Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Decidedly mixed feelings about this one! The Return asks some important questions about Rachel and her attitude towards fighting this war against the Yeerks. It also features the much-anticipated … uh, return … of David, one-time Animorph. Yet, like many Animorphs books, I find that the actual story/plot doesn’t bear up under the weight of the themes the series is trying to explore.
This is a deep cut, even for this series, but I’m really pleased that we get to see David again. His fate back in #22: The Solution was (is?) one of the series’ darkest moments (though the end of The Return might qualify as even darker, depending on what you think happened). The whole “David trilogy” is such a standout part of this series in so many ways that this reprise is very welcome so close to the end of the series. Similarly, the way that Applegate and her ghostwriter use this to explore Rachel’s dented moral compass comes at an excellent time.
Let’s get some of my complaints out of the way: the whole setup, as far as David trapping Rachel with hired goons but also somehow working for Crayak, is bonkers and just doesn’t work for me. For one thing … if Crayak really wanted to test Rachel, he could have found a better way to do it (even with David involved). Moreover, the book takes way too much time to get into the good stuff. We get to see multiple chapters of dream sequence false starts before David even shows up. Rachel’s wizard’s duel against Visser One is unimpressive, because it’s pretty obvious the stakes aren’t really that high (Rachel is not going to die, and the war with the Yeerks is not going to end like this). As a result, so much of the plot of this book feels like bizarre filler.
The only saving grace of The Return is just how brutally it deals with Rachel’s character. This book reminds me a little of #33: The Illusion, just in the way that it strips away so much of the adolescent pretense around Rachel as The Illusion did for Tobias. Rachel is no longer the girl she was back at the beginning of this series. She is a fighter now, a warrior, and she does have this kind of bloodlust. She enjoys the power that she has. None of the other Animorphs, not even the warrior-trained Ax, really shows as much of an enjoyment of combat as Rachel does. This is something that surprises even her.
And I do love the ending. I love that we don’t get the certainty of knowing whether or not Rachel decides to kill David. I guess this is one of those litmus “glass half empty or full” tests—if Rachel spares David, it shows that her character has learned to be more compassionate since The Solution; if she kills him, it shows that she has learned to be more ruthless. Then again, people’s definitions of compassion might vary. David definitely seems to think Rachel would be showing more compassion by killing him rather than forcing him to live his life as a rat.
For what it’s worth, I think she does kill David. I’d like to think she lets him go, that she can’t bring herself to do it. But let’s be real. This is a person who has fought against Taxxons and Hork-Bajir. Rachel mortally wounds Controllers all the time. While there is a gulf between killing in the heat of battle or killing in so-called “cold blood”, I don’t think that gulf is too wide for Rachel to cross. Just because she says no to becoming Crayak’s pet killing machine doesn’t mean she is suddenly a pacifist like Cassie. Besides, if she spared David, she would feel obligated to go back to the others and say, “Btw, you guys, David is back.” By killing him, she can omit this entire episode if she wants. She takes the pressure off Jake et al to make that decision—and that is exactly the kind of move that Rachel would make at this point.
David is dead, and so is Rachel’s childhood.
Next time, the Animorphs’ guise of Andalite bandits starts to wear thin. What will happen when the Yeerks realize that their number one enemy has just been a band of meddling kids and their big blue alien?