In case you were wondering if the gut punches ever stop coming, the answer is no. No, they do not. First Marco and his mom, and now Jake and his brother. Applegate plays hardball in #31: The Conspiracy, where Jake and his family will be away from the city for four days, which is a problem for Tom's Yeerk, who must return to the Yeerk pool in three days to feed. This sets into motion a bizarre (and somewhat absurd) chain of events while Jake breaks down and wonders if he will have to kill his brother.
So, you know, just another day as the Animorphs.
The comparisons to war and discussion of Jake’s transformation into a leader are far more explicit here than they have been in other books. Jake likens his experiences to those of his now-deceased great-grandfather, who fought in World War II and has the medals to prove it. I like the way Applegate uses this analogy, particularly with regards to the medals and Jake’s newfound understanding for why his great-grandfather never talked about the war. Previously we’ve seen Jake’s transformation into a more hardened leader through the others’ eyes, and occasionally in his own novels he reflects on it. But this is the first novel where he really thinks about the future, about what might happen when the war is over, if they win. What will he be? Who will he be? We call veterans “heroes” but it is reductive and probably inaccurate to think that they consider themselves such.
And so the series continues with its theme that in war there are no winners.
Perhaps more moving is the way the other Animorphs step up with Jake unable to lead. Applegate portrays Marco as the coldly calculating lieutenant who has the contingency plans in place, even if they mean … well … even if they mean doing what Jake might not be able to do. It’s the same Marco who was entertaining the notion that he might have to kill his other mother. Once again, the stark contrast between class clown Marco and cold Marco is very fascinating. Rachel might be the group’s hot-blooded warrior, but Marco is the one who will sacrifice the queen if it means checkmate.
One of the most enduring aspects of this series, and one reason it still feels fresh even thirty books in, is the characters’ vulnerability. In other novels, particularly in YA, vulnerability often feels ersatz. I’m speaking of emotional vulnerability here, rather than vulnerability to defeat at the hands of the antagonist. The Animorphs, as they take turns telling these stories, bare their souls to us. Each time we learn a little more about them, about their fears and reservations. About what they worry will go horribly wrong if they fail, or even if they succeed.
I’m giving The Conspiracy a lower rating than this review might otherwise seem to justify simply because the actual plot is dumb. Don’t tell me the Yeerks couldn’t find a way around the trip, or a way to extricate Tom without killing Jake’s dad. And even if killing him was the most logical or even expedient way to deal with the problem, why a drive-by shooting? The Yeerks must have so many more subtle methods at their disposal. But of course, this is the lumpy cake filling that is Animorphs plots: sometimes you get one that’s just too convoluted, because hey, we’re knocking out fifty of these and we need to make sure those kids morph some cool things.
In this sense I’m reminded of Star Trek: The Next Generation and, perhaps even more so, Star Trek: Voyager. (I’m ridiculously excited at the moment, because Netflix Canada just got all six series—they had TNG for a while, then it disappeared in March, and now it is back, plus more. It has been ages since I got to watch Deep Space Nine!) Anyway, my point is that while these series are awesome in aggregate, the actual episodes within them can often be stinkers. Even episodes with valid and interesting philosophical themes will fall flat from an entertainment or artistic point of view. That’s what happens when you produce 26 episodes a year, and it happens when you write so many books in a children’s series. The surprising thing isn’t that some are silly, but that so many are actually gold.
Speaking of Star Trek, next week—er, I mean, book—Rachel faces “The Enemy Within”, although because of a morphing accident rather than a transporter accident. Don’t touch that dial!