Review of The Hork-Bajir Chronicles by K.A. Applegate
The Hork-Bajir Chronicles
by K.A. Applegate
Instalments like this one make me sad that regular Animorphs novels were sandwiched into bite-sized morsels that …
… wait, let me restart this with a metaphor less likely to make me hungry.
Instalments like The Hork-Bajir Chronicles demonstrate what K.A. Applegate can do when she can write longer-form stories. The shorter Animorphs novels have their advantages—they are easy to read, almost episodic, and obviously we wouldn’t have as many of them if they were longer. Nevertheless, the Chronicles specials are always a welcome change of pace. Applegate always delves deeper into the mythology behind the Animorphs universe, and she also exposes readers to different perspectives that are otherwise impossible to consider. In The Andalite Chronicles we got to hear Elfangor tell his story in his own words. Now we get three unique perspectives: Aldrea, the daughter of the Andalite who “allowed” the Yeerks to become a galactic threat; Dak Hamee, a Hork-Bajir “seer” who quickly realizes that trying to save his people will still destroy them; and Esplin 9466—aka our friend, Visser Three, before he was Visser Three.
I guess if you want to understand The Hork-Bajir Chronicles, we could look at it through the lens of dystopian YA.
Aldrea is a teenage Andalite who is upset that male Andalites get to fight while she’s expected to learn physics and do art like a good little female. After watching her entire family get slaughtered by evil parasitic aliens, Aldrea has to join forces with a Hot Boy she likes in order to fight back against these jerks. I mean Yeerks. The Hot Boy is Hot but not that bright, at least not at first—Aldrea has to tutor him, but as she educates him, he gets suspicious that she’s manipulating him and using him for his body. Which she totally is.
Dak Hamee is a hot Hork-Bajir teenager who wonders why all the adults around him are much dumber than he is. He is the only one in this small society who can figure things out, and he soon decides it’s up to him to help his people when the aliens come.
Esplin 9466 is the bad guy. We get his perspective so we can see how twisted he is. He’s gross and grey and inside brains! And he captures Aldrea and Dak, but he spends too long gloating, so naturally they have the opportunity to escape. Then they get to plot a rebellion and lead guerilla units against the Yeerks in an attempt to overthrow their new overlords.
See? Totally dystopian YA.
Except for the part where everyone dies.
Set almost forty years prior to the Animorphs novels, this book explains how the Yeerks spread from their homeworld through the galaxy, and in particular how they acquired Hork-Bajir as shock troops. Because it’s set in the past, however, the outcome is foregone and well known to your average reader of the series: the Hork-Bajir are goners. Applegate simply explains how it happens here … and it’s really depressing. Unlike your typical dystopian YA novel where the plucky teenage protagonist finds a way to nearly–single-handedly defeat the system that is both older and smarter than them, this book does not sugarcoat things. War is ugly; there is no such thing as “good guys” versus “bad guys,” and everyone gets confused and has major denial.
I want to talk a bit more about this last idea. Everyone in this novel suffers from some kind of denial at some point. Aldrea allows cognitive dissonance to creep into how she deals with Dak: she wants his help because she needs it to survive, and she knows that if the Yeerks take the Hork-Bajir as hosts, the war is going to go much worse for the Andalites. She tries to tell herself she is doing this to save the Hork-Bajir, but Dak calls her on it time and again. He rightly accuses her of doing things because she wants to kill Yeerks, not save his people—something she claims is “the same.”
In many ways Dak has the fewest illusions. Clear-headed for a Hork-Bajir, he recognizes immediately how turning his people into fighters will damage their simple culture, probably beyond repair. Nevertheless, he clings to the illusion that somehow he and Aldrea together can hang on long enough for the Andalites to show up and wipe out the Yeerks.
The Arn are probably the best, albeit least subtle, example of this phenomenon. Aldrea and Dak try to persuade them to fight against the Yeerks, and the Arn just shrug and go, “We’ve modified ourselves so we self-destruct if the Yeerks try to infest us. NBD.” Yeah, you can guess how well that works out for them. Unfortunately, this kind of “stick your head in the sand” mentality is prevalent in situations like this. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend there is no problem when acknowledging the problem is so uncomfortable and depressing.
This discomfort is so important to acknowledge and deal with. Stories like this can be depressing because they are so bleak—we are talking genocide here, of a society if not the physical bodies of the species. But as Applegate demonstrates with the epilogue, there is a reason that these stories are important. They are a part of our history, of our cultures, and need to be told so we know what we’re fighting for now. It reminds me of the stories of residential schools and other colonial atrocities perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in Canada, both in the past and currently. It’s hard to talk about these things, but they are important because they are part of the fabric of our society. But ignoring these stories does not make their effects go away.
The Andalites have long been a symbol of power in this series. Their technology is impressive. Nevertheless, Applegate always portrays them as vulnerable too. They have not learned this lesson. They are not just arrogant: they are still unable to acknowledge their shame. As Elfangor reveals in The Andalite Chronicles, the Andalite High Command covers up Alloran’s actions on the Hork-Bajir world. For all their technological supremacy, the Andalites have much to learn.
At its core, Animorphs is a very moralistic series. This isn’t surprising considering Applegate’s audience; she’s trying to make points. Fundamentally, then, this book serves as a contrast to the books of the main series. It’s as if she’s saying that a single individual, even a child, can make a decision to be more moral, more upstanding, than a being with so much more experience or technology. The Animorphs continually face decisions like the ones in this book, and they always struggle—but they almost always do the right thing. And that’s kind of amazing.