Top critical review
Decent Premise, but Disappointing
Reviewed in the United States on January 26, 2021
This series unfortunately falls victim to its own genre.
Not the "fantasy" genre, but the "kid's book" genre. It's modeled for ages 8-12, which is too bad. I suppose it's because of the character types. One doesn't exactly picture a walking, talking golden retriever and a teddy bear sidekick as REAL characters... Which is too bad, because Byx and Tobble are very much full characters that could have fit into a novel not relegated to a young audience.
I think it's because of the characters and the shoehorned age group that this book suffers most. It's a children's book, but you can tell by the context that this isn't a book for children. I don't know if it's because of the editing or the actual writing; I'm tempted to believe the former, as the story is quite solid and interesting. But the execution leaves something to be desired.
Part of this is because KAA has a strict policy of not coddling people to the effects of war. This was true in Animorphs, which she noted after a controversial ending (which I don't agree with--fiction is a place to, at least in part, escape some of the harshest realities), and it's definitely true now. And this is where I don't know if the story suffers from an editing problem or not. KAA has always had morality lessons within her narrative, but in this case, the entire story grinds to a halt several times to deliver some vitally important moral nugget like "stealing is bad."
By this, the second book in the trilogy, it also becomes painfully apparent that this series needed to be much longer in terms of pages. Either that, or it needed to have several important events removed from it. While the first book had decent pacing, the second book suffers from trying to stuff way too much into a limited number of pages. It's also limited by the first-person point of view, as some of the events should be told by a different character. Furthermore, major events sort of get truncated in order to fit more events into the pages. This leads to long periods of "travel time" followed by extremely quick and unsatisfying payoff. And because there's so much happening, the event for which the series was specifically written feels lackluster and almost mundane within the sea of other major plot points.
And in the second book, a major character is introduced with no preamble and all. He's just suddenly in the story smack in the middle of the book, and I'm not sure whether I should care for him or if he's destined to die off. (More on that later.)
Speaking of the characters, I do like them. They start out with very original voice and goals, and they do pursue those goals faithfully. The problem is, their voices slowly meld together. Their quirks kind of homogenize and if one character speaks, whatever they say could almost be said by a different character. They end up with the same morals and temperaments and apart from their physical actions, they don't really feel like individuals. There's also one particular character whose actions don't make sense; he's used as a plot device to advance the story several times, then he dies.
Which brings us to character death. As I stated before, KAA has a preoccupation with the gritty realism of war. In her letter to fans post-Animorphs, she made it very clear where she stands on that front--war is bad, and the effects it has on people are long-lasting and aren't just dismissed with a Happily Ever After. While this is true, you have to walk a very fine line between realism and alienating your audience. I will maintain, and have believed since Animorphs ended, that you can both make a true statement and be completely wrong within the context that you are making it. In fiction, you can both highlight the terrors of war while giving your characters some semblance of a happy ending, especially in children's lit.
Still, I'll grudgingly accept that the end of Animorphs was reasonable, even if I don't personally agree with the execution.
The point is, she tries to do the same thing in the Endling series, but--as I previously stated--there's not enough pages in which she can do this. What she wants to do is to make us hurt for a character we've come to love. The problem is, there's too much happening, so I cannot love or even care much about the characters that die. There isn't enough time to build up their story or their personality. In one case, she gives us a character, starts to make us love him, then almost immediately kills him off as a plot device to show the protagonist and the reader Just How Bad War Is. And this could have been salvaged, since the protagonist does talk about mounting a rescue, but the characters just sort of collectively decide that, nah, they'll move on instead. It's very anti-climactic and disappointing.
To be fair, I feel like space is being left open for this character to return in a soap opera style reveal. However, the casual dismissal of his fate is (I believe) meant to evoke the horrors of your buddies dying in war. It falls flat when the characters simply care nothing about his loss. More time should have been spent on this. Again, there is a difference between storytelling in fiction and real, actual war. Don't punish your readers because you want to keep things real. You already have a talking dog and magic. Bend reality a little bit.
The reason this has three stars, and the reason I'll read the conclusion to the series, is that the story itself is fantastic. It's standard fantasy in the realm of Redwall, but it has its own unique twist and I really do care about the fate of the main characters. Despite its many frustrating shortcomings, it is well worth the read.