“Endling: The Last” by Katherine Applegate has a title that contains an oxymoron: it’s the first book in a series about the last creature of its species. But the book is so much more than a story about extinction and the last creature of a species. It’s a story that is compelling, brutally honest, touching, and filled with non-stop action. The characters are all beautifully created and likeable, and readers will feel as if they have become a part of the dangerous adventure that these characters have embarked on.
In this story, Applegate creates a world filled with fantasy animals, magic, truly evil people, noble beasts, and plenty of treachery. But mixed in with the evil, power-hungry humans are some creatures, including some humans, who offer the reader a ray of hope in a dark world.
The correlation between Applegate’s fantasy world and our world is stark. In our world, we are in the midst of what is being called the sixth mass extinction, during which, “…. by the year 2100, human activities such as pollution, land clearing, and overfishing may drive more than half of the world’s marine and land species to extinction,” according to a National Geographic article. In Applegate’s fantasy world, species are becoming extinct. Humans are causing that extinction, also, and at the beginning of the story, Byx, the young, female Dairne, knows that her kind are few and far between. Then when rescuing a wobbyk from capture, she returns to her family’s campsite only to find that they have all been killed by the Murdano’s men. The Murdano is the cruel ruler over the land. All of Dairne’s family, her brothers and sisters, her parents, the others, are dead, making Byx possibly the last Dairne in existence.
Tobble, the wobbyk Byx saves, insists that he must save Byx’s life three times in return. Because a wobbyk is small and rather insignificant, it becomes kind of a joke. But Tobble assures Byx that, “…you do not want to see me mad. I am a terrible sight to behold” — a lovely case of foreshadowing that even young readers might recognize.
But before Tobble can save Byx’s life, a human saves their lives. Her name is Khara, and she hides her true identity by dressing as a boy. Even her sword hides its true identity by appearing to be a rusty old weapon. She plans to take Byx to a place where she believes he will be safe — with a scholar who studies animals and will protect Byx.
In this world there are six governing species. They include humans, dairnes, felivets (large dangerous felines), natites (human-like creatures who live in the water), terramants (horrible bug-like creatures the size of horses, who live underground), and raptidons (like huge eagles). All of these creatures are controlled by Murdano.
However, as the small group learns, no place is safe for the last of the Dairnes, and soon the trio is enlarged by a Felivet and others. And as the group flees to escape those who would capture or kill them, they also pursue the rumor that there are more Dairnes in the North, somewhere, just like in the legend Byx learned from her pack.
The mystery that is revealed over the course of this first book in the series is why Murdano decided to kill all the Dairnes first. Dairnes have a special ability to tell if someone is telling the truth or not. Readers will learn why this ability is important and how wars can be fought and won if one side has this power to detect falsehoods and the other side does not.
While the book is about endangered species and the need to keep all creatures on this planet safe, it’s also really about friendship and family. What makes someone a friend and what makes a friend into family? How does one’s own behavior inspire others to be better people (or animals)? It’s also about greed and arrogance. It’s perfect for a discussion about how some people views others who are “different” as inferior.
And most of all, readers will anxiously await the next book in the series to find out how this group of unlikely friends, who have become family to Byx, will fare when they venture on the next step in their journey.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, HarperCollins, for review purposes.