Book Description: The Helmacrons need more power to escape the earth’s atmosphere, so they have returned to demand the morphing cube. When Rachel tries to destroy their ship, the tiny egomaniacs bail — right into Marco’s left nostril. And the other Animorphs have to get them out before the little aliens do some real damage.
Narrator: Rachel & Marco
Plot: We all know the story: a frizzle-haired teacher, a class of students, and a magical school bus that goes anywhere and makes even the most ridiculous things seem fun and cool. Sure, many of their adventures were legitimately cool on their own; who wouldn’t enjoy traveling to all of the planets! But some of them…definitely could have gone another way. And Animorphs is here to prove how!
The story starts off in the normal way: the team returning from yet another battle. But as they demorph in an alley, they are temporarily blinded by the flash of a camera. Some kid has taken a picture of them mid-morph! They chase after him, but he disappears into an apartment complex. The team sets up a state-out and agrees to meet up at Cassie’s barn the next day to discuss next steps.
And from there, it all goes haywire with the sudden reappearance of the Helmacrons. All together in Cassie’s barn, the tiny Helmacron ship reappears and, predictably, is again after the blue box that Cassie has hidden there. Rachel and Marco both lunge to grab the ship before it can get to the box, and in the process, Marco hits his head and falls to the ground. From there, Tobias gets to witness the truly terrible image of a group of Helmacrons marching straight up Marco’s nose.
Now the team is in a real pickle. The Helmacrons have their tiny lasers on them, and there’s a real concern over the amount of damage they could do to Marco if they should start firing inside of his body. So naturally, the only thing to be done is to go in after them! Jake strictly instructs Marco to lay low and not to morph, not knowing how morphing could affect them while inside Marco’s body. They use the Helmacrons’ ship to shrink themselves down to size, and Marco uses a bit of straw to deposit them in his nose.
Insert lovely scenes about snot and walking through snot and burying oneself in snot to avoid a sneeze. Lovely stuff. They eventually come upon the Helmacrons but quickly notice something is wrong: the Animorphs are much, much smaller than even the Helmacrons. They realize that they had been set up and fallen into the trap. Luckily, the Helmacrons are engaged in a bit of a civil war between the genders and aren’t making too much progress with whatever their plan is either. After a few mishaps, the Animorphs and the Helmacrons all end up falling down Marco’s throat and end up in his stomach.
Meanwhile, Marco is getting bored of waiting. He can’t speak to the team, and for some reason Ax is just not updating him on what’s going on. Restless, he decides to go check out the kid’s apartment and try and get a hold of the camera and film. Breaking in doesn’t go as planned and he ends up being bitten by the kid’s pit bull.
In Marco’s stomach, the team struggles to survive being eaten away by the acid, an all too familiar scenario for poor Rachel and Tobias. Cassie morphs a whale at one point and the team huddles on top of her to try and gather their bearings. From there, they witness several Helmacrons die in the acid themselves, but the others manage to slice a whole in Marco’s stomach and make their way out into his blood stream. The team figures that they must be capable of breathing “under water” and determine that the best way to follow would be in shark morph. They morph sharks and all struggle at first with the madness that their close proximity with blood inspires in the sharks’ minds. They follow the Helmacrons out into the arteries. Along the way, Cassie shares “body facts” about what they’re seeing.
Back in Marco’s perspective, things are not going well. He has begun to feel strange, reckless and anxious. He decides to go back to the kid’s apartment once more and try again to get the camera. Once there, he decides that he needs to morph a cockroach. He proceeds to morph.
Inside Marco, the others realize that Marco is morphing and frantically wonder what is going on that would force him to take such a reckless action. They all manage to survive the morph, and immediately thought speak to Marco asking him why he felt the need to risk their lives morphing. Marco responds in a very petulant manner and Rachel begins to wonder what is going on. She knows that it’s not a great situation for Marco, but that he’s never stupid, and morphing with them in his body was stupid.
They finally catch up with the Helmacrons, but they won’t be reasoned with and start firing their guns. Marco goes still. The others are convinced that he has been killed by the internal damage. They manage to get a hold of the laser guns from the Helmacrons and force them to give in. They cut a hole in cockroach!Marco and make their way out. Outside his body, Cassie begins to theorize that it seems strange that Marco would have died as a cockroach, since they are practically unkillable. The team takes turns trying to wake him up before the two hour deadlines expires. At the last minute, he comes to. He morphs a gull, the team climbs on, still holding the Helmacrons hostage, and Marco grabs the camera in his beak on the way out.
Xena, Warrior Princess: Like the Atlantis book was for Jake, and the first Helmacrons book was for Cassie, these books that veer all the way into crazyland tend to be rather dud-like as far as any real character growth goes. But, on the other hand, the last several Rachel books have been more damaging to her character than anything, so maybe I should count this as a lucky miss that there’s practically nothing worth discussing for her here. Sure, there are a couple of moments where we see her dive head first into the action, but even those instances are pretty restrained and not too notable. Towards the end, there are a couple of moments that reflect the deeper understanding of Marco’s character that she has gained from being an Animorph with him. Before, I imagine, he was just her cousin Jake’s annoying friend. Now, she knows him well enough to notice that his defensive and weirdly aggressive responses to why he morphed when Jake had expressly told him not to were out of character for him. She notes that while he can be annoying, he is anything but stupid, and morphing in this instance was stupid. It not only risked the other Animorphs’ lives, but Marco’s own.
Our Fearless Leader: Jake has a few comical moments when he tries to mimic the Helmacrons’ grandiose way of speaking in an attempt to convince them to leave Marco and give up their quest for the blue box. He also shows how comfortable he has become giving members of the team orders, noting in the end that he still needs to talk to Marco about why exactly Marco disobeyed a direct order. This is definitely the type of comment that we’d not expect to hear from early-series Jake who was still struggling to accept his role as a leader, especially when it comes to laying down laws on his best friend.
A Hawk’s Life: Not much from Tobias in this book, which is always a bummer on its own, but is worse in Rachel books where we stand a better chance of getting more from him.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie plays the role of “Ms. Frizzle” in this book and is pretty much giving them a tour of Marco’s insides throughout the story. At one point, she is so caught up in this role that she is essentially evaluating the state of Marco’s immune system instead of paying attention to anything else that is going on. It’s pretty bizarre, frankly. But with a book like this, which is essentially setting out to accomplish exactly the same thing that the Magic School Bus episode was, to teach kids about the body’s inner workings, we would need a character like this along the way, and Cassie makes the most sense. She’s also the one to realize that Marco is likely not dead in the end, noting how difficult it is to truly kill a cockroach.
The Comic Relief: This is a strange book in that it’s another one where we get weird insert of POV chapters from another character’s point of view. Rachel is one of my favorite characters and, not only do I think she gets short-changed in a lot of books, other than Jake, she has potentially the most interesting arc throughout the series to follow. So with that in mind, it’s a bit unfortunate to see one of her books divided between her and another character. But, if I was going to have to pick that character, Marco’s always a good choice. Of course, he’s also weirdly written for most of this as he is suffering from rabies-induced mania for much of it. Even without Rachel noting Marco’s strange behavior, fans of the series, especially this late in the game, are sure to raise an eyebrow at much of the out-of-character decision making we see from Marco here.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Also not much from Ax. On and off, he serves as a communication point to Marco as one of the few members of group who can use thought-speak. But…yeah, other than that.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Really, most of this book. Unlike the cartoon-y take we get from Magic School Bus, this book tears that cutesy band-aid off right away with overly disgusting descriptions of the Animorphs having to bury themselves in snot to avoid getting sneezed out. It’s pretty disgusting and vaults this book up next to the “Andalite toilet” book as far as catering to middle grade body humor goes. I did not enjoy a return to this level of “entertainment.”
Couples Watch!: Ugh, practically nothing! There was literally one line where Tobias privately thought-spoke to Rachel when they were in Marco’s stomach telling her to morph quickly when she was stuck in the stomach acid. Which can also be attributed to the fact that the two of them already had a close encounter with potentially being digested back in Megamorphs #2. So yeah, as far as romance goes, a pretty big let down here. It’s all the more sad to see knowing how close we are getting to the end.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: No Visser Three in this book! The Animorphs note a few times that they can’t be sure that the Helmacrons aren’t working with the Yeerks, so this is meant to add another level of urgency to their mission, though I’m never quite sure their reasoning makes sense.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Again, I cry at the return of childish body-humor as a form of entertainment. Just…no.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Kind of the whole thing? I don’t understand what the Helmacrons’ endgame was. How was getting the Animorphs to follow them into Marco really going to accomplish anything? I’m not convinced that all of the Animorphs going in after them was wise, rather than just a few of them. And why oh why the group then chooses to keep Marco completely out of the loop the entire time is beyond strange. Ax should have been updating him the entire time and then when they all morph sharks, they definitely should have been letting him know what was going on. You could make the case that Marco wouldn’t have felt compelled to go after the camera in the first place had he been more in the loop with what the others were up to. Beyond that, I’m pretty skeptical of the whole rabies subplot. How exactly did someone’s pet pitbull end up with rabies? It’s pretty rare for that disease to be found in household pets since most are vaccinated and then rarely would come into contact with the wild animals that would need to give it to them in the first place. And there’s no mention of the fact that, hey, some kid and his family are now LIVING WITH A RABID ANIMAL! And Rachel thinks it’s more important to let Marco question his own sanity for another night than, I don’t know, warn this poor family about this life-threatening situation.
“You know,” Jake said thoughtfully. “I think this is the most disgusting mission we’ve ever done.”
