Damn but the cuts keep coming.
This is probably one of my favourite books of the series. The Illusion is Tobias’ moment. Although early books in the series address the challenges Tobias faces living as a hawk, this book drives home the incompatibility of his life with human lives. Red-tailed hawks don’t live as long as humans. Tobias can only assume human form for two hour intervals, assuming he doesn’t want to lose his morphing ability. And as his friends age in their human forms, his human morph will always be that of a teenage boy.
To top off the sucker punch, this book explicitly addresses the attraction between Tobias and Rachel, from beginning to end. There is no subtext here, no “will they or won’t they”. From the drama-infused opening to that ending monologue where he realizes that he is human, bird, and “The person that Rachel loves” (cry), this is all about love. And of course, like any great literature, it’s doomed love.
Applegate addresses the anti-morphing ray more directly in this book. Tobias serves as bait, because the red-tailed hawk his not a morph but his actual form, so the ray won’t work when turned on him. What the Animorphs don’t count on, however, is that the Controller in charge of the ray is an insane Yeerk in the body of an insane teenage girl (an anti-Rachel, if you will) who decides that torturing Tobias is much better than merely killing him after the ray doesn’t work.
Not going to lie, the middle part of this book is incredibly uncomfortable. Like, watching a torture scene in a Tarantino movie uncomfortable. OK, maybe not that bad … but this is definitely one of the most graphic psychological moments of antagonism in the entire series. The sub-visser strips Tobias raw, emotionally speaking. If this were a TV series, The Illusion would be a clip show, with flashbacks to previous episodes interwoven through the narrative. First Tobias experiences incredible moments of pain, and then the sub-visser complements that with excruciating moments of pleasure. All the while he tries to take refuge in his subconscious, hawk and human, while he rails from the realities that Rachel might be dead and he might never get out of here. If this were a TV show, the entire episode would hinge on the performance of the actor playing Tobias. In the case of the book, Tobias’ voice is exquisite in its portrayal of his hurt and his anger.
There is commentary here about war too, of course. It actually comes fairly early in the book, as Rachel talks about how much she wants Tobias to be human with her, but they agree he should stay as a hawk because then he can help in the fight. This is one of the costs of war that isn’t always made manifest amidst the depictions of battles and campaigns: war is a suspension of the ordinary. It’s the “we’ll get married after the war” you occasionally see. Tobias is hurting, but he can’t process that hurt right now, because he has a war to fight. So he bottles it all up, stuffs it down into his subconscious, and soldiers on. Like that’s healthy.
Then there’s the ending. It’s perfect. The Animorphs get a day at the beach. No Yeerks. No lingering problems. Just a single, blessed moment of relaxation. For once everyone gets a chance to be, if not happy, then content. It is a calm before the storm, of course—nothing lasts forever and the war is far from over, with everything about to get worse. But it is such a sharp contrast to everything that just happened, and it is a reminder that there will never necessarily be a good or perfect time to take that walk, go to that beach, or be happy alongside the person you love: you just have to seize the moments as they come, because you don’t know how long they’ll last or when you’ll get another.
This one is for Rachel and Tobias. Your doomed love is too big for my heart.