Short opinion: This is the best book. Not the best Animorphs book, just the best book of all time. Period.
This is one of those books where plot and character are difficult to sort out, because the plot is so character-driven and the characters are so influential to the plot that they are irreparably wrapped up in each other—and the entire story is driven by the protagonists’ agency. This book opens and closes on Jake’s dreams, and in that first dream sequence he’s this tiny, helpless human in the face of this ginormous cosmic power. I love that this scene draws attention to the fact that Jake first encountered Crayak under circumstances when he was literally the most helpless he’s ever been in his life: Jake is literally paralyzed because of the dying yeerk inside his brain when he suddenly finds himself facing down this malicious all-knowing deity. In that scene Jake describes himself as the “keeper” of his brother’s memories (Have I mentioned the Cain parallels recently?), foreshadowing both the fact that by the end of the book he’ll be the only being with Howler DNA or memories in the whole universe, and the fact that by the end of the series he’ll be the only being with Tom’s memories in the universe.
The next scene with the kids watching a production of Lion King (funny how that plot hinges on the villain killing his older brother…) in a way that makes them utterly themselves: Rachel is pretty much daring a guy to try and hit on her so she can release a little pent-up frustration on a harasser, Marco is pulling ridiculous stunts to get Jake to laugh, Cassie is totally zoned out because let’s be real she doesn’t give a crap about the fine arts, and Jake is enjoying the peace and quiet for a bit while also not giving a crap about the fine arts. When Ax shows up he’s totally confused but goes into hyper-protective mode toward his team anyway, and when Tobias pops up he figures out in two seconds flat what it took everyone else a few minutes to catch on to: this is the Ellimist at work.
One of my favorite subtle moments in the series is when Marco snarks at the Ellimist about the pinnacle of ketran evolution being the ability to look like a teenager with braces, and then almost immediately has a silent freak-out because he just sassed a divinity. I really love how Marco’s quick thinking gets him in trouble almost as much as it gets him out, and how it shows that even his clever one-liners are a coping mechanism rather than a calculated attempt to appear cool. His inability to get through a stressful situation without making dumb jokes literally almost gets the kids killed in #30 and #42, and here he has the good sense to realize that the Ellimist is the absolute last person he should be mocking—about ten seconds after he’s already gone and done it.
Also, Jake and Rachel’s relationship in this book is heartbreaking and awesome. When the kids first learn about the conflict with the Iskoort they’re understandably reluctant to get involved in yet another cosmic war but Rachel especially argues that they shouldn’t get themselves killed needlessly in a conflict that has nothing to do with the yeerks… Until Jake admits that Crayak has been harassing him in his dreams. Rachel does a one-eighty to “No Crayak space monster is gonna beat up on my cousin” the millisecond she finds out (#26). Marco also jumps sides of the argument immediately with an eye to defending Jake, and before they know it they’re already off to the races. Later on, just before the final battle, Rachel literally holds Jake in her arms in grizzly morph while he becomes a Howler for the first time, because she’s the only person Jake trusts to kill him without hesitation if he loses control of the morph. These two share a level of trust—Jake trusts Rachel to defend his life, but also more importantly to know when to end his life when the cost of defending it would be too high, and Rachel has exactly the same level of trust in Jake—that we don’t see with any other pair on the team. It goes way, way beyond their simple shared willingness to get their hands dirty; it’s about trusting each other with their lives but also with their deaths.
This is also the book where (if he didn’t already have it) Jake definitely earns the title of “war-prince.” Not only does he fight a battle against two infinitely more powerful beings and win, not only does he outmaneuver the most deadly alien species the kids ever face using the power of love, but he also plays the part of Team Mom throughout this nightmarish field trip while just as scared and lost as everyone else present. He takes the time to check on Cassie in the middle of the night while also terrified the Howlers will attack at any moment. He gently talks Marco down when Marco’s about to panic at the sheer foreignness of the situation. He not-so-gently calls Erek on the fact that Erek is lying by omission for large parts of this book. All the while he also weighs and balances everything he knows about the Howlers and the Iskoort, constantly gathering more information (frequently at risk to his own life, as with that awesome-nutso gambit with jumping off a cliff to acquire Howler DNA) until eventually he figures out the motivations of everyone else jerking him around. He describes himself as “an ant on a chessboard,” but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn how to play. By the end of the book he’s thinking on the same level as the Ellimist and Crayak, while also viscerally understanding the ordinary Howler or Iskoort. As Rachel’s bulletin board says: ’“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.’ - Sun Tzu” (#4).
