Short opinion: Anyone who says that this series became dark over time has clearly not reread the first book in a while.
While it is true that there are lighter books (#14, #35, #44, #51) and there are darker books (#6, #22, #30, #33, #52) I’m not convinced that the series gets darker as it goes. Sure, the kids become more violent, more competent, and more morally compromised. Yes, the yeerks gradually win the war all the way up through #52 at which point they start losing. No, the protagonists do not grow as people over the course of the story so much as they fall apart as people over the course of the story. However, right from the start K.A. Applegate makes no bones about the fact that this is a war, one in which there will be no nice neat simple answers, so you’d better strap in, kids, because these depictions of trauma are not for the faint of heart.
This book is about its protagonists fighting a major battle which they lose. It contains a scene with Marco extracting a promise from Jake that Jake will kill him before letting him become a controller. It heavily implies that Cassie is the first person on the team to become a murderer, because she doesn’t have another way to stop the controller-cop from telling the other yeerks she was morphing. It features a battle in which the “good guys” suffer casualties (Tobias is trapped in morph; several human hosts get killed) while also accomplishing almost nothing to advance the war effort (they free one human? Maybe?), giving us the sense that Marco was probably right that they should have stayed home. It lovingly describes pieces of Elfangor’s body falling from Visser Three’s jaws so that the hungry taxxons below can devour them.
The series also doesn’t magically become lighter from there. The arc of #2 hinges on the horrifying realization that, as awful as Melissa Chapman’s life has become living with neglectful and emotionally abusive parents, the alternative is infinitely worse because those same parents are allowing their conscious willpower to be destroyed in order to shield her from slavery. #3 builds up to and then graphically describes a scene in which its narrator attempts to commit suicide. Although #4 is lighter overall, it explores the impact Marco’s death would have on everyone from Peter to Cassie. #5 has The Scene With The Ants. So on and so forth. But that’s what makes this series so freaking good: it is always horrifying, it’s always funny, it’s always heartwarming, it’s always tense, and it always features a clever balance of plot and character driving one another forward. K.A. Applegate is a grand master wizard when it comes to emotional flow, one who does far better than most series writers I’ve ever encountered (JKR, Cornelia Funke, Jonathan Stroud, JRRT, Jeff Lindsay: take notes) at imbuing her tragedy with comedy and her comedy with tragedy without ever mocking her characters’ real pain or overdramatizing her more ridiculous plots.
Anyway, this book doesn’t spend any time at all messing around before it launches the characters on their adventure. The narration fulfills the promise on the back of the book (“everyone is in really big trouble. Yeah, even you.”) right from the start by giving us enough details to make the Animorphs’ hometown vivid and individuated while also making it feel like Anywheresville, USA. Jake’s got the most “typical” (according to fiction, anyway) life of anyone on the team: married parents, golden retriever, one sibling, big suburban house, home computer, swingset in the backyard. And it turns out that not only are there aliens invading, there are aliens that have already invaded his house. Jake’s been surrounded on all sides by the war for weeks if not months, and he was just pleasantly clueless enough to avoid realizing that fact until Elfangor came along and woke that boy up. Of course Jake’s apple-pie life is the exception not the rule on this team, but the fact remains that he’s the “everyman” on the team… and he’s also under the most immediate threat of infestation. Jake punches Marco in the head for implying that Tom’s a controller (as Cates mentioned, Jake’s a heck of a lot less practical about the whole aliens-have-your-family bit than Marco is) and we can’t even necessarily blame him—he has the most to lose in this war of anyone on the team. The call knows where he lives; he doesn’t even have the option of refusal.
