn’t hate her.

When it comes to the next stage, a smaller group is needed. It is agreed that Jake is too valuable to send on such a risky venture (the timing of the bomb going off while also giving enough of a warning to get people out will be pretty tight.) In his stead, Jake insists that Cassie go, that he trusts her to make the right decision. Marco and Ax will go along with. Ax notes that it feels like the team is beginning to come together again.

The bombs are loaded on to a cleared out subway train and the three get on. As the train barrels towards the Yeerk pool, they all morph cockroach to survive the impact. The train crashes into the Yeerk pool, killing many Yeerks in the process. Cassie, Marco, and Ax demorph and Cassie climbs on top of the train yelling a warning to everyone around. Marco and Ax work to free humans from the cages and Ax is amazed to see human Controllers help with this effort as well.

Visser One morphs some huge octapus-like beast in the Yeerk pool but quickly realizes that with a bomb ticking it’s in his best interests to just get out of there. By the time Cassie, Ax, and Marco head out, the Yeerk pool is mostly empty, except for the pool itself that is still full of Yeerks.

The next day, the Animorphs all come to survey the damage. Almost the entire downtown area has been collapsed in on itself and the devastation is extreme. They know they’ve inflicted a massive strike against the Yeerks, but none of them can feel happy about it. Ax thinks about the human Controllers who stayed behind to help others and realizes that Cassie is right; Aftran wasn’t the only Yeerk who wanted a different life.  They see Visser One’s Blade ship flying in and are resigned to the fact that, yet again, he escaped. But they console themselves that he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Council about this disaster. Ax ends the story with a very familiar couple of paragraphs about how he’s chosen to throw his lot in with the humans.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: So this was a really strange and frustrating book for Ax. There were some really good moments in there, but most of it was a direct re-tread of emotional conflicts that he had already solved before, therefore making many of his decisions and thoughts read as very out of character for the Ax we have now.

The good stuff mostly came with his reflections on Rachel’s warmongering and Cassie’s decision with the blue box. With Rachel, as I’ll note later, there was a good discussion about what it means to lose one’s childhood. Ax reflects on this for himself, that by Andalite standards, he’d still be a soldier in training and a young kid. But now, he’s a battle-weary soldier in the body of a young kid. This conflict is not only hard on Ax (and the others), but a challenge for those around them. Part of Rachel’s mother’s struggle seems to be accepting that her daughter has been operating as an adult for some time and can’t just slip back into being her kid and listening to her parent as a point of authority in a war situation that frankly Rachel knows way more about than her mother. Ax, too, has this same conflict when he interacts with the adult Andalites. They see him as a kid who is in need of direction by the adults in the room and that he should just follow orders as dictated to him (though some of this also seems to be a cultural aspects of the Andalites).

Ax’s thoughts on Cassie are also good. His rage at her decision are almost cathartic for those of us readers who were also incredibly frustrated with her thought process. But Ax and Cassie also have the most useful conversation in really digging into what that decision means, and, after the fact, Cassie’s own reflections on it. It’s pretty excellent stuff.

But other than that, man, it’s hard to like Ax in this book. We never really get at what motivated Ax to contact the Andalites in the first place and end up in this situation. For one thing, it directly contradicts his own vows to follow his Prince, Jake. He’s clearly been doing this in secret for quite a while.

What’s more, he’s somehow fallen completely back into the “I’m an Andalite soldier. I must follow Andalite commanders before anything.” Which, like I said, is a conflict we’ve already seen before and resolved. It’s not only boring but it makes the book read as if it’s completely detached from any character growth Ax has gone through in the series as a whole. Did the author even read Ax’s other books?? It sure as heck doesn’t read like they did. (Yes, yes she did. She even wrote one, ugh.) The Ax we see here is almost identical to the one in the very beginning when he had zero understanding of humans and no knowledge of the wrongs the Andalites routinely commit against other species. Now, after years of fighting with humans, and having seen the Andalites behave pretty poorly in the past, Ax has grown into a different character. For him to suddenly regress reads as really terrible writing and makes Ax into a pretty unlikeable character, if we’re meant to believe that he simply changed his mind again and needed to learn this lesson for like the 4th time. You could literally copy and past his last couple of pages and stick them in the end of at least three other Ax books that came before. Yada yada, humans are broken but they’re also great. I’ll side with them. Blah blah blah.

Our Fearless Leader: We definitely see Jake coming back to himself in this book. In many ways, the blow up with Cassie where he finally reveals what she did with the blue box seems to serve as a turning point. Once she admits to the folly of it and apologizes, he’s the first one to forgive her. And from there on out, he’s pretty much back to his old ways,leadership-wise. Even going so far as to reprimand Ax for calling him Prince once again. He also seems to finally realize just how important he is to the war effort, as he is successfully talked out of going on the last mission as it would be detrimental to lose him.

