I'd love to hear opinions for Megamorphs 4
Short opinion: I giggle every time I read the line “President Clinton urged everyone to remain calm” but seriously this book is so scary specifically because it feels so realistic to canon.
I’ve always felt like this book takes place in direct conversation with #1, fleshing out the existing personalities and relationships of the team as of the moment that they walk through the construction site. The actual first book in the series sweeps the characters along so quickly toward their destiny (by necessity, because anything else would be bad writing) that we get extremely few details about what these kids are actually like before the war ruins their lives except in the retrospective. Back to Before feels like a chance to go back and find out who exactly these kids were before they all became homicidal cinnamon rolls. Of course I’m a sucker for the details about Tom (He has a driver’s license! He wears a denim jacket over blue jeans like a true 90s fashion victim! Temrash 114 keeps at least two separate dracon beams in his room! His parents think he should pay more attention in school!) but there are also a ton of rich characterization moments for all six Animorphs.
This book really shows us for the first time why Tobias is so desperate for his life to change that he throws himself into a war (and maybe-maybenot gets himself trapped in morph) just to have friends and a purpose. He belongs nowhere—not at home with his alcoholic uncle, not at school where he’s constantly under threat of physical violence, not at the mall where Jake listens to him out of pity while Marco’s openly hostile—which means that he grabs the first chance he can to fly away from it all. Maybe he’s being short-sighted, since by #3 he already knows he had no idea what he was getting himself into, but he’s so desperate to get out that one can hardly blame him even when he resorts to becoming a controller in order to have someone to talk to and something to give him meaning.
It’s also striking that Tobias is the one who ends up recruited by the Sharing, while Jake attends one meeting and leaves. Most of the series has this implicit assumption that if any of them will be the first one taken, it’ll be Jake, since he’s the one with a controller already living in the house. (For instance, #41 and #7 both feature variations on the theme of everyone getting caught because Tom saw something he shouldn’t, and in #49 everyone is shocked when the yeerks’ DNA match isn’t between Jake and Tom.) However, here Jake sees everything the Sharing has to offer… and tells Tom “I’m not really a joiner,” because he’s really really not (MM4). The unfortunate flip side of the coin of Jake’s leadership ability is that he makes a fairly terrible follower. In this book it saves his life, but there are other instances (when dealing with the andalites in #18 and #38, during the negotiations with the Arn in #34) where everyone would probably be better off if Jake could find it in himself to sit down, shut up, and do as he’s told. Non-Animorph Jake is probably at risk of becoming a useless washout (between the crappy academic performance, the mediocre athletic performance, and the lack of motivation to do anything, he’s probably destined to spend the rest of his life as a failed artist living in a studio apartment in downtown LA paid for by his parents’ money), but he’s also not at risk of becoming a voluntary controller, because he’s perfectly content with his mediocre life.
Rachel, by contrast, is incredibly restless in her normal life. Cassie describes her as “hunting” with “laser focus” when looking for bargains at the mall (MM4). It takes her about ten seconds to get on board with chasing down and attempting to tackle some random stranger because Marco thinks said stranger looks like his dead mom. She snaps into action the second that Ax broadcasts the news that aliens are attacking the planet, and keeps fighting with whatever tools come to hand (including a severed hork-bajir head, because this girl is hardcore) until she gets killed. For all that she loves it, this book implies that the war might be the worst thing that could have possibly happened to Rachel. After all, she’s quite good at channeling all that pent-up aggression into verbal sparring the way her mom does (notice how much she enjoys arguing with Marco in the planetarium) and also releasing that extra energy through athletics the way her dad does (unlike Jake, she’s not deterred in her sports ambitions by a mere hiccup like utter lack of talent). She also has a lot of friends and admirers, a track record of being one of the highest performers in her class, and a casual self-confidence that is rare enough for a girl her age to win her a lot of favors with a lot of people. Non-Animorph Rachel (in a world that also had no yeerks) would probably thrive in whatever career she chose for decades before dying at a ripe old age surrounded by her highly attractive husband and seven fat grandchildren.
