Endling: The Last
By Katherine Applegate
It’s time to declare Katherine Applegate our greatest living children’s author (greatest of all time isn’t entirely out of contention, either; she has perhaps a half-dozen serious rivals, most of whom are no longer with us). Her latest novel and the first of a trilogy, Endling: The Last, comes after a string of award-winning hits—Wishtree, Crenshaw, and The One and Only Ivan—and it marks a return to the no-holds-barred genre work that distinguished her career in the late ‘90s and early 2000s with series such as Animorphs, Everworld, and Remnants.
Spoiler: it’s great.
Endling: The Last introduces us to a fantasy world in which humans live alongside a handful of other sapient species. Our protagonist, Byx, is one of these species. She is a dairne, a creature which looks like a dog but walks upright, has the ability to glide, and can distinguish truth from lies. And after the opening chapters of the novel, she believes she is the last one. She believes she is the dairne endling—that once she dies, her species will be extinct. Perhaps even worse, her ability to identify a lie means that everyone wants to get their hands on her.
Byx soon finds herself on a cross-country journey with a band of human and non-human characters, intending to push north in an effort to find other dairnes who may be in hiding. Meanwhile, the other sapient species are gathering to formally mourn for the loss of the dairnes, and various villains who know Byx’s true identity are determined to hunt her down and capture or kill her. Most threatening are the humans, who are considered to be the most duplicitous and bloodthirsty species in the world of Endling, and they’re gunning for more power.
Applegate uses Byx’s travels as a means through which to unpack the relationships between species, and those relationships circle back to the central questions of her bibliography: Can different species co-exist? Should they co-exist? How can they co-exist? And perhaps more importantly, what happens when cruelty and compassion are introduced into natural systems? Are they extensions of those systems, or do they cause those systems to break down? Endling: The Last opens with an epigraph from Silent Spring: “In nature nothing exists alone.”
I put the novel down three times while reading. The first was during a scene in which a character speculates on the behavior of a horse during a critical moment; they surmised the wants and needs of the horse, considered how those wants and needs had or hadn’t been met, and then deduced how the behavior of the horse may have been derived from those disparities. I’ve been conditioned by many books to think of minor characters as passive plot pawns, and I was utterly taken aback by Endling: The Last’s deep sensitivity to the motivations of all its characters.
The second time I put the novel down was when a female character casually explained to her companions that she perferred passing as male when out and about in the world because of the advantages it provided her in terms of both safety and social standing. References to, and even portrayals of, rape and sexism are nothing new in children’s literature, but the cavalier way in which they are dropped into the world of Endling anchored this bombastic fantasy novel in a way I wasn’t expecting. Its other thematic concerns became crisp, clear, and relevant by proxy.
The third time I put the novel down was during a scene in which the characters stop to eat while on the road. One character mentioned to the others that meat was not part of his diet, and I turned the page expecting this character to be lambasted by the others (as a vegetarian, I’ve been conditioned by real life to expect this). Instead, they worked together to find him appropriate sustenance. I was again shocked by this display of unconditional empathy and the willingness of the characters to accept, understand, and engage with diversity in their world.
This isn’t to say that Endling: The Last is a book where everyone holds hands and sings together in harmony. Not at all. Applegate knows that the natural world has an infinite capacity for death and destruction, and the world of Endling is likewise chock-full of betrayal and murder. This is, first and foremost, an adventure story, enriched by a world which encourages readers to think critically about the nature of humanity (opposed to, say, Animorphs, which I’d argue is a commentary on war and a work of environmental philosophy disguised as an adventure story).
The only real weaknesses in Endling: The Last are the areas in which I wanted more—more development for such-and-such character, more information about such-and-such aspect of the mythology. I’m disinclined to consider any of these flaws per se, because this is the first book in a trilogy and it’s more than obvious that Applegate will be expounding on the characters and the mythology as the series continues. Endling: The Last isn’t lacking in any respect; it’s a jam-packed novel, and I’m almost worried that three books won’t be enough to capture its world.
Almost. If Applegate has done anything at this point, it’s earned my trust. After the publication of The One and the Only Ivan in 2012, it became clear that her legacy as a pivotal figure in children’s literature was no longer in doubt, as it may have been a decade prior. But now? With Endling: The Last, she’s just showing off. Katherine Applegate is our greatest living children’s author. I can’t wait for the next book.
Review by Erin Larson