Xena, Warrior Princess: This is one of the better books for examples of Rachel’s war issues coming out in realistic ways. In the very beginning, she’s the one to lead the charge into the subway system with Ax, even though there is obviously nothing to be gained from this action. And then she takes off after the Yeerk that Ax released. As it seems that Ax was speaking to the Yeerk privately, Rachel could see it as the Yeerk escaping rather than Ax letting it go. But either way, chasing down fleeing enemies is another step in Rachel’s hard path. Ax makes a few snide comments about how Andalite warriors who grow to love war too much are “put out to pasture” essentially. Though, as I’ll discuss later, nothing we’ve seen from the Andalite as a whole (disregarding the ones we’ve had in book like Ax and Elfangor) really proves that they have the same sense of morality about warfare as Ax is thinking. It’s a bit rich to rag on Rachel’s ruthlessness when you know your own people are planning to just sacrifice an entire species as just another chess move in their war with the Yeerks.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias doesn’t have a lot in this book other than his confrontation with Ax about Ax’s communications with the Andalite leaders. Tobias has always been one of the more cool-headed members of the group, handling big revelations with a much more reserved manner than the others. So it makes sense that he handles this conversation as he does, not coming down on Ax too hard for doing this all behind their backs. The conversation is pretty short, however, and I do think that it leaves something to be desired. For one thing, it isn’t acknowledging that this is like the millionth time that Ax has seemingly wavered back and forth between Andalites and humans, even though he’s repeatedly in the past come out vocally for the side of the Animorphs. For all of his talk about Cassie’s traitorous ways…

Peace, Love, and Animals: This is a really good book for Cassie and gets at a lot of what was missing from her own book with the nonsensical decision to just end it where it does and then go an entire book more without addressing it further. We finally get the reveal to the entire group about what happened, and Cassie’s apologies and explanations read as much more believable and sympathetic (if still wrong-headed). She apologizes repeatedly and even takes ownership for the way that decision is impacting the huge things they’re doing now. She pretty much admits that she put them in the position to having to go to this level, so she’s on board to help, even if it’s the kind of action that she’s largely against.

In her discussion with Ax we also get her thoughts into the effect that morphing could have on the Yeerks. Even in this conversation, however, she admits that this was an after-thought, so we can’t give her credit for this line of reasoning when she made the initial action; she said then and repeats now that she didn’t have a reason for doing what she did other than it feeling right. But, as we see in this book, the domino effect on the Yeerks is happening and her quick understanding that that may occur is definitely spot on.

The Comic Relief: Marco’s kind of been a different character since the return of his mother. It seems like in many ways this is an intentional shift, with other characters noting that he is much happier now. And it makes sense that his attitude would change somewhat with the driving factor behind his choice to fight being resolved with the saving of this mom. But from a reading perspective, it’s a pretty big loss. Marco’s last book was a huge let-down, feeling as if he had lost much of his spunk. And here, we also see a very different character on the page. Most notably in his reaction to Cassie’s giving away the blue box. Rachel reacts with the anger we’d expect, but in the past, she was always joined by Marco who has almost zero tolerance for poor strategic decision making in the service of “feelings.” His perspective was an important aspect of the careful balance maintained by all members of the team, and losing a large part of what made Marco Marco is pretty unfortunate.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Not a lot that I can really think of. The falcon!Yeerk who is desperate to get trapped in a falcon’s body does highlight just how miserable the natural state of being a Yeerk is. Beyond anything else, Yeerks who do this are essentially forfeiting huge chunks of their lives. Visser Three has been around and kicking for quite some time and doesn’t seem to be classified as an elderly Yeerk. But a falcon has a pretty short life span, around 13 years average and maxing out at about 20. Given this level of sacrifice to escape existing as a slug, it’s really a shame that the idea of using morphing to bypass the hosting thing wasn’t thought of sooner.

Couples Watch!: Again, really nothing. Tobias holds Rachel back when she’s getting mad at Cassie about the blue box. And Jake forgives Cassie for the blue box fiasco, but even that is fairly straightforward and devoid of much romance. Ax sees Cassie and Jake’s strained relationship as yet another sign that the group is falling apart. So, too, when they make-up, it’s almost the first steps towards the team coming together again.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser One makes a token appearance at the end of this book, showing off a new morph before ultimately (and predictably) choosing to save himself and get the heck out of there rather than fight.

