What I find so engrossing about this book is the worldbuilding. We’ve been hearing about all these alien races for twelve books now, hearing about the terrible wars they fight with each other, the places them come from. But here we actually get to see it. We get to see Andalite space battles and Andalite culture. We get to see the Taxxon homeworld, and the difficult choices that war thrusts upon everybody. We meet the creepy, tongue-in-cheek Skrit Na. And this book really doesn’t pull any punches. There are some genuinely upsetting and terrifying things that happen. SPOILERS Elfangor’s fellow aristh (cadet), Arbron, getting stuck as Taxxon and being left behind. The revelations of Alloran’s past war crimes towards the Hork-Bajir. The terrifying nature of the Time Matrix (Loren’s fast-growing fingernails into claws is a seriously upsetting image). And Elfangor’s ultimate choice, to leave behind a safe life with his human family, and his soon to be born son, Tobias, to give the galaxy a chance at peace.
Yes, this is where we find out that Tobias’s parents are Loren and Elfangor (in human morph). Tobias’s life is incredibly sad. Stuck as a nothlit, his mother long dead, his father he thought abandoned him. It would be far too coincidental if Applegate hadn’t planned it that way from the beginning END SPOILERS.
Looking back, this book does in 300 pages what the whole series will do with fifty books. It takes its heroes, shows them terrible things, has them make terrible choices, and then shows us how those choices have long-term consequences on those heroes. Elfangor at the end of the book is a very different dude than he was at the beginning. Not to mention, it has all the things that drove my love of sci-fi afterwards: space battles, tactics, the thrill and horror of discovery, time travel, mysterious and terrifying aliens, terrible defeat, sudden reversals, and bittersweet victories. Really it’s like the perfect starter space opera kit, designed to kick-start an obsession perfectly. I’d never read anything like it. (Of course, I’ve since read many great space operas, and revisiting this one now after that more adult, mature fare, was a bit disconcerting.)