Review of The Beginning by K.A. Applegate
by K.A. Applegate
Well, here we are. Almost four years ago I started re-reading Animorphs. I had been wanting to do this for a while, and then my Goodreads friend and occasional Twitter DM enthusiast Julie started her own, finally galvanizing me to just do it, as Shia Le Nike says. (You should also read Julie’s review of #54: The Beginning as well!) It has taken me considerably longer than Julie to finish re-reading this series, but I’ve still enjoyed it very much. Animorphs is a very memorable part of my childhood. I remember obsessively collecting most of the books from #21 or so on, and when I eventually donated them away it was definitely an emotional moment in my life. This series has stuck with me.
Like the rest of my reviews of Animorphs, I’m not really flagging this as having spoilers despite discussing the plot, because I figure that if you’re reading this review of the end of a 50-book series 20 years later, then you probably don’t care that much about spoilers.
And if the only answer you’re looking for in this review is the answer to the question, “Does it hold up?” That answer is yes, unreservedly, and more so than I ever expected.
Certainly this series has its flaws, its problems, and as a book written for middle grade and young adults, there are definitely times I feel like, as an adult, Applegate is not writing for me. I read these books now with a more critical eye than I would when I was younger—and there is nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, for younger readers—dated ’90s references aside—I think these books would still be just as formative and valuable today. And for those of us reading for nostalgia reasons, these books are no less powerful or remarkable for the story Applegate tells.
The Beginning wraps up the cliffhanger battle from The Answer pretty quickly. Then it jumps forward one year and then another two years so we can see what this hath wrought. And while this series as a whole holds up, this particular book is dissatisfying. It was dissatisfying to me when I was a kid, and it is dissatisfying now.
Note that this is just me being particularly harsh. Endings are hard. Endings for a series are even harder, and truth be told, there are very few series whose endings I have loved. Want to know my most perfect series finale? Orphan Black.
Alas, The Beginning is more Battlestar Galactica—although, to give Applegate credit, I think she managed to tie everything up much more credibly than Moore et al did. (It’s probably closer to Star Trek: Voyager “Endgame” on the finale scale.)
Also, when I say I’m dissatisfied, I’m not talking about that last chapter. I get why Applegate wants Jake to go out with a bang, and why she wanted to leave the fans with something. As a kid, I literally just shrugged and moved on to the next book (such an old man pragmatist even back then). As an adult me, I also kind of shrugged—perhaps more ruefully—and hit up the Internet to read fanfic speculation.
No, what I don’t like about The Beginning is its broad-strokes approach to the character development of our main cast. Everything feels a bit like a stereotype of these characters, from dedicated Cassie to easygoing Marco to depressed Jake. (Marco in particular, with his “all the ladies want me” vibe, really creeped me out). We can wring our hands and talk about how Applegate could only do so much in the space she had (really, I think Scholastic should have sprung for a “Megamorphs” sized finale book). But the truth is that this ending really only offers a shallow snapshot of the Animorphs a couple of years after the war. I’m really disappointed we don’t get more of Tobias’ perspective. We’re supposed to infer that he is just so heartbroken from losing Rachel he wants to go off and live that hawk life. I would have liked to hear that from him, though.
I don’t mind Rachel dying. I think it’s fitting that at least one Animorph lost their life, and Applegate gives Rachel a hero’s death. She would make a great Klingon. She is bold and tough as nails and she wants to make a difference. The first chapter of this book might actually be one of the best chapters in the entire series, because it’s really where it pays off. (That being said, the fact we don’t really get revenge on the Blade ship Yeerks disappoints me too.)
I guess what I’m trying to say is that The Beginning is very uneven. That is probably fitting, considering that this series as a whole is very uneven. I’ve been ruminating lately on how TV seasons have been shrinking in episode number over the past decade, and how sometimes this has resulted in a net increase in average episode quality. When you have a 22 or 26 episode season, it can be tough for every episode to be amazing. The same is true for a long-running series. Animorphs reminds me of a comic book series more than a novel series, in some ways. There have been many instalments that just fall flat and don’t work, not even really as a kid reader. There have been equally as many, if not more, amazing stories that stand well as part of the series or even on their own. (Remember the time Rachel totally definitely killed David? Because she did. Fight me.)
Applegate could have written the ending as literally a single page that reads, “They all die. The Yeerks lose. The end.” And that would not have detracted from the rest of this series.
Animorphs is a titanic achievement, for a writer, and an amazing experience for a young reader. Yes, I read Harry Potter as a kid (or rather, the first six books) and enjoyed that series. But Animorphs was the children’s series that raised me. I read that shit long after I had outpaced that reading level as a precocious child because these characters and these stories spoke to me. I watched every single deliciously flawed episode of the ill-conceived Nickelodeon TV series. I downloaded and played that impossibly frustrating computer game where you have to navigate your Animorph through a maze to collect keys and you can morph but only for like five seconds and whoops now you got spotted by a controller and uggggh it was awful. But I played it, because it was Animorphs. I’m pretty sure if they had launched an Animorphs pay-to-play website or something I would have stolen my parents’ credit card and committed identity theft just to get access. I might never have the ability to morph, but I am certain Animorphs itself is in my DNA at this point.