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!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read #51: “The Absolute”

363390Animorphs #51: “The Absolute”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, March 2001

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: The Yeerks have taken over units of the National Guard with plans to infest all of its officers and soldiers. The plan seems to be to step things up—use the Guard to prepare for an all-out war on Earth. The Animorphs couldn’t be less prepared. They’re living with the free Hork-Bajir colony, Jake is depressed, and worst of all, the morphing cube is in the hands of the enemy.

Marco and the others know they need to take serious action to stop the Yeerk infiltration of the Guard. They decide to approach the governor—but they don’t know if she’s a controller or not. If she is, they’re walking right into enemy hands. If she’s not, the Animorphs are finally going public with their secret. And no one knows which situation is worse… 

Narrator: Marco

Plot:  This book was pretty much a mess from start to finish for me. I didn’t remember much of this book, and it’s pretty clear why. Sure, on paper, big things happen, but the story itself is pretty lackluster, all the more so for feeling like a waste of one of the few remaining books we have left.

My feelings throughout the book. But mostly about the decision to leave out half of the characters.

Marco and Tobias are on a reconnaissance mission to scout out a train bringing in large numbers of the National Guard. Given there is no holiday coming up, the Animorphs are suspicious that the Yeerks may be planning a mass infestation of the units, now that the war is coming out to the public more and more. It turns out that yes, the train is under surveillance by the Yeerks, now able to morph and watching it in the form of several birds of prey lead by no other than their own red tailed hawk. Tobias and Marco have to put their bird skills to use to try to escape, and even then, they only make it out by stealing a tank that Marco has to drive. Yet again, Marco’s driving abilities leave something to be desired, and Chapman’s house is the latest victim to his inability to steer or brake.

Back in the Hork Bajir valley, they decide they need to take a big step to prevent this: inform someone high up of what’s going on. Jake splits the team into two groups. The first, made up of Marco, Tobias, and Ax (the “finesse” group) is to find the governor and convince them of what’s going on and try to prevent the National Guard from all coming to town. The remaining Animorphs and James and his group will try to create a diversion to also delay the troop movements. During the conversation, Jake makes it clear that he doesn’t want Cassie out of his sight because he no longer trusts her, though the others don’t understand what has happened between the two of them.

Marco, Tobias, and Ax make their way to the Gardens to get some long distance flyers. The manage to acquire ducks, but end up being spotted and chased by Controllers as well. They  make their way to the capitol but realize they don’t know where the governor lives or what his name is. They get the address for the mansion, eventually, and once there, morph cockroach and go on a wild ride clinging to the limo that they see a pair of shoes they assume is the governor enter. They end up at a fundraising event and follow the governor and a woman in heels into the bathroom. Once there, they demorph and begin the rundown on the situation (they then also realize that not only did they not know where the governor lived or what their name was, the governor was in fact the woman in heels, not a man at all). As they’re attempting to convince her, it becomes clear that her husband is a Controller and they have to make a wild escape with a brave bodyguard named Collins helping to hold the Yeerks at bay.

Many high-jinks ensue involving Tobias driving a limo, them having to jump off a bridge and on to a yacht, and said yacht getting blown apart and sinking beneath them with Marco having to rescue the governor who had been attempting to steer it to ground to save the people on it. They end up retreating back to the governor’s mansion and finish explaining the entire situation. Collins, the brave body guard, meets them there. They ask whether the governor knows anyone high up in the National Guard who has been gone for at least three days and she mentions a high rank member of the service and his unit of several hundred soldiers who have been out of the country for the past two weeks.

Later, back in the valley, they all gather to watch TV and see the fight that Jake and the others were in on TV. It hadn’t been going well until a unit of the National Guard showed up as support (the governor’s troops). The governor then gets on air herself and explains what is going on: aliens have invaded and the world is in a war for its survival.

The Comic Relief: This might be in the running for one of the books where the main character has the least interesting things happening to them. Really, there’s practically no emotional arc or character development in this book. It’s a real shame as now that his mom is back in his life, I feel like there could have been some really good stuff there. We’ve barely seen them together, and it’s always only been briefly in other character’s books. It’s too bad because it seems like there would be a lot there with them having been on opposite sides of this war for so long.

We also see very little of Marco the practical, ruthless strategist. Big things are finally happening in this war and with those events come some big moral situations and Marco’s perspective on these types of choices has always been unique. But again, we don’t get any of that. We get a few good comedic lines and a return of Marco driving poorly, but this late in the series, I would have really appreciated more for him.