Scorecard: Yeerks 11, Animorphs 15
Rating: All in all, a pretty “meh” book. It didn’t enrage me, but I also kind of buzzed through it, not caring at all what was going on. I didn’t enjoy the return of body humor and I was sad to see another book where Rachel doesn’t really have much character progression. For all that we hear about her deteriorating mindset from other characters in their books, it’s a real shame that we don’t see more of it from Rachel herself and how she is coping with these changes. The potential here is gold and it’s so, so wasted. Plus, the whole story was stock full of ridiculous scenarios that don’t make much sense. From the very beginning, it’s clear that this is just a “concept” book that derived from a wacky idea. There’s no good reason for the Helmacrons to be back, or for them to take the actions they do, or for them to give up in the end really and agree to leave. If I think about it too much, I could probably get frustrated with the laziness, but as it is, I’m happy enough just letting this one slide back into cool indifference, lost to memory eventually.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!
Book: “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” by Mark Verdheim, Den Beauvais (Ill.), Sam Kieth (Ill.)
Publishing Info: Dark Horse Books, April 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description:In 1986, James Cameron’s “Aliens” brought to theaters the horrors of a new kind of war against a terrifying enemy. Long before Alien3 was even a glint in director David Fincher’s eye, Dark Horse Comics was already crafting a terrifying post-Aliens continuity for Ripley, Hicks, and Newt.
Earth is overrun by xenomorphs with no hope of saving it for humanity. But that doesn’t mean just leaving it to the Aliens. Ripley has a plan to capture, from what they believe is the Alien homeworld, a “Queen Mother”–a super queen that rules multiple nests–and bring it back to Earth. There the Queen Mother will command the xenomorphs to gather where they can all be destroyed by nuclear bombs.
Collects Aliens: Nightmare Asylum #1-#4 and Aliens: Earth War #1-#4. Includes cover art for all issues.
Review: Even though Science Fiction isn’t really my preferred genre, if there is an excellent horror theme to it I’m assuredly going to be game. So it most likely isn’t shocking that I love both the movies “Alien” and “Aliens”. Not only does it have a solidly excellent female protagonist (Ellen Ripley for LIFE!), it also has a very scary adversary in the Xenomorph, a creature that is essentially a giant parasitic space bug that you COULD fight, but you have significantly better odds if you just run away. The first two movies in the “Alien” franchise are awesome, and while I love them both my heart probably belongs to “Aliens” the most. Not only does Ripley get to kick more butt, but she picks up a rag tag group of friends along the way, specifically the Colonial Marine Corporal Hicks, the android Bishop, and the orphan Newt, a girl saved from an overrun colony. “Aliens” ends with the Alien Queen vanquished, and Ripley looking forward to taking her life back with her new found family in the wake of the one she lost while drifting in space post “Alien”.
…. And then “Alien 3” happened, and it completely trashed that perfect ending by crashing the ship, killing off Hicks, Newt, and Bishop, and throwing Ripley into a new clusterfuck of a PRISON COLONY SETTING because apparently she doesn’t get ANY breaks whatsoever.
What does this have to do with “Aliens: Nightmare Asylum and Earth War” you may ask? More than you’d think. SO, after “Aliens” came out, Dark Horse created two mini series set within the “Alien” universe, focusing on Hicks, Newt, and Ripley a few years after the action in “Aliens”. But when David Fincher’s dark for the sake of dark “Alien 3” came out, Dark Horse decided that it had to be retconned because HEAVEN FOR FUCKING BID THAT HICKS AND NEWT REMAIN ALIVE IN COMIC FORM. So Dark Horse went back and changed the names of Hicks and Newt to Wilkes and Billie, and they were SOMEHOW not Hicks and Newt in spite of the fact they were CLEARLY Hicks and Newt, and re-released the two series with a brand new ‘now agreeing with film continuity!’ seal of approval. Given how “Alien 3” ended and what happened to Ripley, what with her DYING, I don’t understand why the comics decided to change Hicks and Newt to fit THEIR deaths, but let Ripley come back unaffected. But whatever, what do I know? Happily, in 2017 Dark Horse went back and righted this wrong, and both “Nightmare Asylum” and “Earth War” were re-released in a hard cover collection with Hicks and Newt back in tact. And now that this “Short Brief History” has concluded, let’s get to the review.
I’ll start with “Nightmare Asylum”. Ripley wasn’t seen much in this story, but I was surprisingly okay with this because it gave Hicks and Newt some time to shine. Set a fewish years down the line from “Aliens”, Newt is now a young woman, and has been living as a surrogate daughter/sister/friend to Hicks. They have been floating in space, as Earth has been taken over by the Xenomorphs and they escaped by the skin of their teeth (along with an android named Butler with whom Newt has been in a relationship). But unfortunately they run afoul a crazed General named Spears, who has gone full General Kurtz and thinks that he can make an army of Xenomorphs to fight against the Xenomorphs on Earth, namely by torturing and trying to condition an Alien Queen to make her control her brood lest he destroy her eggs. And while Ripley is nowhere to be seen for the most part, I REALLY enjoyed “Nightmare Asylum”, if only because Hicks and Newt (her in particular) had some fantastic story lines and moments of riveting action. Given that I have ALL the love for both Hicks and Newt, I am a-okay with the focus being on the two of them. For Newt it’s because she has taken on the role of the determined and scrappy Ripley character, and it shows how she has gone from scared orphan girl to be saved to an adult who is out to save the world. For Hicks it’s his continued journey of being a tough and competent soldier who is more than happy to let the tough ladies around him take the reins. He had the utmost respect for Ripley and trusted her, and he has the same respect for Newt. And also, Hicks was played by Michael Biehn, who was foxy as HELL in the role, so yes, my libido has SOME influence over my affinity.
But I also REALLY liked the main plot with the crazed General trying to use the Xenomorphs to his own ends. Any “Alien” fan worth their salt is going to know that this is a TERRIBLE idea, but it feels original enough that it could totally fit within the hubris that we see so often in this universe. And with new but familiar protagonists coming in to deal with it it doesn’t feel like just another instance of ‘Ripley is right AGAIN and why doesn’t anyone listen to her?’. Ripley can be right til the cows come home, but admittedly it would get a bit old. And yes, Ripley DOES show up, right at the end, so it doesn’t feel like she’s been forgotten or thrown to the side. One note I do have, though: I didn’t like that there were so many sexualized drawings of Newt. Sure, she’s an adult in this story arc, but was it REALLY necessary to have multiple shots of her in skimpy underwear and spread legs?
“Earth War” was next, and that one brings Ripley more into the fold. As she, Hicks, and Newt (along with other brave fighters) gather together to try and take Earth back, Ripley also has to contend with her leaving Newt and Hicks behind after “Aliens”. I liked the device that was used in this case, as it doesn’t feel too cheap (like “Alien 3” did, and no I will NOT shut up about how much I hate that movie) and also feels wrenching. To Ripley Newt was sort of seen as a stand in for her daughter, who died while Ripley was in hypersleep out in space, and so it was important to give a GOOD explanation as to why Ripley would have disappeared after “Aliens”. “Earth War” absolutely achieves that. But I think that the reason I found it to be the weaker of the two, in SPITE of Ripley’s presence, is that it feels very rushed. While the smaller story of “Nightmare Asylum” works in four issues, trying to cram a reunion for Ripley and her friends, information as to where she was that whole time, AND a battle to take Earth back from the Xenomorphs in the same number feels VERY rushed. Plus, I think that for me there was a HUGE disconnect from the artwork between the two, and I much preferred Den Beauvais:
Versus that of Sam Kieth:
I generally like Kieth (I REALLY like his work on “Sandman”), but I didn’t feel like it fit in as well with the content at hand. Which means I was taken out of it a bit more than I would have liked.
All that said. this collection is FINALLY back the way it is supposed to be, and I am SO happy that I finally got to read it. “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” gives “Alien” fans the stories that we’ve always deserved, and it gives Ripley, Hicks, and Newt a lot to do without getting dour or unnecessarily bleak. I greatly enjoyed this series as a whole.
Rating 9: The “Alien” continuation that we deserve to have, “Aliens: The Original Comics Series” is action packed, powerful, and a shining light on favorite characters from the first two movies.
We 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 ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both.
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: “The Shadow Cipher” by Laura Ruby
Publishing Info: Walden Pond Press, May 2017
Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobooks from the library!
Genre Mash-up: Science Fiction and Mystery
Book Description:It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.
Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment house—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long-held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.
From National Book Award Finalist Laura Ruby comes a visionary epic set in a New York City at once familiar and wholly unexpected.
I don’t read much middle grade fiction. Yes, technically the Animorphs started out as a middle grade series, but I’m pretty sure most of us can agree that it pretty quickly veers into YA territory with the gruesome and serious nature of much of it. And there are a few examples of MG fiction (even some recently, like “A Flight of Swans”) that do appeal to me, but by and large, it’s just not my jam. With this in mind, it’s really hard for me to review this book objectively, since much of it simply didn’t connect with me as I’m just not the correct reader for this book. So, with the criticisms to come, keep in mind that this book may still very well appeal to many actual middle grade readers and plenty of adults who like to read this age level of fiction. I can definitely see how it might!
To start with some pros, however, I did like the general concept of the story, how simply adding two brilliant inventors into a time period could effect all of history that follows. It’s an extreme example of the butterfly effect. I was also very much into the opening chapter of the book that was set in the 1800s and seemed to be presenting a sort of “steam punk” like world. This portion of the story also featured adult protagonists, so that also probably had something to do with my preference for it.
I also liked the diversity of the main cast of characters and a look into what life would be like growing up in a huge city such as New York. I grew up in a tiny rural town, so the idea of running around a massive city on my own at age 13 is hard to comprehend.