The plot wastes no time at all in having the kids encounter an alien and end up on the run for their lives, but also gives us tons of characterization along the way. Rachel thinks Jake’s an idiot for thinking he can protect her and Cassie from anything, but agrees to walk home with him and Marco so that Cassie can have a chance to talk to him. Jake really is kind of an idiot, since he’s apparently in the habit of climbing abandoned construction equipment in his spare time. Marco’s a fairly brilliant video game player and all-around more mature than Jake, not that you’d know it from all his irreverent jokes throughout this plot. Jake is adorably baffled by Rachel’s response to Tobias, because he thinks of his cousin as the kind of person who eats men for breakfast and totally fails to consider that maybe she’s got a crush like any other teenager on the planet. Tobias goes from “it’s a flying saucer” to “we find the yeerk pool, and when we do we blow it up and kill every one of those evil slugs” in about .03 seconds flat, and to some extent drags everyone else (especially Marco) into the war kicking and screaming. Cassie’s more than a little starry-eyed at the idea of becoming a horse, and in some ways she’s almost as naive as Jake about where this war is going. (Marco, by contrast, figures it out a lot faster: “You sure this is just the yeerk pool?… I see a guy with horns and a pitchfork and I’m outta here.”)
Given the immediacy and scale of the acute tension here—the planet is being taken over by parasitic aliens!—the chronic tension seems sort of silly. Jake didn’t make the basketball team, boo-hoo. However, he only wanted to make the basketball team so badly because he was hoping it would make Tom want to hang out with him again. Because Tom’s been acting distant toward his whole family recently, to the point where Jake’s parents are mildly concerned. Because Tom’s been wrapped up with this new organization, The Sharing. Because The Sharing seems to have some really strange effects on its “full members”… Because the planet is being taken over by parasitic aliens. I love the subtlety with which everything in Jake’s life comes around. The war has already started reshaping his school, his town, his family, and his whole life, well before he starts turning into animals and killing aliens. This book is scary, because not only is the invasion moving quickly but also because the Animorphs’ early attempts to fight back are like spitting on a forest fire. Anyone could be a controller. None of the other Animorphs know for sure about their own families until #49. These kids can’t even ask their own families and friends for help.
As scary as this book is, it still has room for a lot of wonder. Cassie compares them to ancient warriors tapping mystical animal spirits for help in protecting the Earth. Tobias reacts like every one of us sci fi fans would to finding out that aliens exist. Jake insists that there’s hope for the planet no matter what just as long as the andalites are out there. Right from the moment the Animorphs lose their first battle, both on a personal scale (they don’t save Tom, and lose Tobias) and on a cosmic one (they find out that Visser Three is a lot better at morphing than they are) this series sends the message: buckle up, because it’s going to be a hell of a ride. But as scary as it’s going to be, there’s still space for Marco’s awful driving, Cassie’s wondering fascination with dolphins and horses, Tobias’s crazy eagerness to embrace the bizarre, Rachel’s joyful exploration of her inner elephant, and Jake’s heartbreaking willingness to walk into hell in order to try and protect his big brother.
Problems peculiar to genre books: When you are halfway morphed between a human and a horse, and the cops come driving up, what do you do?
In this case, the rest of the kids opt to do a human-shield thing in front of Cassie while she finished morphing to her human self. I am assuming that she’s already gotten pretty close to her own human size before this starts, because otherwise I’m picturing this wall of children casually trying to block grown adults’ view of a full grown horse. Which is cracking me up, but probably would not be very effective.
It must work out okay, because instead of asking what the hell kind of horse-human monstrosity is standing behind you? the cops just want to know if anyone knows anything about the juvenile delinquents setting off fireworks at the construction site last night.
Jake: “This seems bad, I’m pretty sure this guy is being ridden by an evil brain-slug Yeerk, I feel threatened.”
Cop: “Hey! I like you! You look like Tom, from The Sharing, an awesome youth group I supervise! You should join our group that is definitely not a cult!”
Jake: “….somehow this isn’t any better.”
The cop leaves them with some parting words about looking out for crazy kids who hang out in construction sites, and we jump straight back into Fighting About Morphs, part whatever. Marco: pro not dying. Tobias and Rachel: pro saving the world. Jake: waffling. Cassie, stepping in as peacemaker again, convinces everyone to take some time and mull things over before committing either way. Also, Marco is being kind of a jerk about Tobias getting bullied. Settle down, Marco.
Everyone splits up, Marco and Jake go back to Jake’s house to do Gamer Bro Things, and Bad News Tom Who Is Definitely Not In A Cult shows up again. Very casually and not at all with an ulterior motive, obviously, except that all he wants to talk about is the construction site, whether Jake and Marco know the kids who were hanging out there, whether they believe in aliens, and whether they want to join The Sharing, A Very Cool Youth Group That Is Definitely Not Sinister.
