AUDIO EDITION COMING SOON!
Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is where and how to end it. Unless you’re doing something really risky and experimental, most readers want an ending that is satisfying, something that ties up the loose ends and fits both the tone and the theme of the story. If most of the book has been light and happy, then ending with something grim or terrible will feel jarring and out of place. On the contrary, if you’ve been writing something that is heavy and realistic, then ending with a fairy-tale-like happily-ever-after will likewise feel out of place and perhaps even cheapen the sacrifices and suffering of the characters.
Which brings me to Animorphs.
Back in July 2020, I wrote an entry on the Animorphs book series by K.A. Applegate for my Obscure Books From Childhood blog series on Second Unit Reviews. This prompted me to reread the entire series, which consists of 62 volumes (54 regular books, four Megamorphs books, the Andalite, Hork-Bajir, and Ellimist Chronicles, and Visser, plus two “choose your own adventure” books called Altermorphs, but I don’t count those because they don’t contribute to the main story). I just finished the final book very early this morning and… I have some feelings.
WARNING! SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!
Animorphs is overall a very good and surprisingly mature series that is, at its heart, a war story. There are, of course, the sci-fi trappings, but the main characters are child soldiers fighting a desperate guerrilla war they cannot hope to win against a superior alien invasion force. A force that doesn’t attack outright, but infiltrates by taking over the minds of people and turning them into Controllers. The only weapon that Jake, Cassie, Marco, Rachel, Tobias, and the lone Andalite cadet Ax have at their disposal is the Andalite morphing technology that allows them to acquire the DNA of animals and then change into those animals. Some of the books are, of course, better than others. There’s humor, but it’s tempered by the stark reality these kids are in. By the time you reach the final ten books, the Animorphs have been fighting against the covert Yeerk invasion of Earth for three years and the strain is starting to show. Animorphs doesn’t pull any punches and, in the final volume, after surviving so many battles against insurmountable odds, the Animorphs stop the Yeerks from taking Earth, stop their would-be saviors the Andalites from destroying the Earth to stop the Yeerks… but Rachel is killed after Jake sends her to kill his brother Tom, who has been a Controller during the entire course of the series.
The first half of #54: The Beginning, deals with Rachel’s sacrifice, the aftermath immediately after and during the first year of peace once the war is over. But, true to form, the Animorphs have suffered. Tobias is shattered by Rachel’s death and goes into seclusion. Jake and Cassie, who were in love during the books, find that they don’t really know one another anymore and while they still care about each other, they go their separate ways. Cassie finds meaning in helping resident aliens settle into sanctuaries on Earth while Jake wanders in a fog of grief and guilt, clearly suffering from PTSD. The ever adaptable Marco seems to do fine after the end of the war, and Ax, returning to his people with honor, also seems able to cope with the horrific memories. But it is very clear that war is not fair, that terrible things happen to good people, that justice is not always served, and even the survivors of war don’t really survive. They are the walking wounded, sometimes even the walking dead, and some manage to heal more than others.
While I bawled my eyes out the entire time I was reading the book (and am still tearing up now, even as I type this) it makes sense. It fits the theme and tone of Animorphs. Ending with medals and a fanfare and having everyone go live happily ever after like the war never happened would have undermined the entire message of the series. It hurt, and it wasn’t fair, but it made sense. I understood it. In fact, I understand it now much better as an adult than I did when I first read it.
But that isn’t the end of the book. Chapter 14 starts three years after the end of the Yeerk-Andalite War with Ax on patrol investigating an unknown spacecraft while looking for the Blade Ship, which escaped the final battle with a small contingent of morph-capable Yeerks. But something goes wrong and the lone survivor returns to Earth to tell Jake what happened. Jake recruits Marco and Tobias to go rescue Ax, but has Cassie stay behind. They spend months in space before finally finding the Blade Ship in the depths of territory belonging to a mostly unknown but potentially hostile race, and discover that the Blade ship, and Ax, have been assimilated by a being known only as “The One.” Jake gives the order to ram the Blade Ship… and the book just ends there.
This… made me mad. Really mad. And apparently a lot of other people were angry too because K.A. Applegate ended up writing a response to that outrage, which I will quote here:
Dear Animorphs Readers:
Quite a number of people seem to be annoyed by the final chapter in the Animorphs story. There are a lot of complaints that I let Rachel die. That I let Visser Three/One live. That Cassie and Jake broke up. That Tobias seems to have been reduced to unexpressed grief. That there was no grand, final fight-to-end-all-fights. That there was no happy celebration. And everyone is mad about the cliffhanger ending.
