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?
Gary coughed, waving his hand through the air. Crap, he’d used too much Axe body spray. He hoped Coulson didn’t get an allergic reaction. He knew the man broke out if he was exposed to too much Axe body spray.
672 - In the future, the turtles will get exposed to the public but because it’s while they’re saving the world from aliens/ninjas/whatever during a big attack, they’re actually accepted by the public. Continued Under Cut
Okay, so we don’t know who this mysterious Cole is, except that he was a kid in season 1 yet is hunting Dean down now for something that happened way back when. I think I’ve found a great thematic backstory for him that I think would work amazingly with the current themes and stuff we’re getting from the season 10 spoilers.
I was sitting around trying hard to think of moments in the first seasons where there would be a chance of a kid to witness something that may still leave him in the dark about the Supernatural but set him on the warpath to Dean in particular, and I think I hit the motherlode, trying to think of plot episodes and particularly something thematically important to do with the main storylines.
What if he’s the kid of the first meatsuit Dean shot - the one he killed with the Colt in the season 1 finale while they were rescuing John? Right from the start that weighed heavily on the narrative: first we had Dean sitting there after realising how much he didn’t care, how he’d do anything to save his family, even shooting random civilians. Then the whole “wasted a bullet” (jeeze I’m not even taking this from my take on Cole’s POV yet and that hurts) bit with John and Yellow-eyes where that one little act sort of shapes the drama at the end of the season.
The whole meatsuit-was-actually-a-person thing starts to come back importantly with Bobby: I realised that we first start to find out about his wife in none other than Dream a Little Dream, which is our early seasons demon!Dean treasure chest: not that there is any way it was foreshadowing but it’s interesting anyway to have a good look at demon!Dean, all the analysis of that little “this is what you’re going to become” moment, in the same episode as we get someone torn up about having to kill someone they loved because they were possessed. Since it can’t have been foreshadowing it could still be a great place to borrow themes, ideas, motivations etc from when they’re shaping the character. I’m guessing the writers would have re-watched this one as much as we have lately.
Skipping ahead a bit, we go through seasons and seasons of the Winchesters mowing down anything with black eyes: Sam tries his hardest to keep saving people while using his demon blood powers, and that turns out to be a hot mess of “not worth it” and even though we see him suffering from it, Dean, who has never had that power, doesn’t seem as affected: right from the first kill (*cough* hey hypothetical Cole’s dad) he’s had to tell himself to write off the meatsuit: they’re a victim caught in the crossfire and he has to tell himself that the ends justify the means. By season 8 he’s totally desensitised.
Now we hit the new strata of the show: stuff from the Carver era, and I am 5 episodes into season 8 on my rewatch so this is pretty fresh in my mind: the opening episodes, setting it all up, focus pretty hard on all sorts of demon stuff: we have the Trans getting their tattoos, we have Sam randomly doing that reverse exorcism, we have all the new lore for the gates of hell, demon bombs, blah blah blah… And from the start, a new focus/reminder of the consequences of possession, and, more importantly, the consequences of Dean stabbing whoever the hell he wants just because they have a demon in them.
The episode (2?) where they go collect Mrs Tran starts with the boys waltzing into her demon-guarded house, stabbing postmen and gardeners that Kevin has already positively identified *as people he knows in real life*, followed by Sam’s reverse exorcism, dragging the demon *back into the innocent meatsuit* so that they can stab it to stop it talking to Crowley. Ends, means, etc.
The whole saga comes to a head when Crowley possesses Mrs Tran and Dean is like “lol okay she was hot but I’d better stab the bitch while I have the chance to kill Crowley since we fucked that up earlier” (I’m not a mind-reader but I’m pretty sure that was what he was thinking :P We already saw in that same episode how messed up he was about torture and hurting people since Purgatory, mirrored with the innocent civilian he held at knife-point earlier in the episode). At this point he finally has to face Serious Consequences for his stab-first policy, when Kevin loses it and runs off with his mother because he rightly realises that hanging out with Sam and Dean is wildly dangerous and they *will* stab anyone you know and love without thinking about it.
Since the early episodes of season 8 set up an insane amount of groundwork for what’s coming later, a whole arc about meatsuit-rights and the ethics of hunting demons is, admittedly generally important, but also shows that this is a huge theme and bringing in someone tied to it will only be a wonderful idea.
Let’s back up to season 1 then, and have a look at Cole’s story.
*sticks on Devil’s Trap*
Holy crap, fireman breaking a door down with an axe. Lol. Okay so demons just like smashing doors with axes apparently. *this is a side note of minimal relevance*
Right, so this is the section where John’s in the big apartment building and Sam and Dean pull the fire alarm, sneak in and rescue John. Meanwhile random members of the public, all families who lived there and firemen who came to help, are grabbed by demons out in the open and marched off to stop the Winchesters getting away. The demon who comes haring out of the blue and starts whaling on Sam is not a fireman, just a generic civilian dude, so we can assume he was one of the members of the public (again, there were *a lot* of families in that crowd). I had a quick scan of background characters earlier in the set and couldn’t see this guy earlier. If he had been one of the fireman demons I’d have dropped this theory and deleted the post in shame for wasting my time but nope, he’s someone who could legit have had a son in that crowd.
