Friday, April 8, 2011

Sci Fi Friday Double Review: ANIMORPHS #1 & #2, by K.A. Applegate

I've mentioned a few times before, here and in various blogger profiles I've done for other blogs, that I absolutely loved the Animorphs series when I was younger. It's been just about 14 years since I got my first book - Easter Sunday, 1997, I woke up to find a book tucked in amongst the candy in my Easter basket. A red book with a weird picture on the cover of a girl turning into a cat.

I stuck through the whole series for five years, through the ups and (devastatingly terrible) downs that the 62 book series took. I ran a fan website, wrote tons and tons of fan fiction, and made some of the best friends a girl could ever hope to have, all because of these books.

So even though the books didn't go out on the highest note, I was beyond excited when I heard they were getting re-released, with some small updates to correct mistakes and bring the books into the 21st century. And when Cindy asked me if I wanted to check out the galley copies she had, I about had a heart attack from excitement. I still have all of my original books (including that 14 year old copy of The well as a copy of the second print run version and a copy in German) but I wanted to see what had been changed in these new versions. What I was entirely prepared for was a) the huge wave of nostalgia I felt upon reading the opening lines and b) just how awesome these books still are all these years later! Trust me, there's nothing else like Animorphs out there for this age group right now.

The Invasion (Animorphs Book 1)The Invasion introduces us to Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie and Marco - five totally ordinary kids who make the fateful decision to walk home one night by cutting through an abandoned construction site. Their leisurely walk home is interrupted by a crashing space ship - and the kids make contact with their first alien, an Andalite called Prince Elfangor-Sirinal-Shamtul. He warns the group, telling them their planet is already being invaded by the Yeerks, slugs that crawl in through a person's ear before wrapping themselves around the brain and taking complete control of the body. Elfangor gives them the only weapon he can to defend their planet: the power to morph, to acquire the DNA of any animal and then change into that animal.

Jake, serious and responsible, quickly slips into the role of the leader of the group. The others all have strongly defined personalities as well: Rachel is fearless, Cassie compassionate, Marco a wiseass with a tragic past, and Tobias is quiet and shy with a good dose of tragedy of his own. Each book is told from a different character's point of view, so these first two give us the deepest looks into Jake and Rachel. If the other characters don't seem the most complex yet, just you wait.

The Visitor (Animorphs)The Visitor is set a short time later. Just long enough for the group to recover after some of the horrors they experienced in the last book before launching into another mission. This time we follow Rachel as she spends most of her time on reconnaissance missions into enemy territory, sneaking into the home of a friend in order to spy on her parents who are Controllers - people who have been taken over by the Yeerks. It's less action packed than The Invasion, but still filled with tension and drama of a different sort.

If you thought The Hunger Games was a little too violent...well, Animorphs isn't much better. It's not kids killing kids, but it does involve aliens being eaten alive by other aliens on a semi-regular basis. And Applegate doesn't pull away from these darker scenes - they're not gratuitous, but are certainly well-described.

K.A. Applegate absolutely doesn't condescend to her audience or pull any punches. I know the books end up dealing with some really serious moral issues, including war, murder/killing, the nature of evil and so on, but I'd kind of forgotten how outright violent they start. And I love it. The theme of the whole series is about war and its affects on people (much like the culmination of The Hunger Games), and you can't adequately explore that without getting into some bleak moments. Like I said, the descriptions aren't gratuitous - there isn't a grisly scene just for the sake of being edgy or dark - but they are definitely there, and are part of what really set these books apart (they're intended for ages 8-12...I was 12 when the series started. omg, I'm so old, and always have been in this fandom!).

There are also lots of little bits of awesome commentary that slip into these books. I immediately identified with Rachel back in the day (and she remains one of my favorite literary characters of all time), not only because she was tough and fierce and tall like I wanted to be, but she has lots of feminist moments, taking jabs at the boys when she thinks they are being unreasonably protective. There are also two characters of color - Marco is Hispanic and Cassie African-American. Their races are only mentioned in passing (until time travelling starts happening much later in the series), but it's there. There's also a bit of class consciousness - Marco's dad is extremely messed up after the death of Marco's mother a few years ago, meaning that money is short and they don't live in the greatest of neighborhoods. Meanwhile Rachel is the daughter of divorced parents but has her own credit card. It gets a little bit into Five Token Band territory (warning: TVTropes link), but as their distinct personalities develop it doesn't feel like lazy stereotyping.

For a 15 year old series (I got into the game a year late), it holds up surprisingly well. There's nothing here that screams mid-90s, and as someone who read these books obsessively, I can also tell you that the updating is quite minimal. The biggest update was changing a major continuity error in the first book (well, it wasn't a continuity error then, but they made a big deal out of the opposite thing happening in subsequent books). Otherwise it was like changing the name of a specific game system to just say "system." When I read the new Babysitter's Club prequel last summer, the writing felt like it definitely could have fit in with the original books...which wasn't the greatest thing. Those books were kind of clunky - like the template of the second chapter of every book detailing the characters. Nothing about these books feel dated, other than the fact that they are designed to be a monthly science fiction series - a genre you don't see at the book store too often anymore.

The Message (Animorphs , No 4)The Invasion and The Visitor will be released in May. Right now I believe the plans are for the first six books to get re-released over the next two years, so this definitely won't be the snappy pace I got used to back in middle school. Old school Animorph fans won't find much terribly new here - if your original books are still in your parents' basement, you're not missing out on anything if you just stick with those. But if tragedy struck so you don't have them anymore, and now you've got a serious craving for some old school Animorphs, you'll be pleased with these. Though I'm sad the corner morphing flipbook is gone :-( On the other hand: lenticular covers! The original cover style never excited me (that's book #4 to the right), and the new cover style isn't translating well into online images - the background patterns are much richer in real life, and the lenticular action is really quite good!

So, to sum up an incredibly long entry, let me just say this: I am so excited to see these books come back so that a whole new generation can get to know these amazing books.

Reviewed from galley copies. The Invasion and The Visitor will be released in May!
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