But, those pros aside, this book just didn’t hit the mark for me. For one thing, I struggled with the mash up of science fiction technologies alongside other elements of the world that were unchanged. There seemed to be a really random assortment of new inventions that would simply pop up here and there. And yet, in other parts of life, that same advancement was no where to be seen. It made it feel less like a naturally developed world, but instead a collection of weird concepts, none connecting to another in any fundamental way.
I also thought the book was incredibly slow and the urgency was lacking. This is a long book for a middle grade title, and much of the middle of it just felt like a slog. Not only did it take a while to even get into solving the mysteries, but once there, the sense of urgency never seemed to connect with the actual situation. I was left feeling kind of cold and uninterested about it all. If you’re going to have a book that revolves around solving mysteries, it really needs to revolve around those things, and this just didn’t feel like that. I also really didn’t like that, going in, I knew the mystery wasn’t going to resolve, as this is the first book in a series. All of the mystery series that I read and enjoy will feature the same cast of characters, but the mysteries themselves are solved in each book, with maybe one or two other through-lines as far as the stories go. I just don’t like books where the mystery itself is left unresolved at the end.
So, yeah. This book wasn’t for me. That said, all of my complaints are very subjective and revolve around my own reading preferences. Nothing in the book is actually truly objectionable. The characters are solid, the world is interesting, and the mysteries are clever. If you like middle grade fiction, this book may very well work for you. But if middle grade books are more hit and miss for you, I would skip this one.
I read Laura Ruby’s “Bone Gap” a few years back, and while I understood how people would love it as much as they did, I found it to be ‘pretty okay’ at best. So when “The Shadow Cipher” (not “York”; I’m going to touch on that in a bit) was our book club selection, I was hesitantly optimistic that I’d get another read that was ‘pretty okay’. The problem is, “The Shadow Cipher” had a number of things working against it for me, and because of that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would.
But first I want to address the things that I did like, because there were a few stand out aspects: The first is that, like Serena mentioned above, I liked the diversity of and the somewhat unique issues that faced our main characters. One of the biggest threats in this story is that Theo and Tessa Biedermann could lose their home because of a real estate developer’s greed. Gentrification is absolutely a huge problem in large urban cities, especially in our version of New York City, so I appreciated that Ruby brought this issue up within this story, and showed the faces of those who bear the negative brunt of ‘progress’. She addressed it in a way that felt tangible to a middle grade audience, and yet didn’t feel TOO heavy handed or spoon fed to them. What we see are children who are afraid of losing their home, which shows a very human cost to the ever changing landscape of real estate in regards to the less privileged. I also enjoyed the alternate world aspect of this book. I’m a huge sucker for stories that are KIND OF in our world, but wax poetic on how the world could have turned out if one thing had been different. While I’m not totally certain that Ruby completely reconciled the science fiction/steampunk concepts with her world, I liked seeing the effort made.
But, like Serena, I too had a hard time with the pacing and seeming lack of urgency within this story. In other similar tales like “The Westing Game,” the puzzle that the characters are trying to solve is usually at the forefront and very much the driven focus of the novel. When a new piece is solved, it is on to the next. In “The Shadow Cipher,” it felt like it was slowly flitting from place to place. I feel that with their home on the line these kids would be far more rushed (I think about “The Goonies” and how they are so scared about losing their homes that they go on a crazy whirlwind of a treasure hunt that always feels like it’s moving).
My final criticism is probably far more petty and pedantic than it needs to be, and has less to do with the story itself. Look at that cover, folks. If you saw that cover, what would YOU think the title of this book is? The confusing graphic design made me unreasonably annoyed. I know that doesn’t have much to do with the book itself, but it really frustrated me and we had a long discussion about it during book club.
Overall, “The Shadow Cipher” really wasn’t my kind of book, and while I don’t think that it should necessarily turn readers away if they think it sounds like their kind of book, be warned that it may be a long read.
Serena’s Rating 5: Not objectively bad, but definitely not for me. The world-building didn’t come together in the way I would have liked, and the story itself lacked a sense of urgency.
Kate’s Rating 5: Though the characters were fine and I liked the alternate universe angle, “The Shadow Cipher” was too slow for the kind of mystery it was and just didn’t appeal to me.
Book Club Questions
Did you find the alternative timeline in this book believable and well conceived?
In this alternate version of our world, there are small changes that are mentioned in the culture of society (such as the superhero movie “Storm 2”). What do you think about these small changes and do you think that Ruby was trying to say something with them?
“The Shadow Cipher” is similar to other books with themes of kids trying to solve a puzzle such as “The Westing Game” and “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” How do you think that it compares to other books in the genre?
This book is generally for older middle grade and YA readers, but it covers fairly topical social justice subjects like social disparity and gentrification. Do you think the target audience will make connections about what Ruby is trying to say?
What did you think of Tess, Theo, and Jaime as our protagonists? Were they believable characters?
This is the first in a series. Do you think you’ll move on to the next book? Why or why not?
Book Description: Jake wakes up one morning to find he is suddenly twenty-five years old, the Yeerks rule the world, all the other Animorphs are either dead or Yeerk-infested, and he alone is left to fight.
Plot: Well…that was…a thing? Another book I had completely blocked from my memory, and another book where I completely understand why. It’s not that I hated the characterization (like a few of the dreaded Rachel books that I had also partially blocked), but, instead…
Similarly to Megamorphs 4, the story opens with a brutal fight scene. In many ways, it’s even worse than the one we saw there. Rachel goes into a beserk rage, not able to recognize her own injuries and the futility of the situation. Marco, trying to help Rachel, tells Jake to leave them behind. Which Jake does. Afterwards, when they make it all out, Cassie has a complete melt-down, questioning why they are even doing what they are doing any more. And, instead of comforting her like he typically would, Jake just walks away.
From there, the book spirals into an unexplained and unexplainable dream sequence/dystopian future/something? For the first time, I honestly don’t know how to sum up what happens because the story literally jumps from one nightmare sequence to another, with Jake often passing out in-between, and almost zero connection between one moment of horror and another. Throughout, implausibilities and inconsistencies are littered, making readers feel like some reveal is coming, and then the story just ends. So, instead of my typical beat-by-beat plot discussion, we’re resorting to bullet points, cuz frankly I don’t know how else to handle this BS.
Jake wakes up in a future where the Yeerks have taken over. He’s 25 years old and everyone around him thinks he’s a Controller.
On his way to “work,” he escapes to the ground level of New York City which is largely deserted but for roaming, almost-feral Taxxons and a new alien species called the Orffs which operate as police. He finds himself in the sewers and runs into what is essentially a homeless camp of disabled humans, Andalites, Gedds and others.
Back on the ground level, a building is blown up and topples. He runs into an adult Cassie who is working with her Yeerk to resist the Yeerk Empire. She claims that Jake betrayed the Animorphs by being careless which lead to them all being Controlled and Rachel dying. She enlists him to spy on a big project the Yeerks are setting in motion to turn the moon into a giant Kandrona ray.
At his work, Jake has a flash where everyone around him becomes zombi-fied versions of Controllers he’s killed in battle. Rat!David also shows up, scurrying around.
His Controlled!Dad shows up, and Jake morphs tiger. Everyone is shocked that a human can morph. He gets knocked out.
He wakes up to be confronted by Controlled!Marco. Cassie said Marco became Visser Two, but in their conversation, Marco says he’s Visser Three and then smiles mysteriously when Jake points out the inconsistency. Marco reveals that he has captured Cassie before he releases Jake, saying they’ll track his movements now that they know he’s connected to the Yeerk Resistance.
At the cafeteria (?), Jake runs into a crippled Rachel; she has lost both legs, an arm, an eye, and her vocal chords have been damaged. Jake wonders why Cassie said she was dead.
He gets chased by Orffs again and somehow falls through a trapdoor in the street and finds himself in a Resistance shelter where freed humans and Andalites are raising children. They say the floor doesn’t open for just anyone and that Cassie must want him to learn something. He talks to a few of the children, before making his way back to the surface through a tree.
On the surface, he runs into an adult Andalite that he at first thinks is Elfangor. He soon discovers it is Tobias in his Ax morph. Jake is confused because before this he had spotted an elderly red-tailed hawk flying in and out of areas and had assumed that was Tobias. They discuss the ethics of war, particularly terrorism’s role in guerrilla warfare. Tobias sends Jake to prevent the moon/Kandrona mission, dismissing Jake’s concerns about rescuing Cassie, saying one life is a sacrifice worth making in the bigger scheme of things.
At the Chrysler building, Jake ends up in a situation where he has to choose between saving Cassie or aborting the moon mission. He makes his choice, but we don’t know what it is.
He wakes up in his room to a voice, specifically mentioned to NOT be the Ellimist or Crayak, that says that he made an interesting choice and the humans will require more study. Shaken, Jake calls Cassie on the phone and asks if she is alright, saying he should have asked her the night before after the battle.
Our Fearless Leader: The plot is hot garbage, but the writer does stick true to characterization throughout. And in light of past complaints where the opposite has been true, I will give this book the smallest of props for that. Really, a large part of the problem arises with the placement of this story in the series. We had JUST come off a book that opened with a horrific battle, then focused on Jake’s feelings of hopelessness and failure, and then delved into some type of alternate reality that helped keep him on the right course. So, because of that, unfortunately, much of this felt familiar.
It was interesting that much of the internal struggle for Jake here had to do with the changes he saw in Cassie, her hardening towards warfare, and the Yeerk Resistance fighters’ use of terrorism as a combat tactic. The latter, in particular, is the type of topic we’ve perhaps briefly discussed in Cassie books, but it is given new life here what with the actual terrorism tactics being used (blowing up buildings that contain civilians) as opposed to the guerrilla warfare style of the Animorphs. That being said, some of Jake’s outrage is a bit hard to handle since the Animorphs do verge on these tactics themselves. I can think of many incidents, but the elephant/rhino beach invasion on the summit back in the David trilogy would definitely meet the definition of terrorism. However, it’s still interesting watching a character like Jake, rather than Cassie for once, grapple with these things.
