Thursday, August 11, 2011

In Which Adam & Ifi Review Animorphs: Book 1, The Invasion

Well, this is something new that I shall be trying out. My friend Ifi, of When I Grow Up and I shall be reviewing the Animorphs book series from start to finish over the next period of time. (I'll still be doing regular blog updates as well, and we are still experimenting with the format of the new reviews, so we shall see how it goes. For Ifi's version of the review, go here.

Anyways, a backstory will likely be good here. Animorphs is a longrunning series of young adult novels written by K.A. Applegate. over the course of 1996 to 2001. To give a basic description of the premise, five teenagers stumble upon a crashed alien spacecraft. The dying alien they find inside tells them of the Yeerks, a parasitic alien race that have been steadily infiltrating human society in order to take them over. The dying alien grants them the power to acquire and transform into any animal, so they might defend themselves, and hopefully hold the invasion force back, at least for a while.

Despite the young target audience of these books, they were astonishingly dark at times, heavy on gore, and not shying away from showing the psychological impact that being engaged in a war would have on someone of that age. Over time, Applegate would vastly expand the animorphs-verse with a variety of alien species and planets, some of varying degrees of realism, which in spite of how many of these books were ghostwritten (with 12-14 books a year, to 64 books in total, it would be impossible to do otherwise) this lead to a deeply engaging story, that pretty much singlehandedly got me into reading as a small child.

And yes, that's the thing. I began this series as a kindergardener, before I could even read well at all, and kept going for years until the series was finished. And this, more or less is why I love this series so much. It was through these books that I basically taught myself to read, and therefor gained an interest in books to begin with. And without that, I would not be interested in writing children's books of my own. But enough about this.

So without further ado, I present you with Animorphs Book 1: The Invasion.

Ifi: Well, I liked the cover art. This was one of the better covers. They got really terrible at one point.
Adam: I don't know, this always struck me as a bit awkward
Ifi: I think the full-body transformations were more awkward than just the heads
Adam: Well, that can be true, but I find it a bit strange how it is Jake's head and torso, and then for the rest of the transformation it just shows his head
Adam: It’s also a lot more cgi-ey then the other covers

Ifi: He morphs into just a head.
Adam: Ah.
Adam: I see.
Adam: Now it all makes sense.
Adam: They could morph into individual body parts?
Adam: Suddenly that makes the scene in a later book where Rachel beats away a controller with her own severed arm even more awesome.
Ifi: I wish they actually did that in the books.
Ifi: But nooo they can only go full-animal.
Ifi: Or something.
Ifi: There are actually lots of silly rules surrounding morphing. The two-hour time limit is the very least of it.
Ifi: You can't go from animal to animal, you have to change back to human first.
Ifi: You can't morph parts, like just claws or wings or something.
Adam: You probably could do that, if you got good enough at it
Adam: But birds are smaller, and have hollow bones.
Adam: So just growing a pair of bird wings wouldn't really let you fly.
Ifi: The aliens all speak English and you are quibbling over bone density?
Adam: It says in one of the chronicles books that they have some sort of translator chip in their heads.
Adam: The Andalites do, anycase.
Adam: If anything, I remember my Animorphs fanwank.
Ifi: Okay, okay, let's just move on.
Adam: Fair enough.

On Tone
Ifi: We have those iconic opening lines
Adam: "My name is Jake."
Ifi: I had flashbacks.
Ifi: To middle school.
Adam: I know, I know.
Adam: I read this book in kindergarten.
Ifi: Really?
Ifi: It's sort of dark.
Adam: I had a subscription to Nickelodeon magazine, and they gave a sample of the first book in it.
Ifi: Actually, it's quite dark, even if most of it is just implied.
Adam: Yes, but it had a guy turning into a lizard on the cover, and I was one of those kids who liked scaley things.
Adam: So I didn't really care, and much of the dark stuff sort of flew over my head at that point.
Ifi: Very true. Only when I reread the books much later did I realize all the horrible stuff that was happening.
Ifi: In this book, around the end, it's heavily implied that Cassie murders a Yeerk and his host.
Ifi: I’d have never caught that before.
Adam: Is it? Gosh, I missed that even this time
Adam: Could you quote that section again?
Ifi: Let me find it.
And Cassie had gotten away clean. It had been the suspicious Controller policeman who had grabbed her. He was the only Controller to know her name, where she lived, and that she had been spying on The Sharing.