Maybe my favorite piece of Marco characterization from this book is the way it establishes there is actually a lot more to his crush on Rachel than thinking she has beautiful hair and looks cute in a leotard. He’s considerably less comfortable in his own skin than either of the Berensons, but he also practices what he preaches by appreciating a joke at his own expense just as much as one he uses to mock another person. This book makes it obvious that he looks up to Rachel (not just literally, although Marco’s jokes about his own height are also amazing) because he recognizes how intelligent and ruthless she is, and those are the qualities he values the most in himself and others. Cates pointed out that it’s interesting almost all of Marco’s role models are female (Xena, Alanis Morissette, Carmen Electra, Eva for that matter) and in a lot of ways he doesn’t just like Rachel; he admires her.
And then there’s the portrayal of Ax when no one comes to rescue him. #4 and #8 only hint at what it must have been like for him to spend weeks stuck in a tiny dome at the bottom of the ocean, not knowing whether anyone was coming for him, suspecting more and more every day that his whole crew was dead, but here we get a much deeper look at those long days of solitude. He comes off almost like a prisoner in solitary confinement in the scenes before he manages to use the shark morph to escape: compulsively addicted to routines, talking to inanimate objects, starting to hallucinate when left alone for long enough… Ax is a survivor, tough enough to live through years of loneliness and grief while fighting a war on a foreign planet. This book shows just how much of that strength comes from within, fire-forged by his traumatic introduction to Earth.
Oh, and Cassie is sub-temporally grounded, apparently. I have nothing nice to say about that concept so I’ll settle for saying nothing at all.
Anyway, I love both the opening and closing of this book. The first scene has one of those UTTERLY HORRIFYING banality-of-violence beginnings, where we open on the aftermath of a battle that may or may not have accomplished anything other than giving the kids involved a few more nightmares. Jake is disturbingly casual about the fact that he has lost an entire leg and is slowly bleeding to death, making wry jokes about how he and the three-legged table match each other. We can tell why: this isn’t the first (or even the thirtieth) time he’s been fatally maimed and then forced to shrug it off in order to keep fighting. The kids try—and fail—to save the host of a fatally injured yeerk a few minutes of pain, and end up watching both beings bleed to death. And then Jake goes home, and he once again plays the game of Lying For His Life with his parents and Tom, and he goes to bed ready to do it all again the next day, wondering what dreams of Sauron Crayak will come. This poor schmuck literally never catches a break. No wonder his little deal with the devil seems so tempting for the millisecond that it takes for Crayak to pounce. (By contrast, the TV episode features Jake asking the Little Blue Ellimist to make him a Real Boy because he doesn’t want to do his math homework and plan a battle at the same time. What a whiner.)
Ugh, and then the ten little soldiers go out to dine, and they drop off one by one so fast that most barely get the chance to fight back. Rachel and Ax especially do their best to battle the oncoming horde, but they’re largely unarmed and clueless against the yeerks. Tobias becomes the living puppet of a living puppet of Visser One, and then there were five. Marco stands a little too close to a Bug fighter, and then there were four. Rachel runs straight into turret fire because Rachel is still Rachel even without unleashing her inner grizzly bear, and then there were three. Cassie is in the wrong shopping mall at the wrong time, and then there were two. Jake faces down an army of hork-bajir as just his little human self, and then there was one. Ax might be able to survive—but he isn’t looking to go home and be safe, he’s looking to save the world. And then there were none.
A lot of the point of this book is that of course the Ellimist “stacked the deck,” because these kids in particular are the the only ones who have the necessary combination of idealism and grittiness to take on an entire army and win (MM4). Marco says it best in #54: “We beat an empire, my friend, the six of us, and we did it in large part because you didn’t know any better than to trust your own instincts.” Ax has the tech savvy and determination to engage in total war, but he can’t survive on Earth without human friends. Rachel has the ferocity to be a one-woman army, but without her friends to ground her she’d get herself killed a lot sooner. Jake might be a natural leader, but he’s also naive enough not to know how to balance ethics in times of atrocity without Marco’s ruthlessness and Cassie’s pragmatism to guide him. Without Marco, the team would never succeed in taking down Visser One. Without Cassie, they would never get in contact with the Yeerk Peace Movement. Without Tobias, they’d never succeed at freeing the hork-bajir. These six form a constellation of skills and needs and strengths and neuroses that balances the fate of the entire galaxy on the shoulders of a bunch of middle schoolers. They don’t need morphing power to be badass—but they do need it to win.