Books of My Childhood
The Andalite Chronicles
Posted 28 Mar 2017
Most of my friends were readers to some degree or another, and we all read Animorphs. No wonder: it was so popular in the late nineties as to be practically inescapable. The series was written by Katherine “K.A.” Applegate, who in more recent years was honored with the Newbery Medal for her book The One and Only Ivan. As such, her credentials as a writer should be beyond question, yet still I expected to be less than enthralled by Animorphs when revisiting it as an adult. After all, even as a kid I read less than half of the fifty-plus volumes. But there was one book in the series that captivated me more than any other: the prequel, The Andalite Chronicles. If there was anything great about Animorphs, I’d find it there.
The premise of the series: there are two warring alien species. There are the noble Andalites, centaur-like creatures who have perfected a shape-shifting technology; and the evil Yeerks, a race of space-slugs that have the ability to take over other creatures’ bodies. In the Animorphs series, the Yeerks have begun a covert invasion of Earth with the intention of enslaving the human race, and a mortally wounded Andalite gifts the “morphing” technology to a group of children. These kids, the titular Animorphs, thus become the last hope of humanity. But our story today isn’t about the Animorphs at all. It’s about the Andalites.
It was the cover that first attracted my attention. They don’t make them like this anymore: lurid, pulpy colors; airbrushed backgrounds; intricately-rendered detailing. I’m struck by the resemblance to a religious icon painting; the Andalite’s head is even encircled by a halo. The illustration was painted by Romas Kukalis, who I confess I rather took for granted as a kid. I thought K.A. Applegate was some sort of genius, and yet it never occurred to me to wonder about who painted the cover. Nonetheless, it captivated my imagination just as much as anything inside the book did.
At over 300 pages, the book is long compared to most of the “chapter books” I was reading at that age. Applegate is a master of plot, though, and the book never drags. As I reread it for this review I quickly found myself drawn into it, compulsively reading just one more chapter. It’s not hard to get caught up in it; the chapters are short and not a single one is wasted. It’s solid, well-plotted writing: every action is significant, and not a single chapter could be cut without breaking the story.
Applegate’s world-building is impressive. The Animorphs universe is a large and complex one, complete with a detailed backstory that The Andalite Chronicles hints at regularly. Most notably, there are numerous references to the “Hork-Bajir War,” which the Andalites lost despite having deployed a mysterious bioweapon called the “quantum virus.” Also lurking in the background of the story are an elusive race called the Ellimists, godlike energy beings that created a device called the Time Matrix, a sort reality-distorting machine that becomes the book’s MacGuffin. And if the Ellimists aren’t enough, it’s hinted that there’s a dark power even greater than they are. Throughout the book there’s always a strong sense that there’s a lot going on, both in the past and the present, and lends the story a lot of credibility.
The characters, sadly, are a bit underdeveloped. the Andalites are largely interchangeable: wise, principled, and slightly arrogant. The Yeerk characters are without exception shallow villains whose only motivation is to enslave other species, and the book doesn’t shy away from describing them with the word evil. There are also two hapless human children dragged along for the ride: an agreeable girl named Loren and a conniving, sinister boy named Chapman. There’s no real subtlety here: likable characters are the good guys, and dislikable characters are the bad guys. This is somewhat disappointing, but then it’s not uncommon for a plot-driven story to use relatively flat characters.
The book’s other weakness is plot contrivances. There are numerous events that happen only because the plot needs them to, and they weaken the story overall. There are problems even at the outset: Elfangor, our protagonist, is first described as a lowly cadet, but responsibility is thrust upon him to a degree that even he seems baffled by. When the plot needs Loren and Chapman to be dragged along on the adventure, Earth suddenly becomes too far away for a detour, despite the fact that the humans were picked up just outside of Earth’s orbit. And perhaps most egregiously, Chapman manages to commandeer the Andalite ship for his own nefarious purposes, an event which the book never even attempts to explain. The worst part is that none of these mistakes are the result of intractable narrative problems, and could probably have been resolved with some minor reworking of the events. As it is, the book hits a number of serious wrong notes that had me turning back the pages to make sure I hadn’t missed something.
The story itself is a rollicking adventure split into numerous smaller episodes. The book’s centerpiece is a covert mission to a Yeerk-infested planet, where in addition to the usual space-espionage tropes we’re treated to the unlikely image of an Andalite driving a yellow Ford Mustang. Moments of levity are tempered with darker themes, though: much of the plot revolves around the central villain of the series, Visser Three, who rises to power as the direct result of Elfangor’s mistakes. The story is rife with unexpected twists and turns, and pulls no punches with the main characters, several of whom meet unpleasant fates. The book is a relentless mix of surrealism, suspense, and space-opera tropes that never stops moving.
The best description I can come up with for The Andalite Chronicles: it’s a sci-fi action movie on paper. The plotting is superb, if somewhat forced at times. The characters exist more to be thrown around by the story than to be empathized with. The prose is filled with exclamations, stacatto sentence fragments, and outright sound effects (“FWOOSH! WHAM! TSEEEWWW!”). It’s an exuberant romp fraught with twists and violence. Even as an adult, I was again drawn into its spell. Strange as it is to say, it’s a remarkable book.