Cassie said we didn't have to worry about him anymore. She didn't want to talk about what had happened to him.
--The Invasion, Chapter 27
Ifi: She totally ripped his face off with her teeth.
Adam: Geez, how did I miss that?
Ifi: I read that and actually did a double take.
Adam: And now I am having some weird interpretations on Cassie.
Adam: IE: The one who once got upset after killing a termite queen.
Ifi: The thing is, these books pretty much never make a distinction between Yeerks and hosts. And in retrospect, it's pretty gruesome.
Adam: Well, I know that later on, some Yeerks make the connection that the "Andalite bandits" are human based on the fact that there are so many fewer human casualties than Hork Bajir or Taxxon ones.
Adam: But still.
Adam: Yes.
Adam: They're running around killing innocent victims here.
Adam: Yuck.
Adam: Yuck is a profound understatement
Adam: But yuck.
Ifi: At the same time, things can be pretty silly. I mean, some of that is just typical "I love the 90's" fare. But I also liked the implication that schools are evil because there is a Yeerk pool beneath theirs.
Ifi: I feel like all kids would have identified with this.
Adam: Well, they do subvert it in that Chapman turns out to be a pretty good guy when not being possessed by a Yeerk.
Adam: (ignoring his characterization in Andalite chronicles)
Ifi: Hush, we don't talk about that until next review.
Adam: Blah blah

On Characters 
Ifi: Okay. Let's discuss Tobias for a second.
Ifi: The dude who totally-by-accident and not-at-all-deliberately trapped himself in morph.
Adam: I didn't notice this as a kid, but Tobias is completely batshit nuts in this book.
Adam: Excuse my language.
Ifi: Yes. Yes he is.
Ifi: I actually liked him. When I was a kid he was one of my favorite characters, because he was a loner. And I would have totally rather trapped myself in a hawk body than go to school.
Adam: Yeah, what makes this weird is that he also comes off a lot of the time as the character you're supposed to identify most.
Adam: Almost calculatingly so.
Ifi: Hey, what's the lifespan of a red-tailed hawk?
Adam: I will look it up now.
Adam: 13-20 years.
Adam: I still think it was remarkably stupid of him not to get a battle morph.
Adam: I mean, they were right there.
Ifi: Nobody got enough morphs.
Adam: Indeed.
Adam: They should have all gotten morphs of each thing.
Ifi: They were like, "Okay I got like one animal, we're good."
Ifi: NO.
Ifi: You do not go home until you acquire every living thing in the Gardens.
Adam: Or even, "Okay, Marco took the gorilla. Well, I guess he has dibs on that one."
Ifi: And they were like, "Hey, look dolphins. Naw. When could those ever come in handy? It's not like we live in coastal California."

On Logic
Ifi: So the morphing technology was incredibly easy for them to master.
Adam: Yes, exactly!
Ifi: I mean, I know it was a kid's book, but it literally took them ten seconds
Adam: I mean, surely the Hork Bajir soldiers would have had some sort of combat training
Adam: But Jake was just swatting through them like flies
Ifi: Also, they should have totally acquired some of those...
Ifi: If I was in these books, I'd be running around like a maniac, acquiring everything
Ifi: Pets, circus animals, trees, Visser Three...
Adam: Right after getting the morphing power, they all should have acquired Elfangor right there
Ifi: You're right.
Ifi: He should have thought of that.
Adam: For that matter, why couldn't Elfangor morph into something to heal his injuries?
Ifi: Yeah. I mean, it's implied that morphing heals you when Jake gets his tail broken off in lizard shape
Ifi: Though it's not really fully explored until book 4 or so
Adam: Wait
Adam: I just realized something though
Adam: When Jake morphs his dog, he mentions being neutered
Adam: How does that work?
Ifi: *facepalm*
Ifi: That doesn't work. That's not even consistent with later books, when they morph cows.