Xena, Warrior Princess: Probably the second-most recurring struggle for Jake throughout this book is his growing discomfort with his own use of Rachel. In the opening battle, he chooses to leave her and Marco behind, partly knowing that Rachel will hold Yeerks off in her battle rage. And in the alternate reality, he at first thinks that his own carelessness gets her killed and then sees that he got her maimed. Obviously, much of this is on Rachel’s character itself: she would go down fighting rather than be infested, more so than any of the others. But Jake repeatedly thinks about how he “uses” Rachel and how he has finally/will someday break her by treating her like a weapon and not a person. Dun dun DUNNN.
A Hawk’s Life: So for half the book we think Tobias is some type of spectral, old hawk that flies in and out of scenes. And then we find him as a grown-up version of Ax. Of all of them, this route for Tobias makes the most sense. We’ve seen his leadership capabilities in the past, and his choice to get himself stuck in an Andalite body over his own human one also makes sense. As an Andalite, he has natural weapons and can better participate in the ongoing fight, and we know that this has been a driving force behind his choice to remain as a hawk. He’s also the one to get into the nuts and bolts of the terrorism conversation with Jake, and, again, it is easy to imagine a Tobias who would become hardened to the point that we see here.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie has the second-biggest role in this story and the most marked change of them all (can’t really count Marco since we don’t actually get to see real Marco for more than a second). Her hardened attitude seems to scare Jake more than almost anything he’s sees in this version of the future. I have mixed feelings on this. I like how it really solidifies how important Cassie’s pacifism is to Jake’s ability to balance the choices he makes in the real timeline. He depends on her to have this outlook and to pull him back from terrible things. And it’s definitely believable that Cassie would manage to talk her Yeerk around to joining up in the Resistance and establishing a partnership of sorts. So for the first half of the book, I was completely on board. But when we’re introduced to the underground safe haven where the children are being raised…that kind of messes with things. That’s the kind of hopeful, peaceful situation that would both draw Cassie into working there instead of on the streets, but also provides the type of ongoing hope that we know is important to her to keep her general outlook. With its existence, it was harder to believe in this super hardened version of Cassie.
The Comic Relief: Marco is barely in this. We get half a word from the real him about halfway through the book, and that’s about it. His fate is obviously one of the most horrible, as, miraculously, the other Animorphs are all mostly still fighting somehow. We know that the fate of the Controlled being depends on the Yeerk they end up with (as we saw with poor Tobias in the last Megamorphs books), but you also get the sense here that Controlled!Marco has risen so high in the ranks due to it being Marco and him being the smartest of the group. As I said, that doesn’t actually track, but oh well. In any state of being, Marco will be supremely, sometimes horribly, effective. It’s also worth noting that in the opening scene, Marco is the one to both stay behind to try and help Rachel out, but also the one to yell at Jake to leave them. More points to the special relationship between Rachel and Marco (also, practically speaking, his gorilla morph is the only one that can really “help” a grizzly), but also a nice scene highlighting Marco’s “clear, bright line” approach to the war. He sees the same situation that Jake does and he agrees with his unspoken assessment that he and Rachel are best left behind for the good of the group.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Is Ax even in this book? Not only is he the only one we don’t see in the future (according to Cassie he is off in space after helping take down the Andalite home world), but I don’t remember anything special from him in the initial battle either. I’m sure there was some passing references, but obviously nothing memorable.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: The zombi-fied remains of Jake’s past kills were pretty bad. It’s one of the annoying, random scenes that just inserts itself into the middle of the story for no reason, but if I try and ignore that (it’s very, VERY hard to ignore all of these random plot scenes and issues), the scene itself is brutal. It’s essentially a personification of all the horror that Jake has dealt out. Not only are there Controllers sporting obvious wounds from a tiger, but rat!David even makes a brief appearance, ready and able to remind Jake that actual killing may not have been the worst thing he’s done so far.
Couples Watch!: Jake’s relationship with Cassie is pretty much the driving force of the last half of the book. He’s obviously horrified by her hardened state and his own supposed role in the entire situation, but things really get started after Cassie gets captured and he has to choose between trying to save her or stopping the moon mission. What makes this harder for him is that everyone he talks to has a clear answer: moon mission first. Tobias, even Cassie herself, all say that one person’s life isn’t worth the results of this mission going forward. We don’t know what Jake chooses at the end, though I think it’s pretty strongly leaning towards him saving Cassie. That would also be the more interesting choice, considering the events of the last book.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: No Visser Three in this book. Though I will take this opportunity to rant about one of the many weird inconsistencies in this book: the fact that the Animorphs were all taken as Controllers (or most of them) and yet, other than Marco, they were given to nobody Yeerks and then somehow everyone forgot that they could morph. It’s so bizarre and unlikely that it just pissed me off whenever I was reminded of the fact. And, of course, the set up for the book, revealed at the end, that it’s all some mysterious experiment, gets the author off the hook for having to justify any of this nonsense.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: The scene where Marco is given a brief second of freedom from his Yeerk and is clearly so unused to it that he barely remembers how to talk on his own. Like I said earlier, his and Ax’s fates are by far the worst. We can’t really count Jake in any of this, and the rest all managed to keep fighting in one way or anther. Even Rachel’s horrible disfigurement seems better, and we all know that she’d choose that over being Controlled any day.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: I don’t even know, the plan of this entire book and whomever came up with it?
Favorite Quote: For all of its stupidity, when the book actually slows down enough to give Jake real moments to interact with those around him, we got some good stuff, like his conversation with Tobias. And this brief interlude with a kid living in the underground safe haven:
I wondered how I should answer, how I could explain to him, without destroying his spirit.
“War doesn’t always let you save the people you know,” I said. “You might end up being assigned to a mission that saves people far away from here. People you don’t know. Other people’s friends.”
He shook his head.”I’ll save my friends first. Then I’ll save other people’s friends.”
And then there was this:
I’d decided a while back to give up analyzing what was happening to me and why. I’d figured that sanity depended on accepting the reality I saw, this dream or nightmare or vision. But that didn’t mean there weren’t times when all I wanted were answers — definite, concrete answers.
This almost felt like a slap in the face, because not only was Jake forced to have this approach, but it felt like this is where the author was pretty much telling readers to not expect anything else from this entire book. Just take what you have and be happy. We’re not going to explain anything, so give up hope waiting for that and deal with it. I’m sorry, but no. There have been plenty of other nonsense story lines in this series, and I’ve went along with them all because at least there we were given even the smallest tendrils of an explanation. As implausible as those explanations were, at least the author made an effort to rationalize it all and give it meaning. Here, there was none of that. The fact that it wasn’t even the Ellimist or Crayak in the end, but some other cosmic force that is never mentioned again was just insult on top of injury.
Scorecard: Yeerks 11, Animorphs 15
I’m giving a point to the Yeerks again out of anger with this book. And for the fact that during the majority of this book they had, indeed, won.
Rating: Man, I really didn’t like this book. The characters were strong and I did like some of the larger issues they tackled (the fact that this was set in NY city, had a tower come down, discussed terrorism repeatedly, and was published about 6 months before 9/11….yikes). But as I briefly got into in the section above, I can’t forgive the sheer laziness of the story as a whole. There wasn’t even an attempt to explain why or how any of this was happening. Beyond that, we were given small moments, like Marco’s slip-up calling himself Visser Three rather than Two, that IMPLY something bigger is happening that Jake and readers should be figuring out, or at the very least, waiting for the reveal for. But nope! Nothing means anything! And then, the stupid voice at the end. Frankly, I would have been more on board had Jake just woken up and realized the whole thing was a dream. But to add in another all-powerful cosmic entity, and just drop it in like it’s nothing, explain nothing, and have nothing ever come from it again? No. That’s just crapping all over your readership because you wanted to do something wacky and didn’t care enough to come up with a way for it to work.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!
Book Description: Jake’s finally weakened. After a grisly battle, the Drode offers the Animorphs’ leader an escape from the terrifying pressure. He’ll reverse the decision to start the Animorphs. Now, there’s no morphing, no missions, and no knowledge of the Yeerks. That is, until very strange things begin to happen and Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, Marco and Ax are forced to confront their new reality.
Plot: After a particularly horrible battle, Jake is back in his room, dreading the inevitable nightmares that are sure to come: his friends dying, all because of his own decisions. At this weak point, Crayak’s servant the Drode appears and gives Jake an out: say the words and this can all go away, Jake and the other Animorphs can go back to blissful ignorance, back before they met Elfangor in the abandoned construction lot. From there, a weird alternate reality takes over.
After meeting up at the mall one evening, Cassie and Rachel spot Jake, Marco and this guy named Tobias, (they think?) heading out. We witness the same exchange that we got from Jake’s perspective way back in book #1, but this time from Cassie’s POV. They agree to head home together, but instead of going through the construction site, they take the long way around. In the sky, they see a flash of what looks like a meteorite falling. Cassie gets an odd feeling, but they all reach home safely.
Over the next few days, we check in with the rest of the crew. Tobias is living with his uncle and has quickly fallen out of hanging around with Jake and Marco, getting the sense that while nice enough to him, they’re not really looking for new friends. This leaves Tobias at the mercy of even more bullies, that is until he’s invited by another kid to a meeting of The Sharing. He sees Jake and Tom there, but doesn’t talk to them.