Okay so you’re 10 years old, they’re saying your building is on fire but you can’t see any smoke (and this is one of the only times we see people getting possessed on the sly with no smoke there either: the demons were being stealthy). Your dad is this generic-looking dude you probably have some suitably weird angsty relationship with already (demons were established in like that plane episode for preferring to go for people with a bit of emotional turmoil to make it easier for them), but still probably hero worship because you’re 10, he’s your only family (come on this is Supernatural, besides, they were living in small dodgy apartments). And he suddenly changes: he’s standing stiffly, not looking at you, he drops your hand. Like you’re not even there any more, he turns and heads off around the back of the building. You don’t know it, but he’s possessed and going to scout around the back to make sure the Winchesters aren’t leaving.
Since he’s your rock in this world and you have no idea what’s going on you follow him: maybe he’s taking you to get ice cream while you wait to find out what happened to the building. I dunno, you’re ten, he’s your dad, you’re not letting him out of your sight.
You come around the corner, and see your dad. He’s sitting astride another man, punching the crap out of him. You can’t step out from around the corner of the building, peering at the scene in horror. Your world view shakes: dad’s been angry, he’s had fights, sometimes he got mad at mom when she was still alive but you’ve never seen him like this: punching the life out of a guy who you’ve never seen before in your life.
Then there’s a gunshot.
Dad freezes. Shakes. You’re too far away to see the crackles of power as the demon inside him burns out. All you see is dad slumping over.
And behind him, a man, holding an antique gun, arm steady. You stare at him: you memorise every single detail of his face, his spiky hair, his jacket, the totally dead, remorseless look in his eyes.
The man lowers the gun, helps the guy who was getting punched to his feet, is joined by a third, older man who barely seems able to walk himself, but in a moment they’re gone, fleeing the scene. Only then can you run out of hiding. You run to dad, left there on the ground like he was nothing, and you forget all the times he raised his voice, you bury the horror of moments before when Dad was trying to kill the other man. You can’t think about that: not when he’s dead.
Later, when you’re a teen, you demand to see the files. The case went cold. The killer was never found. You were kept sheltered but not by choice: you’ve been moved restlessly around by the system, growing up an orphan, the last years of your childhood gone.
When you’re seventeen there’s a rash of murders and bank robberies. The Winchesters, the news declares, and shows plenty of footage, old and new. Their crime spree started when you were only eleven: you know before you even see it, but still. You take one look at the face of the man in the CCTV footage and you *know* where you’ve seen him before. Seven years and he hasn’t changed much: the same hair. The same dead eyes. The only difference is he’s ditched the jacket.
You become obsessed. You read everything on the public record. Your skills are already honed from living a borderline criminal life since the system spat you out and as all with a vigilante heart, you began to learn what you needed if you were ever going to track the man down. Dean Winchester, you think. The name becomes engraved on the inside of your eyes. You’ve been hunting him in your head for seven years but now you have the spark. The name.
It doesn’t take long to track down some copies of Hendrickson’s files. You know a guy. You start to piece together the same patterns so many others have. The files from the second crime spree never come to light.
And you have your dad’s files.
One bullet shot to the head. The bullet twisted and mostly destroyed by impact, melted far more than normal, like it had been treated with a second round of intense heat *after* impact. The calibre is abnormal, the gun ancient, an original Colt. There are few other killings like it, but for a brief time two years after dad died a few have surfaced here and there. Sporadic. Five years have passed since the weapon that killed your father was used, but you’ve got more than enough information without that by now.
And you have his name.
They say he’s dead, but he was dead before. You get the feeling he’s been ‘dead’ quite often. You refuse to believe he is again, but a year passes: you don’t know he’s in purgatory. You begin to doubt, think that maybe this time he really is. But he’s dropped off the grid before. When you were fifteen, just learning your way, there wasn’t a single sign of him for a whole year. And then the huge killing spree happened. He can’t be trusted to stay dead, you think.
Another year passes, and you begin to catch wind of strange stabbings: they line up with other deaths from times the Winchesters have been active: a little internal burning. Sulphur found around the body. It’s strange pattern; after reading what you have about the Winchesters you don’t want to know what significance this all has to them.
You’re nineteen, you’re dangerous, armed, on a mission, but still there’s nothing to work with. You feel you’re always far behind them. They leave a few telling patterns: many dead bodies in a warehouse, full of burns and strange sigils sprayed on the walls. They’re using aliases again. And they show up in towns where strange things have begun happening, sometimes weeks before they ever possibly could have been there.
You begin actively seeking the patterns: towns which have had a rash of missing hearts, or corpses showing up sucked dry. Weird thefts of random parts of anatomy. Murders copying murders from a hundred years ago to the day. You don’t know it, but you’ve taught yourself everything about being a hunter except the actual hunting. One day you will get there before they do. You know their car, their faces, their fake names. You know they’re based somewhere in Kansas, even: it makes geographical sense as you track their movements. This seems new: the randomness to their appearances is tempered, they seem somewhat settled. Good. They’ve let their guard down. You know what the Winchesters are capable of. You’ve trained harder.
You’re twenty. There’s another murder, but this one is different. You get a hold of the CCTV footage and wish you hadn’t. He’s alone, that shadow that always followed him in the shape of his brother gone. And when you see his eyes, they aren’t dead any more: they seem totally black and maybe it’s just because you’ve never hated anyone more than this but you see him as a monster, less than human in how he moves. But in all those years, all that footage of him you’ve poured over, you never saw his eyes so *alive*.
You know where he is and by the sounds of the police reports he’s not moving anywhere fast, raising hell for fun.
You have spent half your whole life waiting for this moment. He’s nearby and tonight is the night you’re going to avenge your father and, if everything about Dean Winchester is true, save the world in the process.
(Okay I got a bit carried away but whatever. Cole intrigues me!)