On Characters (again) 
Ifi: Since this is the first book, I wouldn't mind talking a little more about the characters. It's narrated by Jake, who is pretty much the leader of the group, though I'm not really sure why. Jake is sort of a control freak sometimes, but a little generic. Even as a kid, I never found him interesting.
Adam: Really? Jake was always one of my favorites.
Ifi: The thing with Tom would have been notable but then Marco blows him out of the water four books later.
Adam: That's true.
Adam: But I kind of liked Jake. He was snarky, but without being obnoxious about it like Marco was.
Adam: And Marco had a good reason for being like that, but it doesn't really get into that until later.
Ifi: Jake was okay, and I do think I preferred his personality to Marco's. Marco is such a jerk in this book.
Adam: It’s true. He mostly just antagonizes people about the whole situation.
Ifi: He's like that one guy, in all the books or TV shows, that has to shoot everyone else down so he can be proven wrong later.
Ifi: Except in this case, it's more like, the readers totally want to see the main characters kick ass, and Marco is obstructing that, so pleh to him.
Ifi: But it's true. And the sucky thing is, in the real world, Marco would be the intelligent one.
Adam: Well, in a way, he is.
Adam: Well, in this book, yes.
Adam: Later ones, he's the one who plans for things going wrong, and so forth.
Adam: It’s the whole "is it paranoia if everyone is out to get you?" thing.
Ifi: I guess that is true.
Ifi: Animorphs managed to be pretty gender-blind in an era of useless pink chicks. None of the aliens gave a crap, and the humans were fairly balanced.
Ifi: Rachel was basically an axe-murderer.
Adam: Yep.
Adam: And Cassie, though she fits more into that demure female stereotype, she was the best morpher out of them, and there was that whole morally ambiguous bit you mentioned earlier.
Ifi: Yeah. She was also scientifically smart, and she had the coolest parents in the whole world.
Adam: I am now realizing that it seems impossible to do a literary analysis on something without going into the feminist implications of it.
Ifi: The characters do all develop, and I appreciate that. Especially when the stories can get pretty simplistic.
Adam: Can you elaborate by what you mean by "simplistic"? Just out of curiosity
Ifi: I guess it varies from ghostwriter to ghostwriter, but sometimes the plots of each book were sort of...well, simple, and even silly. The bad guys would do silly things and the good guys would thwart them in equally silly ways. It was like a Saturday morning cartoon.
Adam: Maple and ginger oatmeal?
Ifi: Yeah exactly.
Adam: Ah.
Ifi: But not just that.
Ifi: Many of the books, to me, felt like filler.
Adam: Most of them were.
Adam: That's bound to happen when you're having a series where a new book comes out once a month.
Ifi: That is true, maybe I'm expecting too much of it. I mean, no matter how silly it got, I still love the series. With its totally radical nineties lingo and all.
Adam: The book starts out with them at the mall, for christsake.
Ifi: It is very dated.
Adam: It could be worse, honestly.
Adam: They aren't constantly surfboarding and calling each other "dude"
Adam: And she doesn't try that method of avoiding feeling dated by making up slang, which for me has the effect of making a work automatically feel dated.

On Relationships 
Ifi: So how do we feel about the not-at-all blatant or forced pairings?
Adam: I generally didn't have a problem with the romantic pairings in this series.
Adam: They didn't take over the plot, which I was very appreciative of.
Adam: There were a few exceptions, which caused much groaning, but I will get to that when we get to it.
Ifi: Yeah, it could have been worse. It's mainly limited to hand-brushing and embarrassed looks. Which is pretty much the definition of middle school love anyway.
Adam: Indeed.
Ifi: Animorphs is about the action, first and foremost. I'm sure if it was YA it would be romance with a background of, "Like, aliens or something, but none of that is important compared to our LOVE."
Ifi: I hate the whole world.

