Short opinion: You know, Jake, the whole I’m-the-leader-I-don’t-feel-pain thing stops being cute right around the time your entire team ends up LITERALLY up shit creek without a paddle because you didn’t think to mention you had the flu before leaving for the field trip into the sewage system.
This is one of those Animorphs books that has it all: humor, nakama, horror, action, medical mystery, romance, interpersonal drama, suspense, and heart. If I ever figure out how K.A. Applegate does it in 150 pages or less without feeling rushed, I’ll die happy.
Seriously, there are so many really excellent emotional notes in this book. I especially love how well it handles the empathic misery we feel for Ax being sick while a million miles away from his mom and dad, and for Jake throwing up on the floor of a burning building because he can’t even keep it together long enough to get home. Maybe it’s “just” the flu, but it’s also the last thing these poor kids need in their lives right now. We also get a lot of awesome light moments, especially in the opening sequence with the school dance—I’m right with Cates that that scene of Rachel inviting Cassie to the spring fling on Jake’s behalf, and then accepting Jake’s offer on Cassie’s behalf, is one of the sweetest and funniest in the whole series. Add to that Ax getting more female attention than any of the guys who are actually interested in human females, the kids’ adorkably clumsy attempts to herd Chapman away from Ax, and the running motif of Rachel fighting off Cassie’s competition for Jake, and this sequence is utterly heartwarming.
It’s also interesting that this book delineates the hierarchy of the Animorphs’ internal power structure more clearly than any other novel in the series. We already know that when Jake’s out of town (or floating around dead in the Delaware River) leadership defaults to Rachel, and that when Rachel’s in charge then Marco is going to be the most likely to challenge her. However, this time around we get to see Marco briefly leading the team after Rachel falls ill—and then when Marco falls ill in turn, Cassie and Tobias spend several minutes passing responsibility back and forth like a hot potato until eventually Cassie’s left holding the ball by simple virtue of Tobias being sick.
The plot of this story interweaves two simple problems (Aftran’s about to get executed, and Ax has the flu) and their infinite complications (everyone else has the flu, no one knows whether to trust Illim, Cassie doesn’t have a way into the yeerk pool, the kids get lost as eels, leadership keeps changing hands, Ax needs a brain surgeon, Cassie’s dad might find Ax at any moment…) in a way that feels logical but also surprising. This plot is rich, complex, action-packed, and heavy on Cassie doing everything that makes Cassie awesome: reading people, caring for sick friends, trusting yeerks, finding unique solutions to problems, operating well alone, PERFORMING BRAIN SURGERY, sticking by her own morals, and pooping on robots.
Speaking of characterization, I’m pretty sure that this book’s place in the series is no accident; its four immediate sequels (#30, #31, #32, #33) are about how various Animorphs do when fighting on their own. Under those circumstances, we get to see how each of them copes when unable to rely on the rest of the team for guidance and assistance. In #33 Tobias discovers wells of inner strength he never knew he had: from his hawk instincts, from his human friends, and from his andalite ancestry. In #32 Rachel flails around for a while but also gets herself together (pun intended) long enough to defeat Visser Three using her various strengths as a warrior. In #31 Jake fails epically at coping with his own family conflict and would probably end up getting his friends and family killed and/or infested if Cassie and Marco didn’t go behind his back to save him from himself. In #30 Marco goes a liiiitttle off the rails but still succeeds in keeping Visser One from exposing them all…
And in #29, Cassie excels.
When she doesn’t have to worry about deciding what the rest of the team thinks, Cassie really does turn into a “one-woman army,” for better or for worse (#54). Her decisions when acting alone aren’t always the best (falling asleep while in morph, anyone? How about that little incident with a certain controller and a certain morphing cube?) but she also gets shit done. She doesn’t stop and wonder whether she should ask for help, she doesn’t spend so much time doubting herself that she takes unnecessary risks (*cough* Jake *cough*), and she doesn’t feel the need to justify herself to anyone. In this book, she handles Tobias’s bout of flu and the Animorphs’ complex alliance with the Yeerk Peace Movement and Aftran’s rescue and Ax’s appendicitis of the brain and morphing a yeerk and controlling not one but two humans and Aftran’s near-death from kandrona starvation all on her own. No offense to the other little cinnamon buns, but Cassie’s just about the only one capable of that kind of decisive action without backup. Because that’s the thing about Cassie: she hates risking anyone else’s life, but she’s perfectly comfortable with risking her own (#4, MM1).
It’s also striking that Cassie spends maybe more time going on missions alone than anyone else on the team. At quick count, #19, #29, #43, #44, MM1, #39, and #34 all involve Cassie going on missions partially or entirely without her team. No one else has that kind of track record for operating alone, not even Tobias with his heavy reliance on personal independence. Cassie not only does just fine without backup, she also doesn’t rely on the team for decision-making the same way that the others do. Rachel and Marco need their friends for moral guidance, Ax and Tobias need them for decisiveness, and Jake needs them for personal affirmation.
Cassie doesn’t need them at all.
All six of the kids are more-or-less codependent by the middle of the series, this is true. However, there’s also a reason that Cassie survives the war more intact than anyone else on her team, and that’s because she never loses sight of who she is. Cassie’s identity is more about her ability to look herself in the eye and still like herself than it is about appearing to be a good person (Rachel, Ax, Jake) or a tough independent one (Marco, Tobias) before the rest of her friends. That refusal to consider what the rest of the team thinks if she has a definitive opinion is her greatest weakness in addition to being her greatest strength (#19 and #50 especially both feature her nearly getting her entire team killed with short-sighted decisions) but it is the quality that enables her not just to survive the war, but to thrive after it ends. This book feels like foreshadowing for #54 in a lot of ways: the others drop off one by one, but when Cassie becomes the Last Woman Standing she gets by just fine on her own.