Our Fearless Leader: Frankly, I think we saw the wrong two characters highlighted in this third to last book. We’ve seen very little from Jake ever since his sinking into depression, and there’s ton to be mined there. Even more so from the perspective of his best friend, Marco. Early in the book, Marco notes how badly Jake is doing and Marco’s own guilt about being happy about his own family situation in comparison. But then Jake’s gone for the rest of the book. We don’t see him facing his ongoing challenges as a leader. We don’t have any moments between Jake and Marco as best friends whose roles have been swapped. It’s all really unfortunate.

Xena, Warrior Princess: Again, another character who I’m super frustrated to not see more of. As I’ve said in the past, other than Jake, Rachel has one of the most interesting arcs over the entire series. And then, of course, knowing her end…it just seems incredibly wasteful to not get to see more of her here. She has a few good lines, but then is off page for most of the book. The governor is compared favorably to Rachel several times with her ability to stay cool under heavy fire and say “Let’s do it!” to crazy plans. But there’s no replacing the real Rachel, especially this close to us losing her for good.

A Hawk’s Life: Tobias puts his flying knowledge to good use early in the book and then gets to actually drive a vehicle in the end, something usually Marco does. Marco did get to drive a tank in this one, though. I will say, however, the descriptions of Tobias’s driving sound much more “Bourne-esque” than Marco’s. Yes there is still a lot of damage, but he’s also in a high speed chase and weaving around to avoid gun/Dracon beam fire. It comes off a bit more badass than, say, taking out garbage cans in a pickup. Tobias and Marco both assume the governor is a man, and take some flack from Ax for not knowing anything about her, even her name. Tobias has an excuse having been out of society for quite a while now, but Marco has a rather poor showing, all things considered.

There’s also a strange bit where Tobias jumps off a bridge in his Hork Bajir morph and somehow manages to morph hawk before hitting the water. The timing mechanics of morphing seem to be yet another casualty to the rushed feel and lack of thought that went into this story.

Peace, Love, and Animals: And our third character who we lose out on. After the major events of the last book, it’s really a shame to not see more of Cassie and how she’s working within the group. Especially her relationship with Jake. We see that it is strained, even from the small moments we get, but we don’t see how else Cassie is dealing with the fallout of her choice. In this mission, it would have been interesting to have Cassie there when they’re dealing with the Controllers in morph. It’s also clear that no one knows how exactly the blue box fell into the Yeerks hands. Probably a good choice by Jake on that one. I can’t see the others taking it very well, maybe especially Marco, who has been known to be practical to the point of ruthlessness in the past.

E.T./Ax Phone Home: For being on the main mission of this book, Ax had very little of note. Again, he served as “proof” of the alien invasion story by showing up in his real form to greet the governor. He also had a few funny lines, at one point whipping out a line of sarcasm that Marco notes is a new level of humor for Ax, though it comes at an inopportune time.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Not a lot really. When they’re acquiring the ducks, Marco, rightly, questions why they never thought of getting an endurance flyer like this before (really, this is a major strike against Cassie and her animal knowledge that it never came up before. Not only can ducks go long distances, but they can fly together without it being strange), Marco brings up the unfortunate fly!Jake swat incident for years ago. He mentions that if they had thought of duck morphs then, that could have been avoided. That really was one of the more gruesome animal injuries any of them sustained. There are also some passing comments about the extreme levels of bodily injuries a cockroach can sustain. But other than that, not a lot other than the typical morph explanations.

Couples Watch!: Zilch. Though the governor does seem to take it rather easily that her husband has been infested by an alien, mind-controlling parasite…so that’s odd.