Jake also verbally embraces the title of “prince” for the first (possibly only) time in the series during this book, twice ordering Ax to defend his own life against the Howlers. Jake doesn’t totally get andalite culture, evident in the fact that he’s not sure why Ax cares so much about having run from an unwinnable battle. But he also knows and understands (and cares about) Ax, enough so to grasp that what Ax needs is the reassurance of his prince that he didn’t do anything wrong. Jake has to practically step on Rachel’s toes to stop her from volunteering for the suicide mission (because of course) but he does it, aware that Ax will view this as a chance to reaffirm his place on the team and regain what “honor” he lost by running from the Howler. Jake is never comfortable with the leadership role, and least comfortable of all when someone puts a formal title on his leadership. However, he also understands that when Ax is literally ready to die in order to affirm his place on the team, the whole “prince” bit is not about him; it’s about helping Ax. And so he calls himself Ax’s prince, not once but twice, in order to save Ax’s life. Because it’s what needs doing in order to keep the team alive.
In addition to the spot-on characterization and the mind-bogglingly huge plot, this book also has some vicious commentary on philosophy of war. Marco actually calls Erek on the fact that, when the Animorphs are about to be slaughtered by a far more powerful enemy, Erek’s decision not to act is an action in and of itself. Maybe Erek doesn’t have a choice about not causing harm, even at the expense of preventing a murder, but Erek also sure as hell does not have the moral high ground. Pacifism is not a righteous course of action in the face of atrocity, and Erek standing by to watch his friends get slaughtered—knowing all the while that the entire Iskoort species also hangs in the balance—is not the moral high ground. Jake actually feels loathing for the Pemalites as he frantically flies back toward the hopeless battle that might have cost Cassie and Rachel their lives, thinking that he’ll never forgive them if they got his friends killed with their short-sighted, obsessive nonviolence when they programmed the Chee.
The social comment in this book isn’t a particularly comforting or comfortable one (but then when are they ever, in Animorphs books?) but it is an important message: that the world is an ugly place in which simple neutrality is the prerogative of the privileged. One cannot call oneself moral simply by standing by and refusing to fight back while evil triumphs (X). As Cassie points out to Jake, only slave owners and Nazis have ever had the luxury of branding entire groups of people as uniformly evil and one’s own cause as uniformly good (#26). In order to stop a terrible wrong, the kids have to commit a terrible wrong. The war is not won through anything as easy as standing on principle, because no lofty abstract principle ever works in 100% of cases in the real world. Erek is no better or worse than any of the kids because he is held to a certain standard of behavior by external constraints; even an idea as pure as “do no harm” does not stand up when one has the chance to stop genocide and cannot.
Crayak understands the idea better than the Pemalites did, when he designs the Howlers: the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference (X). The Chee aren’t programmed to hate—or to love—any other species.
More specifically, this book also calls Erek out on his tendency to consider himself above the Animorphs because of his nonviolence. Erek is every bit as vengeful (bloodthirsty, even) as Ax or Rachel throughout this whole conflict, but he also refuses to acknowledge that fact. He conveniently forgets to mention the fact that the Howlers are innocent (relatively speaking) in their childish indifference to death and ignorance of failure until Jake also discovers that fact. Years before the Animorphs use Erek to do their dirty work in the fight against Tom’s yeerk, Erek uses them to do his dirty work through setting up the fight with the Howlers and letting them annihilate another species without even having all of the facts about who they’re fighting.
The motif is writ large throughout the series: war is won through sacrifice, and most of those sacrifices are not as clean or glorious as simply dying for one’s cause. Erek stands by, choosing to give up the fight after only one battle turns too ugly for his liking (#10), and as a result the entire species of Howlers gets wiped out by Crayak. As a result of his later actions, both Tom and Rachel get killed and the Blade ship remains free to conquer another planet (#53). And yet this is a being who (allegedly) never hurts anyone for any reason. Erek is self-righteous, vengeful, and morally hypocritical. That fact gets a little lost in books like #20, #32, or #45, but here Jake makes the contrast between his friends—who are running headlong into a deadly battle for the sake of some yeerk-descendants—and the Chee—who are forced to stand by and risk nothing with nothing gained—painfully clear.
This book offers no simple answers, and it shows that in war, there are no simple answers. However, it also ends with Jake surrounded by his friends, taking triumph from the fact that he’s just a helpless little human facing down a malicious all-knowing deity whose ass he just kicked. USING THE POWER OF LOVE. Have I mentioned that this is the best book ever written?