Animorphs has become so dark! I feel like a broken record, like I say this every review, but wow. The Familiar opens up, as several other recent books have done, in the middle of a big, chaotic battle. The Animorphs have inflicted damage on the Yeerk troops, but the latter are practically inexhaustible, while the former are six adrenaline-fuelled-but-scared kids. And as the tide of the battle turns against them, they start losing limbs. And guts. It’s shocking for the explicitness of its imagery: this is not a series for children anymore; this is definitely YA.
In many ways, The Familiar recapitulates a lot of the themes that have been building and already touched upon in previous books. The Animorphs are starting to tire. They are lapsing into almost caricatures of their respective roles and ideologies. While some of this is ghostwriter syndrome, mostly it’s that they are starting to suffer from the stress of being the only six people on the planet who are fighting back against an invading alien force. The pressure must be intense. So Rachel becomes more and more unfocused and aggressive. Cassie becomes more and more moralistic and interested in non-violence. And Jake—who has always expressed discomfort over his leadership position—once again hints that he’s done with trying to be the leader of this group.
So something happens.
It’s never really made clear, actually, what or who sends Jake into this alternative timeline/universe/microcosm/dream where it’s ten years later and he’s a planetary engineer on an Earth totally controlled by Yeerks. He and the Animorphs advance theories, but we never learn the truth. Maybe we would have if Applegate had ever continued the series. As it is, we can only speculate.
The ghostwriter, Ellen Geroux, does a fantastic job balancing Jake’s confusion over his transposition with the pacing of the plot. We quickly get into the thick of it, with future!Cassie revealed to be a grizzled, cynical warrior who is fine with raining destruction down on the planet if it means denying the Yeerks a Kandrona-shining moon. I love how Jake is just so flabbergasted by Cassie’s change. One has to keep in mind that he’s still a (15?)-year-old kid, and the idea that you might be a very different person in your twenties is hard enough for a normal teenager to grok (I know it was for me).
The Familiar is one of the books that elevates Animorphs and belies the appearance as a pulpy escapist series for kids one might first see when learning there’s like 50 books published in such close succession. Like #22: The Solution and other such sublime entries before it, The Familiar shows us that Applegate did not come to play. Despite the length restrictions of the ordinary Animorphs books (this story could easily have been Chronicles-length), Applegate is writing serious science fiction. It just happens to be serious science fiction pitched to teens and young adults (which, when you think about it, is where a lot of science fiction started off).
This story asks us to wrestle with so many deep questions. Would we sacrifice our friend for the “greater good”? At what point do the ends stop justifying the means, if ever? And is it OK to change one’s opinions on these questions over time—because this definitely isn’t the first time these questions have surfaced in the series. It’s almost as if you don’t get to put your philosophy to bed once you’ve confronted it a single time; you have to keep reaffirming your commitment to your values time and again as the world throws more and more adversity your way.
The ending is very postmodern, refusing to explicitly reveal whether Jake saves the world or saves the girl. I think it’s pretty effectively telegraphed, however, that he chooses to save Cassie. Firstly, the voice’s comment immediately afterwards suggests it wasn’t expecting that choice; usually, this is a signal that aliens are surprised when humans choose love/emotion over pragmatism. Secondly, the book concludes with Jake calling Cassie to see if she’s all right. Because he’s in love with her and he wouldn’t ever sacrifice her ever asdfkjlghafdklj
Anyway. Just a couple of strong feelings about these books.
Next time, the Helmacrons are back for some honey-I-shrunk-the-animorphs fun.