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser One makes a brief, pointless appearance towards the end of the book. In all honestly, I just finished reading it and I can’t remember anything notable about him being there and am pretty sure I forgot that he was one of the human “Controllers” running around during all of the action. The one notable thing about the villains that stood out in this book was the way the morphing has changed things. At one point, Marco notes that this constant paranoia must be how Visser One has been existing for the past several years, suspecting every animals is an enemy in morph. I thought it was clever how the book highlights that while the ability to morph is huge, the Animorphs still have a slight advantage in being more familiar with their morphs’ abilities, as seen in the bird chase in the beginning of the book. I also thought it was notable that the red tail hawk seemed to be leading the charge for the bird!Yeerks. Golden eagles are much bigger, stronger birds, but you have to wonder if the Yeerks assumed that red tailed hawks had some mystical advantage since one of the “Andalite bandits” had been using it as a battle morph this entire time. So the honor of getting that morph went to the head Yeerk in that situation.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Not much of anything. This book is almost entirely taken up by action pieces and chases. So maybe that’s the most sad thing: we’re getting so close to the end of the series and huge things have been happening for all of the characters. And yet, when all of these great characters moments could be happening, instead we’re reading back-to-back generic chase scenes. It feels like a huge waste and missed opportunity. The saddest bit of it all is that we have an entire book that is missing half of the team. The strongest part of the entire series has been reading about this team of very different characters working together to save the world. Why you would lose one of your few remaining opportunities to play to this strength and instead only focus on  only three of them (and arguably the less important three) is beyond me.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Whenever the plan to “reveal all” to people comes up, it’s always landed in this area. And really, this one isn’t any different. Yes, the stakes are higher now and their secret out there anyways, so if there’s a time to do it, this is probably it. But the whole thing hinges on the governor just happening to be a super chill lady who just accepts this bizarre story out of nowhere. Even more so, high ranking members of the National Guard are willing to just go with it too when the governor calls on them. It’s all a bit unbelievable. The crazy levels people will go to to not have their comfortable world-view challenged has always been the problem with this plan, and it feels like it works out here more because it had to for the sake of the story than for any actual reason. The only way the world “finding out” really works is if it’s all revealed to a large number of people and recorded, or something. These one-on-ones are just hard to buy and the fact that members of a military branch would believe it enough to fight their own, based on zero evidence, is also highly questionable.

On a smaller scale, the beginning little antics that somehow ends with Marco running a tank over Chapman’s house…It’s never quite clear how the tank goes from “middle of nowhere on a train line” to “Chapman’s house.” It seems like that would be quite a distance, and any benefit of speed would be lost once you ended up in an urban neighborhood and off highways. What’s worse, they’re being followed by Controllers the whole time, and it’s not like a tank is very inconspicuous. The story conveniently skates over how Marco and the others managed to escape the whole situation after the destruction of Chapman’s house. We have to assume they go fly or something. But overall, it still reads like one of those throw-away action scenes that is supposed to be fun to read but doesn’t hold up to much thought.

Favorite Quote: 

Before gorilla!Marco jumps off a bridge with the governor, one of several Rachel comparisons.

<You scared of heights, Governor?> I said.

“As opposed to what? Bullets? Laser beams that vaporize solid concrete? A bridge that might collapse under me at any moment?” She shook her head. Took a deep breath. “Let’s do it.”

“Let’s do it?” A vision flashed into my head, the governor when she was a kid. She looked like . . . Rachel?

And a good line about Tobias’s driving:

<Just keep your eyes on the road,> I said. <And I don’t ever want to hear another word of criticism about my driving.>

Scorecard: Yeerks 15, Animorphs 18

We’ll give this one to the Animorphs. Getting a high-ranking official to believe them and mobilize human troops against the Yeerks is huge. And as it seems like the secrecy game was going to be shot anyways by Visser One’s insistence on speeding up efforts, the fact that the Animorphs have been able to keep up as well as they have is pretty big.

Rating: This was an unfortunate book all around, I think. I mean, on its own, it’s fine. But given how late we are in the series, it felt pretty wasted. We get tons of action scenes, but at this point, those are fairly low on my priority list, especially when they just feel like generic chase scenes and take up about 80% of the book. Maybe these were more fun to read when I was a kid, but as I’ve re-read this series, these types of escapades are always the parts that I found myself skimming. So to come up on one of the last books and have it so devoted to only that…*sigh* And, again, big changes are happening, this time with the reveal of the war to the general public. But there is very little emotional build up and absolutely zero follow-up action as the book immediately ends after the TV announcement from the governor. Like several of the last books, I feel like they’re all ending right before we get to the good stuff of the Animorphs having to actually unpack these huge changes in a war that has largely stayed the same as they’ve fought it for the last several years. You can’t help but feel that either the author(s) just didn’t care about this part of the story, figuring kids will be distracted by tons of action scenes. Or that the ghost writers weren’t challenged with taking on bigger character moments like these. Whatever the reason, I’ve found myself more often mourning the things that are left off the page than appreciating what’s actually there. Well, one more book before we’re there! We’ll see how Ax fairs in all of this.

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