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Review of The Unknown by

The Unknown

by K.A. Applegate

I’ve spent a lot of time so far talking about how the Animorphs series is amazing. It deals with complex topics and themes in a way that remains entertaining and accessible for adolescents. It’s a great gateway drug to full-blown science-fiction fandom. Although most of the books tend to feel light and fun, there is a very serious undertone to the entire series, one that finally comes to the fore as Applegate (and her legion of ghostwriters) draws the series to a close.

So it’s easy to forget that this is, ultimately, a kids’ series, and so there are times when the books are … shall we say, lighter? That’s not an excuse for The Unknown, but it’s a reason.

The Animorphs, narrated by Cassie this time, investigate Zone 91. They do this as horses, because it turns out that the Yeerks are also interested in the alien tech the government is hiding in Zone 91, so much so that some poor low-level Yeerk grunts have to become horse-controllers.

Visser Three could literally morph an army officer, waltz onto the base, and take a peek—but no. He makes his underlings be horses. He is a horrible boss. He makes that Kevin Spacey character from Horrible Bosses look like nice-guy Boss of the Year.

Even the Visser eventually realizes this plan is beyond bonkers and falls back on the tried-and-true method of taking over humans. So shenanigans go down at the Gardens between the Yeerks and the “Andalite bandits” over the army officers having a field trip there. And the commander of the base, who caught Marco and Cassie and Rachel when they were trying to sneak onto it the first time, is a fairly incompetent loonie right out of … well, a kids’ book.

P.S., the alien device? An Andalite toilet. A defunct model of Andalite toilet. Hilarious, no?

Very little about the plot of The Unknown makes sense, even within the Animorphs universe. But this gives me an opportunity to nitpick elements of that universe.

Zone 91 is Area 51 in all but name. That’s because if Applegate set the action at Area 51, then we would be able to conclude that the Animorphs live within flying distance of Groom Lake. It’s a big deal that the Animorphs’ location is undisclosed—not only does it make the story seem more secretive, but it creates a “this could be happening in your town!” atmosphere that surely thrills young readers.

Still, it’s awfully nice of Visser Three to confine so many of his operations to this small area of the United States. It seems like the invasion would proceed more quickly if the Yeerks set up their base somewhere like Washington, D.C., or even a metropolis like New York.

For that matter, this whole secret invasion strategy doesn’t seem to be paying dividends. The Visser’s Blade ship took out an Andalite Dome ship—so why, exactly, hasn’t the Visser just landed a full-scale military force? I mean, yeah, there would be rebellions to deal with, and I guess dealing with the then—five billion unruly population might be difficult. So maybe an all-out invasion would be untenable—but this torturously slow process of taking over middle school principals is absurd.

I guess that’s why he’s Visser Three, not Visser Two, eh?

None of these complaints are serious jabs, mind you. The bar is totally lower for a series of Scholastic novels. For that same reason, The Unknown is not bad. It just lacks the gravity that I, as an adult fan, have come to appreciate about most of the books up until now. And even the humour doesn’t work well for me here. I liked Rachel and Cassie’s exchange about the latter’s (lack of) fashion, as well as Cassie’s eavesdropping on her parents’ conversation about discipline. Yes, Cassie, parents totally lie to you for your own good! But the whole throwaway gag of the Andalite toilet and the bumbling base commander and whatnot is just too juvenile (and it was probably too juvenile for teenage me reading this for the first time, because teenage me was just as much of an old, crochety man as I am now, although I had already ditched the corduroys by that time).

I just glanced quickly at my ratings so far, and it seems like my lowest-rated book has been #9: The Secret. It’s also a Cassie book—I should make it clear that my issue here is not Cassie. She’s a great narrator; she brings a kind of dry sense of humour to the table that is quite distinct from Marco’s buddy-buddy comedy. That is, I love her observations.

Still, The Secret had more meaty motifs than The Unknown, for the most part. So I guess that means this is my least-favourite Animorphs novel so far. It had to happen eventually. And keep in mind that this is not a bad novel, so think about what that means for the rest. It just lacks the punchiness of many of the previous instalments, and that tends to be what I’m looking for these days.

Next time, Marco’s mom is back in town. And she brought some mind-reading friends.


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