Cassie is having weird dreams, voices in her head and images of the ocean. She goes into the barn now and then and is having weird memories of Marco lounging on hay bales (but Marco’s never been there) and a large bird of prey up in the rafters.
Ax is under the sea, waiting for rescue. It’s been weeks, however, and no one has come. We see him captures and acquire the hammerhead shark morph that he had when the Animorphs originally met up with him back in book #4. After a period of time, he finally decides to give up waiting just as a group of Controllers make their way towards the Dome ship. He escapes as a shark, taking out a bunch of Taxxons on his way, and makes his way to the surface.
Jake is receiving increasing pressure from Tom to join The Sharing. He has nothing against it, but is more and more beginning to resent the pressure from Tom to join.
Marco and Rachel go on a school trip together where Marco flirts outrageously with her. He is happy to find that there is more to her than her looks as she wittily matches him and puts him in his place with his ridiculous come-ons. Just as things are getting interesting, Marco spots his “dead” mom and takes off after her, trying to chase her down.
Rachel has felt all her life that something is missing, and when Marco takes off after some woman who can’t possibly be his dead mother, she doesn’t think twice, leaping into action and following after. The two chase Marco’s mom around town, finally backing her into a corner in an alley, only to find that she’s called reinforcements and now it’s they who are trapped. What’s more, the reinforcements don’t shoot regular guns, but some type of strange laser beam. Rachel and Marco manage to make their escape up a fire ladder in the end. They also start quasi-dating off page.
Tobias, now being protected from the bullies by members of The Sharing, finally decides to join as a full member. He meets Jake in the hall at school and mentions this. Jake seems suspicious of the whole thing, mentioning that any group that asks individuals to give up themselves in order to be part of some whole might be a bit weird. Tobias, though, at the mercy of bullies and practically no family, decides to go through with it. At The Sharing, he and a few others go into a room to become full members. To his surprise, Vice Principal Chapman and a strange man named Mr. Visser are there. Chapman gives a pretty speech about how Tobias will now be part of something bigger than he is. Mr. Visser scoffs at the necessity of the speech, but Chapman says it usually helps. Even with the speech, Tobias starts freaking out when they lock him down to a chair. From there, he’s infested with a Yeerk. But not just any Yeerk, a Yeerk who secretly works for Visser One and there to tell Visser Three that the Council of Thirteen wishes Visser Three to proceed with Visser One’s more secretive approach to the invasion on Earth.
Ax has found himself a place to stay: the mental hospital. But after a while there, he realizes that he must do more and the only way to tell if the Yeerks are on Earth is to present them with bait they can’t resist, an Andalite. He makes his way to a TV station and projects a short video of himself.
At home, Jake and Tom both see the video. Tom freaks out and tries to sneak out of the house, but Jake sees that he has a gun with him and, suspicious, stows away in the back of the car. Tom makes his way to the TV studio. There he meets up with Chapman, Mr. Visser, and, strangely, Tobias. A small fight breaks out, and in the chaos, Tom shoots at Jake with a ray gun (though he can’t see who it is to know it’s Jake). Jake briefly sees his own hand start to change into the paw of a tiger. He freaks out and rushes back to meet up with Rachel, Cassie, and Marco in the barn.
There, Cassie confesses to the strange visions she’s been having. Before Jake can describe the alien on the video, Cassie is able to describe him herself, based on these strange “visions.” They all agree that some sort of conspiracy is going on, likely involving The Sharing since they know Tom and Tobias were involved. Cassie watches the discussion and notes that everyone is the way they “should” be: Jake is the leader, making the decision when necessary; Rachel is ready to act, now; Marco is sitting back, cautious and analyzing the situation from afar. But something is still missing.
Back with Tobias, we see the slow spiral of his thoughts as he realizes the truly terrible situation he has gotten himself into. There’s no going back, and this is his life now. He also realizes that the Yeerk in his head is a bit scared, noting that Visser Three is being too accommodating of a Yeerk who just delivered bad news. At a meeting, Visser Three confronts Controlled!Tobias and accuses the Yeerk of working for Visser One. After threatening to starve him to death, the Yeerk confesses and Controlled!Tobias is shot in the head.
The others have decided to track Tom, their only known lead. But we see how difficult their task is without morphing abilities: even following him becomes almost impossible because they can’t drive. Jake and Marco try to sneak through Tom’s things, but don’t see anything. On the TV, however, they see another broadcast from Ax, this time on all of the stations. He explains about the Yeerks, how they Control people and that Earth is under attack. Marco quickly guesses that this is what has happened to Tom and his mother. Tom confronts them with a laser gun and tries to herd them out into a waiting car, likely to be infested now themselves. Rachel shows up with a bat and takes Tom out. From there, chaos breaks out.
A Bug fighter shows up in plain sight and begins chasing them. They manage to make it a few blocks before the fighter blows up some cars. The explosion beats up Rachel and Jake, but it kills Marco. Shell-shocked, they make their way to the mall and meet up with Cassie. Ax is there as well, having holed up in Circuit City to broadcast his message. On his way out, he runs into three teenage humans who are now being chased by a bunch of Yeerks through the mall. One of them knows his name. Cassie convinces Ax that she doesn’t know what’s going on, but something’s not right and they are supposed to be friends and allies. Ax says they need to make their way to the roof to escape.
On the way there, several fights break out and Rachel comes into her own with a blaze of battle prowess. But once on the roof, she is killed by a Hork Bajir. Ax, Jake, and Cassie run towards the Blade ship that has landed on the roof. As they run, Cassie, too, is shot and killed by a laser. Jake and Ax make their way on to the Blade ship, but they run into Visser Three who is about to kill them when Cassie appears again out of nowhere and kills him. A disembodied voice complains that she was dead and that this is getting out of hand.
Ax, Cassie, and Jake fly the ship into space and are just about to take out the Yeerk Pool Ship, likely resulting in their own death as well, when it all stops. A being that calls itself the Drode and an old, grandfatherly-like creatures calling itself the Ellimist show up. The other dead Animorphs also show up. The Drode complains that the Ellimist cheated, that Cassie is an anomaly that messed with the alternate reality. He accuses the Ellimist of “stacking the deck” by selecting Cassie, a time/space anomaly, Marco, the son of Visser One’s host, Tobias, Elfangor’s son, and Ax, Elfangor’s borther, to be part of his team. The Ellimist says that his decisions came into play before the timeline change, so it was a fair deal. It’s not his fault that Cassie’s mere presence will always ruin it, grounding the timeline into the one that is meant to be. Besides, the Drode was the one to call things off in the end, just as Jake, Ax, and Cassie were about to blow up the Yeerk Pool Ship.
Through all of this, the others regain their memories. Jake is horrified that he gave in and that this was the result. The Ellimist says that things will reset to the night Jake made this decision and that none of them would remember but for Cassie who would have vague images here and there. Cassie decides that whatever she remembers she will keep to herself. She doesn’t want Jake to know he ever caved to Crayak or Tobias to know he chose to be a Controller. Rachel comments that she will be more than happy to forget dating Marco.
Time resets. Jake is in his room, dreading his nightmares. The Drode appears and temps him, just as Jake is about to answer, the Drode sighs in annoyance, says never mind, and disappears.
Our Fearless Leader: The brief scene at the beginning of this book is brutally effective, especially given how short it is. We don’t know the details of the mission, but multiple members of the Animorphs almost die. They also have to walk out on a dying human Controller that was taken out in the action. There’s nothing special about this fight, which is what makes it all the more believable that it would be the one to break Jake. It isn’t a matter of the fight itself being worse, but the accumulation.
We get some good stuff from Jake throughout the book, but some of the bigger moments are his discussion with Tobias about The Sharing and his natural fall into leadership, even in this alternate reality. The former gets at Jake’s inherent distrust of organizations that call for the loss of the individual, and it’s a brief discussion, but very interesting for what it says about him. The second is a good example of just how inevitable it was that Jake would be the one to lead this group. He’s a natural leader, able to make tough decisions quickly when they need to be made, regardless of changed circumstances. It’s also definitely for the best that Cassie is the only one who will even partially remember this whole thing. Jake has enough weight to carry and the knowledge that he ever made this choice would surely be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Xena, Warrior Princess: Rachel, too, falls naturally into her regular role. She pines for action from the very beginning and doesn’t question motives or sanity or anything when Marco takes off after his “mother.” She acts, and she acts quickly. She’s the one that really gets them out of the alley situation, vaulting Marco up to pull down the escape ladder.
There’s also the neat scene where she comes to Jake and Marco’s rescue when they’re being carted off by Tom, and she takes him out with a bat. We get this line from Jake, and it’s the kind of scene that you can picture showing up in a movie:
I stared at my cousin. Rachel was breathing hard. But her outfit, hair, and makeup had remained perfect.
We also see what has to be a contender for one of her most bad-ass moments in the entire series during the fights that take place in the mall. At one point, the group is fighting a bunch of Hork Bajir with the few ray guns they’ve manged to get their hands on. Things aren’t looking good at one point when Rachel manages to use the decapitated head of one Hork Bajir to stab another Hork Bajir in the chest, killing him.
A Hawk’s Life: Omg, Tobias. His entire section is just heart-wrenching. What makes it all the worse is how very believable it is. Through the entire series, it’s easy to wonder what would make a person agree to be a Controller, and it’s hard to imagine any scenario where that would be a choice someone would make. But here, we see not just some random person do it, but a beloved hero we’ve followed through tons of books. Tobias’s life is terrible. His aunt and uncle are the worst kind of indifferent. One set of bullies was put off by Jake, but another group is always waiting to beat up on him next. Even his rescuers, Jake and Marco, don’t really do much to help Tobias. Sure, Jake stood up for him, but Tobias can sense their lack of interest in being friends, and he inevitably drifts away. The Sharing is perfectly positioned to prey on kids like him.