On Villainy

Adam: One thing I just found silly is the fact that Visser Three can apparently turn into a fire breathing hydra.
Adam: I completely fail to comprehend how that works.
Ifi: Oh god.
Ifi: I could write a whole separate article on Visser Freaking Three.
Adam: You should!
Adam: I can't really think of any better way to destroy someone.
Ifi: Even if you CAN turn into a fire-breathing hydra, among other awesome but implausible things.
Adam: Exactly how does an animal develop a biological mechanism that allows it to breath fire, let alone in earth's atmosphere?
Adam: Did the Yeerks invade the world of someone’s dungeons and dragons campaign or something?
Ifi: This is not even the most ridiculous thing he ever morphs. Not by a long shot.
Adam: He once morphed a superheated blob of fat creature
Adam: I'm not sure how he was able to come into contact with that
Ifi: He could totally destroy everyone in a second. But he never does. He's always left just shaking his fist as the Animorphs run away.
Ifi: Now I understand that that would make a lame story. But still.
Adam: Well, this was the 90's, and Visser Three was essentially a 90's cartoon villain, even after this became out of place in later books.
Ifi: And it became evident that all the other Yeerks were laughing at him.
Adam: So I suppose I have to give Applegate credit for this then.
Adam: She recognized a flaw in her writing and then basically deconstructed it.
Adam: Not too shabby.
Ifi: Very true.

On Story
Ifi: So this book was more about establishing the setting and characters than the actual conflict.
Ifi: But there's plenty more of that later.
Ifi: And it does do its job very well. It lays out all the main concepts in an understandable way, and I'm always able to suspend my disbelief even though I have absolutely no idea why.
Adam: It’s young adult science fiction. Suspending your disbelief is a necessary requirement for the genre.
Ifi: And I think a lot of the ideas have become engrained in my psyche.
Adam: They've made you the woman you are today
Adam: God help us all.
Ifi: They've made me...
Adam:  I started on this series before I could really read.
Adam:  So it’s pretty much these books that got me into books as a whole.
Adam:  Which is pretty impressive, come to think of it.
Ifi: Yes. I don't think I'd be the SF dork I am today without them.
Ifi: Plus, we had different books aimed at us. I’d never encountered anything like this before. My section of Borders was all about ponies and the magic of friendship.
Adam: I'm very sorry.
Ifi: You ought to be.


  1. Oh wow. I highly approve of this series. Please keep going through until at least the David Saga. (Which I just borrowed from the library because what the hell? Then I read it, remembering that the target audience was fifth graders. My reaction, and I quote: "Holy sh*t...")

    Speaking of, "She (Cassie) totally ripped his (Yeerk Controller guy) face off with her teeth."

    Recall that the battle form she was using at the time was her horse... O_o

  2. Oh believe me, we intend to get through all of them, however long that ends up taking. I have the entire series in my basement, providing me with moral support.

    I think that was part of the appeal of this series, that it didn't shy away from being gruesome when necessary. Or maybe I was just a standard child of the 90's when such a thing was popular. Who knows?

  3. I *wish* Borders had books on ponies and the magic of friendship when I was a child!

    You can do it Fluttershy! You just have to believe in yourself!

  4. Are you going to touch upon the weird Nickelodeon series, or the incredibly weird GameBoy game? (I picked the latter up at a thrift store and found the very strangest "Pokemon" rip-off ever.)

  5. Alas, I am afraid that did not have cable when the tv series was airing, and so I've only seen one or two episodes of it. If I can find it anywhere, I probably will do something with it though.

    As for the Gameboy game, well, I have not even heard of it until now. I know there was an Animorphs game for the PC, and that it was apparently nigh-unplayable, but that's about it.

  6. I'll try to dig the game up. If you do not mind me doing a companion piece, maybe I could do a brief Let's Play of it just to give the general idea of how darn weird it is.

  7. That would be great! Right now I am putting up a separate blog for the animorphs reviews, and I can repost it there, if that is alright with you.

  8. No problem. I won't be able to do it for a while, though.

  9. No rush. The other blog won't be up until we have something of a backlog for the reviews, anyway.


Always nice to hear what you have to say. =]