So I thought I’d respond.
Animorphs was always a war story. Wars don’t end happily. Not ever. Often relationships that were central during war, dissolve during peace. Some people who were brave and fearless in war are unable to handle peace, feel disconnected and confused. Other times people in war make the move to peace very easily. Always people die in wars. And always people are left shattered by the loss of loved ones.
That’s what happens, so that’s what I wrote. Jake and Cassie were in love during the war, and end up going their seperate ways afterward. Jake, who was so brave and capable during the war is adrift during the peace. Marco and Ax, on the other hand, move easily past the war and even manage to use their experience to good effect. Rachel dies, and Tobias will never get over it. That doesn’t by any means cover everything that happens in a war, but it’s a start.
Here’s what doesn’t happen in war: there are no wondrous, climactic battles that leave the good guys standing tall and the bad guys lying in the dirt. Life isn’t a World Wrestling Federation Smackdown. Even the people who win a war, who survive and come out the other side with the conviction that they have done something brave and necessary, don’t do a lot of celebrating. There’s very little chanting of ‘we’re number one’ among people who’ve personally experienced war.
I’m just a writer, and my main goal was always to entertain. But I’ve never let Animorphs turn into just another painless video game version of war, and I wasn’t going to do it at the end. I’ve spent 60 books telling a strange, fanciful war story, sometimes very seriously, sometimes more tongue-in-cheek. I’ve written a lot of action and a lot of humor and a lot of sheer nonsense. But I have also, again and again, challenged readers to think about what they were reading. To think about the right and wrong, not just the who-beat-who. And to tell you the truth I’m a little shocked that so many readers seemed to believe I’d wrap it all up with a lot of high-fiving and backslapping. Wars very often end, sad to say, just as ours did: with a nearly seamless transition to another war.
So, you don’t like the way our little fictional war came out? You don’t like Rachel dead and Tobias shattered and Jake guilt-ridden? You don’t like that one war simply led to another? Fine. Pretty soon you’ll all be of voting age, and of draft age. So when someone proposes a war, remember that even the most necessary wars, even the rare wars where the lines of good and evil are clear and clean, end with a lot of people dead, a lot of people crippled, and a lot of orphans, widows and grieving parents.
If you’re mad at me because that’s what you have to take away from Animorphs, too bad. I couldn’t have written it any other way and remained true to the respect I have always felt for Animorphs readers.
— K.A. Applegate (from Hirac Delest)
For the most part, I agree with and understand her reasoning, and as the author, she does have the right to end the story as she sees fit. But I do feel like this response only addressed the issues fans had with the first half of Book #54. Fans were upset that the characters didn’t get a happy ending after everything they’d been through, but I understand how that would have been a major and inappropriate tonal shift from the rest of the series. It simply wouldn’t have fit. It made me feeling sad and upset and completely gutted… but it worked.
But I don’t feel like she adequately addressed why everything in Chapter 14 and on needed to happen. Why did all of the characters except Cassie had to die at the end, one by being assimilated by an unknown entity and the other three by a suicide run at the Blade Ship, which we aren’t even sure if it’s successful or not? Although in the letter K.A. Applegate says that this is leading into another war, there is no real evidence of that, since we don’t know if “The One” is part of a hostile alien group or its own thing like Crayak and the Ellimist. I feel like she could have remained true to the spirit of the story by ending it with Chapter 13. Chapter 14 and on feels like an unnecessary sucker-punch to prevent anyone from asking her to write any more Animorphs books. It feels like an unnecessarily cruel coda to an already heart-wrenching story which doesn’t add anything and really only cheapens the little bit of peace that some of the characters manage to find after the war. Maybe Jake and Tobias were ready for a suicide mission, but Ax and Marco? They didn’t deserve that. And maybe that was the point… but again, I felt like the point was already sufficiently made, and it really soured the entire series.
This is why endings must be chosen carefully. Ending Animorphs with the close of Chapter 13 in #54: The Beginning would have left me sad and unhappy, and even shouting, “That’s not fair!” but coming to some acceptance and even offering a measure of hope for the world to heal and rebuild. But adding the subsequent chapters with the cliffhanger ending only made me feel mad and cheated. It’s a delicate balance between stating and overstating one’s message and not underscoring a theme to the point that it rips the page.