And when he’s Controlled, the situation is just worse. He sees his life before and acknowledges that it was terrible, and that while yes, there was nothing he could do at the moment to change it, all he had to do was endure. But even with these thoughts, it’s not made to seem like Tobias made a stupid, easy-to-avoid decision . His life was hard; even knowing that endurance will provide an escape at some point, the reality of what life is like for kids like this is still really tough. And then he gets shot in the head because the Yeerk inside him is caught out as a spy. Oof.
Peace, Love, and Animals: This is a great book for Cassie. Not only are her chapters fun to read (especially the first one when we experience the scene before the construction night from her POV), but her insights into the team are put to great use. Through her eyes, we see how these individuals have key characteristics that remain true, regardless of how things played out. Her visions of the future are also great, being just subtle enough to create disturbing moments for her (like her recurring vision of a hawk in the barn) and clear enough for readers to get excited about the familiarities. She never just “suddenly remembers” anything in the lazy way of writing that so easily could have happened. Instead, her small insights and visions are always just enough at any given moment to slowly push things. Her memory of Ax’s name is the biggest one. Without that name, there’s a good chance things would have gone very differently, with the team never coming together and all being killed before they could reach the Blade ship and fly it into space, creating enough of a threat to force the Drode to stop things.
And then, of course, there are passive things that Cassie caused, like Jake’s weird hand morphing incident and the much more extreme example of her essentially coming back to life just in time to kill Visser Three. Most importantly, she realizes immediately that any memory of this experience that she retains is one that she must keep to herself; it would be too damaging to the group to know, especially Tobias and Jake.
The Comic Relief: For all that Marco quickly calls out the insanity when they’re all in the barn discussing the possibility of some weird conspiracy with The Sharing, he’s also the one to really defend the idea too, nicely highlighting the strengths of Marco’s character: he can say what everyone is thinking, but do it in a way that also highlights the realities of the situation. He has several moments where he shows his smarts, especially when it comes to spying on Tom. While Rachel wants action (any action!), Marco knows that they have to be cautious. He’s the one who warns Jake to look for booby traps that Tom might have set to warn him if anyone snoops around his room. Because of this, Jake is able to see the hair placed in a door to do just that.
It’s also important that Marco spotted his mom in the beginning of this book. We know from what we saw in the beginning of this series that, while smart, Marco is a very pragmatic character and would likely be unmoved to get involved in this whole situation had he not had a good motivation. And now, like then, that motivation comes in the form of his mother. It’s interesting to think, then, that if the only thing that changed was missing that construction site meeting, then there had to have been some Animorphs-related mission in the normal reality that prevented Marco and Rachel from being at that theater and seeing Marco’s mother then, instead of on the ship in book #5.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: It’s great to get some scenes from Ax’s time in the Dome ship in the ocean before the Animorphs would have rescued him. We even get to see how he goes about acquiring the shark, which is a great little tidbit of a scene to throw to fans of the series.
It’s also interesting to see how (and what) he learns about humanity without the Animorphs to help him out. For one, it takes him a bit to even establish which living being he should be when trying to fit in on Earth. In another nice Easter egg, we see that he considered cows at first because of their physical similarities to Andalites before dismissing them as too stupid. He does settle on humans eventually and it’s also no surprise that he would then wind up in a mental hospital. More nice tidbits with references to his eating habits, having managed to once again eat cigarette butts. But this time he fixates on Oreos instead of Cinnabuns.
His plan with the TV studio is also interesting, especially his final broadcast when he transmits the entire plot to the world. It’s hard to know whether this was really a good plan, as it forces the Yeerks’ hands into all-out warfare that humanity was clearly not ready for. But Ax is operating alone, and it’s easy to see him deciding to do something like this when he’s alone on a planet and playing any type of long-game would be incredibly difficult, both in actuality and emotionally.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: Tobias being infested, hands down. We’ve seen this before with Jake, but there it was kind of happening in the background and readers, like Jake, weren’t really sure what was happening. Here, we know the entire time where things are leading with Tobias’s plan to become a full member of The Sharing. And then reading about him being literally strapped down to a chair and a Yeerk climbing in his head…yikes, it’s bad.
Couples Watch!: I mean, obviously I’ve read this entire series before, so I knew this book existed way back when I started promoting the secondary Marco/Rachel ship. But c’mon, the very fact that it exists proves that that theory was a good one even from the very beginning. It’s not a hard leap to watch Marco and Rachel’s banter morph into something that could actually work. Marco makes Rachel laugh. Rachel is able to match Marco’s wit. They both leap into action together to chase Marco’s mom and are even able to quickly read each other’s minds as far as next steps with their approach to the chase and their final escape. Obviously, I still love Tobias/Rachel (and Rachel has a great moment in the end where she’s quick to reassure Tobias about his choice to become a Controller, that of course that would never happen), but the book does do a good job of presenting a legitimate alternative.
It’s also worth noting that Cassie pretty much asks Jake out (asks him to come study at least), which is more than what she’s managed to really do in main series. Non-Animorph Jake and Cassie are definitely more brave about their relationship than they end up being in reality.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: We get an interesting look behind the curtain into the world of Visser Three early in the invasion. Through Controlled!Tobias’s eyes, we see that the maneuvering between Visser One and Three had been going on long before the events of book #5. Given the small change in history, there’s no reason to think Visser Three hadn’t made this request to the Council in the normal time line as well, and that Visser One had tried to trick him out of it using a spy. We also see Visser Three sneer at Chapman’s attempts to convince Tobias that this choice is something good; Visser Three clearly sees it as a waste of time.
But, of course, the true enemy in this book is again Crayak, experienced through his minion, the Drode. The Drode has some pretty amusing lines and ways of speaking, but the scene in the very beginning when he temps Jake, really highlights how truly awful Crayak is:
“Just one word, Jake,” the Drode whispered. “No … no, two, I think. One must not sacrifice good manners. Two words and it never was. Two words and you know nothing, have no power, no responsibility.”
“One is Crayak. The other is please.”
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Again, like, the entire book? We’ve seen Animorphs die before, but there is something particularly heartbreaking about watching it happen here. In the other versions, the Animorphs have all been fighting a very dangerous war for quite a while. In their own ways, they’ve all grappled with the reality that they or their friends may die at any time. And they each continue to make the choice to get up and fight again, knowing that the risk is worth it in their attempt to save humanity.
Here, they’re just kids (even younger than the Animorphs we’re used to, as around two years has probably gone by at this point). Regular kids, with no powers, no greater knowledge of this war or greater responsibility to handle it, than anyone else. Tobias gets shot in the head for simply having the wrong Yeerk Control him. Marco gets taken out by a Bug fighter the first time any of them truly understand the technology they’re up against. Rachel holds her own in a fight for a bit, but the reality is that no teenage girl can last against Hork Bajir warriors. And the others have to just watch their friends die, in no way prepared for it or accepting that this was a risk when they got up that morning. It’s shell-shocking and traumatic.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: As I said in Ax’s section, there could be some questioning of whether or not Ax’s approach was truly a wise decision. With the Andalites nowhere near, goading the Yeerks into an all-out war is a pretty risky decision. But he’s an alien kid, alone on a strange planet, we’ll cut him some slack. And, as far as it goes, with no powers and very little information, it’s pretty impressive that the remnants of the team manage to maneuver themselves into a situation where they’re essentially about to win, even if they die in the process. So much so, that they force the Drode’s hand in calling the whole thing quits.
An obligatory section of Marco and Rachel flirting/quipping:
“Still, we should go out. Do a movie. Eat some burgers. I could make you laugh.”
“Actually, I think the mere memory of that suggestion will supply me with plenty of laughter.”
And, a longer section, but a good one given how the events of this entire book start because of Jake grappling with the challenges of being the leader and what that means:
“Jake? What do we do?” [Rachel]
“Yeah. What do we do, Big Jake?” Marco asked, half-mocking.
“What do you mean, what do we do?” Jake shot back. “Why are you asking me?”
Marco shrugged. “You’re the leader, man.”
“What are you talking about? The leader of what? And why am I the leader?”
“Because you are,” I [Cassie] said. The words were out of my mouth before I could think about them. I felt as if… as if I was a judge and had just passed sentence on Jake.
Marco jerked his thumb at me. “What the crazy chick said: Because you are.”
Scorecard: Yeerks 10, Animorphs 15
No change! Obviously none of this comes to pass, so the results don’t have any larger impact on the war. The Ellimist can count it as a win, though.
Rating: Sadness, this is the last Megamorphs book of the series. The Megamorphs books are a really mixed bag of experiences. The first one, I felt, was a big old swing and a miss. The concept was fun, as it’s the first book where we had multiple perspectives, but the action wasn’t really enough to support the style. It had some of the most memorable lines in the series (“Do you just hate trash cans?! Is that what it is?”), but as a whole, it’s not a great introduction into these off-shoot books.
I have a soft spot for Megamorphs #2 and #3. Both are completely hinging on the weird concepts of their stories (dinosaurs! time travel!) and it seems like readers’ appreciation of each will come down to how much fun they can have with those, albeit silly, themes. I was there for the campiness of the dinosaurs and entertained enough by the time travel (and the Tobias/Rachel kiss!) that I could turn my brain off enough to not think too hard about how it would really work.