But, again, I think we have to admit that by and large the Andalites are pretty villainous. I mean, at this point both the humans and the Hork Bajir could agree that being “saved” by the Andalites is just as disastrous as being attacked by the enemy Yeerks. Probably worse, really, since the Andalites are so completely focused on conquering the Yeerks that they actually hinder the efforts of other species to defend themselves. They took out the Hork Bajir with disease, and here, we have Andalite commanders telling Ax to actively prevent the humans from fighting back so that the planet can be “quarantined.” At best, they’re no better than humans (who have their own pretty unfortunate history of warfare tactics), but they sure as hell aren’t any better. This kind of behavior makes it pretty hard to sympathize or connect with Ax in this book.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: There were some pretty depressing scenes in this book. From the very start, the descriptions of the humans being herded into the subway system had definite concentration camp vibes. Ax describes seeing adults and children wearing pjs, clearing having been rounded up from bed and herded down. And then in the end, the Animorphs give the warning to get out of the Yeerk pool, but this warning also causes a panic and Ax notes that people were getting trampled to death in the crush to get out. It’s pretty tragic sounding.

A smaller, character moment is one between Rachel and her mother. Rachel’s mom helps convince the National Guard commander to go along with Jake’s orders. And in that moment Rachel realizes that her mom can be helpful to the cause (before this, in the last several books, she’s been an active hindrance.) Rachel breaks down crying and hugs her mom. Ax notes that perhaps the emotional crux of the situation is that Rachel, like him, is realizing that she lost her entire childhood, something she can’t get back, like her old child/parent relationship with her mom. It’s a really great moment to humanize Rachel and not have her just feel cartoonish, something that’s been happening more and more in these later books.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Most of the plans in this book are pretty good and are operating at an entirely new level. Jake doesn’t just need to plan the actions of a small, closely knit group; now he has to coordinate several groups all made up of different types of people with different abilities and roles to play. He’s got the Hork Bajir, with their commander Toby. The parents. And the auxiliary Animorpsh, with their commander James. It’s a lot of moving pieces to have in play and a lot of different personalities to wrangle.

Really, the worst plan is the one that Rachel and Ax have at the beginning because there is no plan, essentially. Ax notes from the very beginning that going into the subway has no point, but he goes along with it anyways. Rachel is clearly leading the charge, but Ax and James participate for longer than they should have, perhaps.

Favorite Quote: 

A really great explanation by Cassie. This thinking clearly applies to not only humans and Yeerks, but as we’ve seen, Andalites, too, who have had leaders come up with terrible plans that others follow.

“Humans have had some pretty evil leaders, too. Thousands, sometimes millions of people have followed those leaders, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Sometimes because they were just too afraid to say no. What if some other species decided to wipe out the human race based on the existence of a few powerful people? What if that species decided all humans were cruel, based on the actions of a handful of sociopaths?”

And this pretty much sums up my attitude on Cassie’s blue box decision:

“You think I’m a traitor, don’t you?” she asked.

I nodded. <Yes.>

“But did I do the wrong thing?”

<I do not know.>

Scorecard: Yeerks 15, Animorphs 19

A clear win for the Animorphs. They’ve been talking about destroying the Yeerk pool almost from day one, so it’s pretty cool to see it happen. That said, I really like how “uncool” they make the whole thing. It’s clear that this is a disaster all around, a terrible situation that is barely worth celebrating. In the last chapter, many of them note that while this was clearly their biggest victory, it’s also the one they feel worst about.

Rating: This was another strange book where there was a lot of good stuff, but the main character’s story was pretty lacking. I really liked that we got more into the stuff with Cassie and the blue box. A lot of small character moments were devoted to this and we got to hear a lot of varying perspectives on her decision. I also really liked getting to hear more from Cassie herself, and what she had to say, while not making up for the decision itself, is really well handled and thought out. There were also great character reflections for Jake and Rachel. And even Tobias gets a good conversation with Ax. I definitely prefer Animorph books like this that balance out all of the crazy action with these smaller moments.

The action itself was also very good. We see more of how morphing on its own is still a learned thing for the Yeerks, as they struggle to get their falcon morphs under control. The introduction of the idea that some Yeerks may see morphing as an alternative is well handled. And, of course, the big fight in the end that finishes with the destruction of the Yeerk pool is great. The Yeerk pool has served as a tangible symbol of the enemy that is the Yeerks from book one, so it’s neat to see it come full circle with the Animorphs finally destroying it. And, like I said before, it’s nice that a huge disaster like this isn’t simply heralded as “awesome.” It’s a terrible choice to be forced into and very sobering, and all of the characters see it as such and reflect on that in the end.

But, for Ax himself, this was a really frustrating book. It doesn’t make any sense, character-wise and instead wastes his last book on a story that we’ve heard many times before. Ax is a great character and we got almost none of his great humor or his funny reflections on the foibles of humanity. His decision to contact the Andalites in the first place is never made clear, and his struggles with which side to choose come out of nowhere and don’t seem based in any natural character conflict. It’s really disappointing that this is the last book for him.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!