Having covered those bases, Tom is out, leaving Marco to stare after him and immediately point out to Jake that Tom is a Controller, very obviously carrying around a Yeerk in his brain.
And…we’re out. I’m sure that Jake is going to take this very calmly in the next chapter and the conversation will be entirely pleasant and un-heated.
The “hey, I think your brother’s being mind-controlled by an alien” conversation gets off to a calm start. Within three paragraphs, Jake’s punched Marco in the head, and Marco’s wrapped Jake up in a blanket and is sitting on him to get him to settle down. It’s more or less reminiscent of the time my Most Angry Cat got microchipped, which involved two vet techs having to wear giant cat-proof mitts to hold her still enough. She died a few years ago and I miss her terribly, but I suspect our veterinarian does not.
We get another page or so of Jake and Marco Roughhouse And Debate Whether Tom Is A Controller, Even Though The Rest Of Us Figured It Out Three Chapters Ago. Keep up, Jake!
Tobias breaks it up by showing up outside the window in red-tailed hawk form. We get another excellent description when he morphs back, including “shriveled arms protruded from the front of his chest with fingers like a baby’s”. Lovely. Eventually he gets properly human-ish, though, and borrows some clothes from Jake, and gushes for a while about how great it was being a hawk and how sad it is that the hawk he borrowed DNA from is cooped up at Cassie’s farm while it heals from a broken wing.
Jake reminds him and us again about the whole “don’t be a morph for more than two hours” thing when it sounds like Tobias might be getting a wee bit carried away, which again has the vague ring of foreshadowing about it. But Tobias has no time for that, he wants to drop exposition on us.
Specifically, we’re back to Yeerk pools, apparently. Tobias’ extra zap from the Alienstag gave him some extra knowledge to share with the rest of us, about how Yeerks have to go frolic in the Yeerk pools every three days to get nutrients and something called Kandrona rays, which are sort of like UV rays. Yeerks, apparently, have not mastered the multivitamin, for all their other technological advancements. Tobias has been flying around trying to find a Yeerk pool from the air.
I feel like the obvious question here is what happens to the hosts while the Yeerks are hot-tubbing, but the guys skip over that in favor of figuring out what Tobias was intending to do if he found a pool.
He was, apparently, going to blow it up. Tobias has gone full ride-or-die on avenging the Alienstag, and whatever everyone else decides to do, he’s all in on declaring war on the Yeerks.
Should I just make a macro for “ahhhh, the joys of children’s literature” right now?
Underneath my finger nails
Are those times
Where I hurried to play one stage
The one encountered by
The women who are currently falling
In love with me,
Just by simple action,
But I have been evil
Only with my motivations
I have tricked
Resorted to trust
In order to get
From this system
My hot tub
Joins those days in the
But the statutes of limitations
All I cared for
Was that PSP we found
Holding the asses of three women
Who spoke shit
Into my red shirt
While I never thought of protection
I thought of
Or felt giddy
With all that comes,
So I stand by my name
Given to me
I stand by
All that a name encompasses
Holding nothing for no one
Because I’m not paid
I am not a brand,
I’ve been thinking a lot about what alliecat-person has said about the introductory narration in each book, and what that says about the character. In honor of #axattack I’d like to point out something interesting about Ax’s intros.
Ax’s first book is clearly intended for an Andalite audience. It starts with the action on the Dome ship, which the reader is assumed to understand. Then we get:
I am told that I look like a cross between a deer, a scorpion, and a human. I’ve seen deer in the woods, and I don’t agree. For one thing, they have mouths and I don’t. And they have only two eyes, while I have four.
Ax is explaining what a deer is, and how humans perceive him. This is not directed at humans, but other Andalites, even though it’s giving you the basic summary information.
His next book, #18, is also written for an Andalite audience. After giving his name, he begins:
I don’t know if my fellow Andalites will ever recognize that name. I guess some of the story I’m about to tell will appear in the scientific journals. I mean, the accident that occurred to me has certainly rewritten the science of Zero-space mass extrusion during morphing.
Definitely meant for Andalites. But #28 begins quite differently.