But after all of this, the best was saved for last. This is the only one of the four that not only fully takes advantage of its split narrations (probably works so well because several members of the team, like Ax and Tobias, are completely disconnected and doing their own things for the majority of the story. And unlike amnesia!Rachel in Megamorphs #1, their actions are actually important to the story), but also has a solid concept that actually has things to say. We get a few great scenes that we missed in the early part of the series (Cassie’s perspective of their first meeting, Ax’s acquiring the shark), and the way the entire thing unfolds is as believable as it is terrifying. While, again, because of the nature of Megamorphs books, that they operate outside of the regular series, everything gets returned to normal and there is no lasting effect on the main plot, this book also seems to have enough new things to show and say that it seems like it should be required reading for the entire series.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!
Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, April 2000
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: Ax and the Animorphs find new hope when they learn that he is not the only non-infected Andalite on Earth.
Plot: I had some vague memories of this book, of the fact that it was another “more Andalites on Earth” book VERY shortly after we had just gotten done with the last “more Andalites on Earth” book. But since I really liked the last one, I had high hopes for this one. And while it doesn’t paint certain Animorphs coughAxcough in the best light, it’s a pretty good book as far as general characterization for our team and for Marco in particular.
Marco is chilling at home on one of his rare free evenings when he sees a strange video clip being highlighted on the news and immediately recognizes the blurry form as an Adalite. Sure that Ax has been caught on film and that a good percentage of Controllers also saw the clip and will be trying to find him, Marco immediately morphs osprey and flies off to find Ax and Tobias in their meadow. Once there, Ax is able to view the clip and notes that this is an entirely different Andalite, since it is missing the last half of its tail. Tobias is also able to guess at the location of the scene and he, Ax, and Marco quickly take off to check it out. Once there, Marco demorphs. Halfway through, however, a local possum starts morphing as well and they find themselves confronted with a massive, adult Andalite, notable NOT the one in the film. After a brief confrontation where the adult Andalite threatens them, smacks around Tobias, and insists they leave, they split off. But, of course, they decide to follow the new Andalite. After seeing him morph human, they are able to track him to a house in the suburbs. They decide that now is the time to call in the rest of the team.
Back with the group, Ax reports that he has heard of both the Andalites who are stranded on Earth. The large one is named Gafinilan and the injured one is named Mertil. Both have strong reputations, though Ax makes sure to get in a few digs about how Mertil is now essentially useless due to his injury. The group decides that for now it is best for just Ax and Marco to approach, not giving away their true numbers. At the house, osprey!Marco decides to try and get a closer look, but when he flies in towards the house he is zapped by a force field. Gafinilan gets on a speaker system and tells him to surrender and come in or he will shoot them. Marco and Ax demorph and approach.
After some more barbed words, Marco and Ax are invited in. On the way in, Marco notices a slight tremble in Gafinilan’s large body. Inside, he leads them to a hidden room where through mad gardening skills he has re-created an Andalite meadow. He and Ax partake in eating an Andalite herb while Marco surreptitiously acquire a bee that is buzzing around, figuring he may need the morph later. After establishing a reluctant amount of trust, Marco and Ax agree to bring their Prince to meet with Gafinilan.
The next day, the group meets up at the mall to discuss their plan of action. It’s agreed that while Gainilan appears to be a bit of a loose canon, Jake should go ahead and meet with him. The others head out, but Rachel lingers behind with Marco. She has correctly guessed that Marco has his own plans and isn’t about to let Jake wander in without further investigation. The two team up for a spy job.
At Gafinilan’s house, Rachel sets up to provide back up support and Marco morphs bee to make his way in. He almost gets eaten by another bug on his way in, but eagle!Rachel manages to rescue him. The second trip in goes better and bee!Marco makes his way into the house. He doesn’t find Mertil. Anywhere.
After Jake scolds Marco and Rachel, the team try and figure out what game Gafinilan is playing. Ax suddenly realizes the importance of the herb he ate while visiting. It is a pain killer, and after witnessing Gafinilan’s shaking, Ax is able to guess that he has a horrible Andalite disease called Soola’s Disease. It create horrendous pain and is fatal. They figure out that Gafinilan is likely trying to meet Jake thinking that he is an adult Andalite whom Gafinilan could acquire and thus escape his disease (even though, according to Ax, this is considered a very shameful thing to do).
The next day, Jake goes in to meet with Gafinilan. After becoming frustrated when Jake refuses to “demorph” to his Andalite form, Gafinilan pulls a shredder on him and tries to force him to demorph. The other Animorphs barge in in their battle morphs. Gafinilan realizes that they all are human, except for Ax. Gafinilan finally comes clean with what is going on. He does not want to acquire Jake, agreeing with Ax that this is a shameful way out of his illness. Instead, the Yeerks have captured Mertil and are willing to exchange him for a healthy Andalite (the Yeerks don’t want Mertil since he is morph incapable and don’t want Gafinilan because of his illness). Ax is incredulous that Gafinilan would be willing to exchange one of his own people for a mere vecol, an Andalite who can’t morph. Gafinilan says that he would do anything for his friend, vecol or no.
They begin to form a plan to rescue Mertil. The Yeerks move him daily and he is well-guarded. Ax again protests that a vecol is not worth them risking their lives over. Marco finally snaps and calls Ax out on his horrible attitude. Jake says it doesn’t matter what Ax things and they will move forward with the rescue plan.
Marco, speaking from his own ruthless nature, recognizes the same trait in Gafinilan. That he would do terrible things (like turn them over) all to reach the goal of saving his friend. This leaves the Animorphs in a perilous position, trusting Gafinilan to not give them up in the middle of the mission. They move forward with the plan, however, and locate Mertil in an old train yard.
The Animorphs and Gafinilan go in for the rescue, but what started out as a surprise attack quickly devolves into the team be largely outnumbered by Yeerks. A massive fight breaks out. The team is quickly divided up, all fighting seemingly losing battles. The Yeerks attempt to drive off with Mertil in a Uhaul, but gorilla!Marco and elephant!Rachel manage to catch up with them. Gafinilan shows up too and helps rescue Mertil.
Ax again sinks to his normal low for this book with more disparaging comments about Mertil. Tobias finally snaps and calls Ax out on his inability to look past “normal.” Ax finally seems to cave and reluctantly greets Mertil saying that he will always remember the hero he was (great progress, really great).
After they escape, Gafinilan asks the Animorphs to give the two Andalites their space. Gafinilan is dying and would like to be left alone with Mertil during this time. A few days later, Marco makes his way to visit Mertil in the greenhouse. He lets Mertil know that once Gafinilan passes, he would be wiling to visit Mertil, not wanting him to just be alone. After a long silence, Mertil thanks Marco.
The Comic Relief: After the Marco’s last book which was a massive letdown, it was a relief to open this one and find myself back with the character I know and love. We again have a smart, strategic thinker who is impatient with others’ bullshit and willing to confront his own darkness.
Throughout the book, Marco repeatedly calls Ax out for his really negative attitude towards Mertil and those with disabilities. As the story progresses, these put-down become more and more harsh; but in this case, one is completely on Marco’s side of this situation. At one point towards the end, Marco chews Ax out pretty thoroughly and Rachel notes that this might be a bit hypocritical of Marco, who regularly makes some pretty inappropriate jokes. He rightly notes that there is a big difference, that that is gallows humor and that when it comes to his actions, he’s not like that at all. It’s a nice highlight of a key feature for Marco. Yes, he makes a lot of jokes, some that definitely tow the line. He’s also very cynical and suspicious. But, importantly, he owns these aspects of himself and, even more importantly, when it comes to his actions, he’s one of the most loyal members of the group. We also see, at the end of this book, that he can be very considerate, coming to visit Mertil and offering companionship. Just making sure not to tell the others that he has a heart.
We also get a return to Marco’s self-evaluation as far as his ruthlessness and direct-line method of getting from point A to point B. He sympathizes with Gafinilan, who was willing to turn over another Andalite to save a friend. To Marco, this type of cold-hearted decision making makes sense. Gafinilan’s priority is his friend, and that rules all. It’s a very unique point of view to Marco, and it’s nice to see it used to differentiate how Marco can see, and understand, Gafinilan’s choice as compared to the others.
Our Fearless Leader: Jake has some really good lines when he first meets Gafinilan. At this point, Jake’s met his fair share of arrogant, adult Andalite leaders and isn’t having any of it. It’s always fun to see him in his element as leader of the group, fully embracing his role and even making sure that others (usually other Andalites) know that he will be the one calling the shots from here on out.
Xena, Warrior Princess: I really liked how much Rachel/Marco team up action there was in this book. Though I’ll save some of my thoughts on that for the “Couples” section since there isn’t any actual romantic couple stuff to cover for this book. But we see Rachel team up with Marco not only for the initial spy mission, but also in the end when they both are the ones to catch up with and rescue Mertil from the UHaul.
A Hawk’s Life: There are a lot of weird hints in this book about Tobias being a bit off. I can’t remember this building up towards anything in other books (at least not in a way that feels like it was intentional here), so I have to imagine it was just to lead up to the last discussion about Ax and his unpleasant attitudes when Tobias finally cracks and comes down on him. He has a nice little speech about “normal” being a word that this group, in particular, probably shouldn’t throw around. He mentions all the weirdness in his own life as good examples. Stuck as a bird. Best friend is an alien. Girlfriend is a human. Etc. But as good as his speech is, he’s also not saying anything that the others haven’t said to some extent before in this book. They all come down on Ax at one point or another. But we have to imagine that when Tobias finally speaks up, it’s more the fact that he’s Ax’s best friend than what he actually says that finally breaks through to Ax.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie doesn’t have a whole lot in this book. She makes one really strange observation towards the middle of the book that makes you question whether she’s actually paying attention to what’s going on, though. After Marco returns from the spy mission and they’re debating whether they can trust Gafinilan, she says that he must be a good guy because of the care he’s taken of Mertil. But…we’ve just established that no one really knows where Mertil even is! Why is she so sure that Gafinilan is taking such good care of him? It’s really strange. Marco even partially notes that this is a ridiculous line of reasoning, so it can’t be excused as just a weird writing mishap. The author actually just wrote Cassie as being this out of it. I mean, we all know Cassie’s not my favorite character, but this would be really dumb, even for her. But she’s also the one to note in the end that Marco’s right, that his actions do prove more than his out-there jokes, as far as being on the right side of the disability argument.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve disliked Ax this much. And really, the other times it at least made more sense, because it was usually early in the series and he wasn’t quite on-board with his role in the team. In other stories, we’ve seen plenty of examples of the nastiness at the heart of the Andalite culture. But this is one of the few times where we’ve seen it really come out in Ax himself. And not just once, but again, and again, AND AGAIN. It never really gets better, and in fact just gets worse and worse. He tries to claim that he never said he was human, but the Animorphs (and readers, I have to think) aren’t going for it. Especially when you have another Andalite in the book who is proving that you can get past this type of backwards thinking, regardless of how instilled it is in Andalite culture. But nope! Ax is all-in, saying again and again that Mertil is completely valueless, not worth saving, and even says as much to Mertil’s face after they rescue him. Even in the end, his small step in the right direction is so tiny that it barely counts. Especially with the insult that is wedged into it as well, that all that is worth honoring/remembering about Mertil is how he was before. At this point, between the attitude towards the disabled and the idea that it is somehow “cowardly” for an Andalite like Gafinilan to try to save himself, I think we just have to admit that the Andalites as a whole are just kind of bad people. They can be on the right side of this war, but being better than a Yeerk is a low bar, and I’m not convinced they’re doing a whole lot to elevate themselves above it.
Rachel said it best as far as Ax goes in this book. Not only Ax actually making progress on his own thinking, but the sheer number of times we have to go over his bad attitude.
<Jeez, can’t we just get over this issue, please?> Rachel said.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: There wasn’t really much as far as body horror, other than our usual descriptions of gross morphing. Marco rightly is concerned about morphing a bee, theorizing that it is also a hive-mind insect like the ants and might be equally horrible. Luckily, he has a better time of it here than he did then.
Couples Watch!: So, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to indulge my side-ship of Marco/Rachel. As I’ve noted so many times in the past, these two are really the members of the group who have the most in common as far as their philosophies and attitudes towards the war. We still usually see them on the same side of most arguments and they still have good banter. So, it’s nice to see here that Rachel is the only member of the group to cotton on to Marco’s plan to further investigate Gafinilan’s house before letting Jake go in. They have a nice little buddy adventure scoping it out, and it really proves how in-step they both are with the other.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: Visser Three is absent from this book. I do wonder at the reasoning behind some of his choices though. I mean, from a strategic standpoint, Gafinilan and Mertil would still be strong assets on their own as Controllers, if only for their knowledge of Andalite strategy and plans. It also seems strange that Visser Three would ask him to only turn over one other Andalite or, really, even attempt this kind of trade at all. It seems more in line for him that he’d try to just set a general trap to capture all of the bandits who he’s assume are connected to these two.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Not much really, other than my general frustration at the number of times we have to hear about Ax’s horrible ideas.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: They have some good plans in this book. Their approach to Jake’s first meet-and-greet with Gafinilan is probably one of the better ones. They are all prepared in various forms of back up (Marco going in with Jake as a bug, the others waiting in the wing in their battle morphs), and Jake never flinches when Gafinilan goes off track and pulls the shredder on him. Clearly, they were expecting this and it shows with the tidy way they clean up the situation.
One of Marco’s more lethal put-downs of Ax:
“Okay, Ax-man,” I said, my voice a little less than steady. “I’ve been cutting you slack on this handicapped thing because you’re part of the team. But when you talk like that, like this guy is some sort of dirty, worthless thing, I have to say you’re just not one of us.”
And a nice, funny bit of dialogue when they’re going in to the train yard to rescue Meril at the end:
<Gee, Jake, have the odds ever been this bad?> I asked brightly.
<Sure,> Jake answered. <But this time we’ve got the element of surprise.>
Scorecard: Yeerks 10, Animorphs 15
No change! Technically this is a win for the Animorphs, but the stage remains largely unchanged by the end of it, since Mertil and Gafinilan pretty much take themselves out of the equation on both sides.
Rating: I really liked this book as a Marco book. I’m not sure about it as anything else. As I said, it was a relief to get back to a book from his narrative standpoint that wasn’t ridiculous. But man, other things about this book drove me up the wall. For one thing, Ax makes himself very, VERY unlikable in this book. And the book just keeps hitting.that.point.home. And in the end, it doesn’t even feel like he’s made progress. Beyond that, it seems to further reinforce the fact that Andalites are probably just a terrible group of beings, given what we’ve seen about their general culture. And lastly, it’s only been one book since the LAST story we’ve had dealing with new Andalites on Earth. The timing makes it feel very strange and its proximity to the last book kind of cuts the legs out of the interest of this one. After going for long in the series without anything from the Andalites, it’s a bit much to have two stories like this so close together. But, again, I liked it as a Marco book, so I came away pleased.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!
Book: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White
Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2018
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley
Book Description:Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver,” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything–except a friend.
Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.
But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness.
Review: A special thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
What the hell. Let’s do ONE MORE DAY OF HORRORPALOOZA and call it even. Think of it as a late Halloween surprise. Or a birthday present for “Frankenstein”, which turned 200 this year. I was an ambitious reader as a kid, as I got it in my head in fourth grade that I could totally take on “Frankenstein”. While I know that there are absolutely kids out there who could, I was not one of those kids, and after reading a few pages I set it down and that was that… until college, when I took a class on Monsters, Robots, and Cyborgs in literature. It was then that I finally read “Frankenstein” in it’s original, Mary Shelley goodness. I really enjoyed it, but I will absolutely admit that I found it very ironic that Mary Shelley, the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and independent woman in her own right, really only had Elizabeth for female representation in the OG science fiction horror story. So when I heard that Kiersten White had written “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”, a retelling of “Frankenstein” from Elizabeth’s perspective, I was stoked. Especially since White has already tackled a gender bent notorious ‘horror’ (sorta) story with her “Conqueror’s Saga”, which follows a female version of Vlad the Impaler (and which Serena adores). And if you like what she did with Lada, you will love to see this version of Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein.
“The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” has carved out space for women from a source material that had very little room for them to begin with. In “Frankenstein” Elizabeth is Victor Frankenstein’s devoted, and doomed, love interest/wife. The Monster strangles her on her wedding night, giving Victor man pain and guilt and more reason to hate his creation. In this book, Elizabeth has fought against being a victim her entire life, even though living during this time period made victimhood an all too familiar existence. In this tale, Elizabeth was taken in by the Frankenstein family to give their odd and antisocial son Victor some companionship, and Elizabeth knew that she would be safer with them than as an orphan or a ward in other circumstances. Her connection to Victor is purely a matter of survival, and she learns how to calculate and manipulate to keep him safe so that she too can be kept safe. It means that this Elizabeth makes some pretty tough, and sometimes nasty, decisions. But given that Elizabeth has no means to survive in this society as an woman, especially as an orphan in spite of her wealthy lineage, the reader can still understand why she makes these decisions. But Elizabeth isn’t the only woman in this book who has a story to tell. Justine is the governess for the Frankensteins, being a live in tutor for Victor’s younger brothers Ernest and William. She is a stand in mother to the boys, and Elizabeth’s closest friend, and like Elizabeth has come up from an abusive home to have a coveted position in a well to do family. But also like Elizabeth, Justine is almost always steps away from disgrace given her lower class upbringing and the inherent distrust in women, especially lower class ones, and unlike Elizabeth she doesn’t have the calculated shrewdness to stay ahead. These two are not only wonderful foils for each other, but also constant reminders that if women step out of line or are accused of such, the consequences can be grave.
The adaptation itself is also incredibly strong. This story runs parallel to the original “Frankenstein” tale, with various moments of flashbacks to Elizabeth and Victor’s childhoods with their dynamic of her trying to hide his odd obsession with death and anatomy lest it get him into trouble. She keeps him safe to keep herself safe, no matter what he does, no matter how horrible. You see the obsession that they have with each other, and you see how it grew, and the two narratives weave together seamlessly. Seeing Victor’s unethical journey through Elizabeth’s eyes, and having her own journey centered as the anchor of this tale, was very satisfying for me. We get to see huge events in the original story in a new way, and we also get to see what the fallout might have been like outside of Victor’s own culpability (William’s death, for example, sets off a huge domino effect that feels so unfair and tragic). Like I said, I really like “Frankenstein”, but I LOVE that White wants to give Elizabeth a voice.The original point of “Frankenstein” is to make the reader question what makes a monster and what makes a man, and White portrays Victor in the way that people have pretty much come to view him in modern times. But that said, there were a few choices and plot points where it felt a little too mustache twirly. Just a few! Because of this, Victor felt more two dimensional than he needed to be, and I think that you can still get your point across while maintaining complexity. By the end he just felt like a bit of a cartoon. But that said, this IS Elizabeth’s story, and given that she was wonderful I could easily forgive that. And while I don’t want to spoil anything, I also really like what she did with The Monster, one of the true tragic figures in horror literature. At the end of the day, he too was a victim, and like Elizabeth a new voice is given to him, one that has some empowerment behind it.
“The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” is a lovely and fantastic take on the “Frankenstein” story. I think that Mary Shelley would be happy to see what Kiersten White has done with her story, and what she has done with Elizabeth.
Rating 9: A gripping and suspenseful retelling of an old classic through a feminist lens, “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” is a must for “Frankenstein” fans.