Scythe: Killing with (or without) kindness

Scythe by Neal Shusterman fantasy book reviewsScythe by Neal Shusterman fantasy book reviewsScythe by Neal Shusterman

I’m unfamiliar with Neal Shusterman’s other novels and his work on television shows like Animorphs and Goosebumps, but simply based on what I enjoyed about Scythe (2016) and considering that it was nominated for the Printz Award in 2017, I feel confident in saying that he knows how to write for his audience while throwing in some interesting curveballs that keep this novel, the first in a dystopian YA trilogy, from feeling like a rubber-stamp duplication of every mediocre example of that genre.

Scythe sets up a future world in which humanity no longer fears aging, disease, famine, or war — we have eliminated our worst foes and national boundaries, and now, basic needs are met by a powerful global A.I. known as Thunderhead. (Modern cloud storage turned up to 11, basically.) Thunderhead governs and watches over nearly every aspect of a person’s daily life, and those lives might last as long as two hundred years, thanks to regeneration clinics and incredible advances in medicine. The only area Thunderhead can’t intervene in is death itself, nor can Thunderhead govern the organization known as Scythes, which must kill a certain number of people each year in order to keep the global population under manageable control. Scythes are supposed to be impartial judges of a person’s behavior and contributions to society, and have many restrictions on who they are allowed to kill or take on as an apprentice. They are alternately feared, reviled, ostracized, and worshipped. Naturally, this level of power is ripe for misuse; but neither do all Scythes fit the idealized vision of a stoic, grim reaper of souls.

Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe Book 2) Kindle Edition by Neal Shusterman (Author)

Book 2

Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch are two relatively ordinary teenagers who come into contact with a Scythe during the course of what are, for the Scythe, two perfectly ordinary “gleanings.” Each of them display unusual self-possession and bravery, and their conduct during those encounters is so remarkable to him that he takes them each as an apprentice, despite the disapproval of the Scythedom. Scythe Faraday, as he is known, teaches them all manner of ways in which a person can be gleaned, and the teenagers must determine what kind of Scythes they will each be — merciful, brutal, kind, or calculating. Meanwhile, the Scythedom has been in effect long enough for cracks to have formed within its foundation, and there are members who would rather indiscriminately kill hundreds or thousands of people in a single day than carefully select their gleanings throughout a calendar year. These renegades thrive on the power granted by their status, and Shusterman does a fine job of portraying the very real allure of such authority and the cost to one’s humanity for seeking it.

Shusterman treats death with sensitivity, accurately conveying the terror or resignation of the people who are to be gleaned, as well as the grief experienced by the person’s loved ones or friends. I was impressed by how well he wrote on this subject, especially bearing in mind the target audience, and how easy it would have been for him to condescend to his readers. Each death within Scythe bears its own emotional weight, and when the mass gleanings are committed, they’re appropriately horrible in context. While Citra and Rowan do undergo shifts of character and personality, their arcs make sense, and their actions have credible consequences on one another and the plot itself.

Neal Shusterman

I also appreciated how much Scythe feels like it takes place in a larger, living world; Citra’s travels take her outside the boundaries of what readers will recognize as the former United States, and while it’s obvious that the world has changed since the advent of Thunderhead, other former-countries and cultures still retain their individuality beyond Americanized hegemony. It was refreshing to see locations other than the U.S., mainly because American YA dystopia tends to focus on this country either becoming a dumpster fire or a paradise, without exploring what the rest of the world might be up to while we’re either killing and eating one another or holding hands and making flower crowns. Shusterman doesn’t treat the U.S. like an island, and this novel is all the better for it.

There were certainly elements of Scythe that were predictable, but there were far more that weren’t; for example, I didn’t see the ending coming from a mile away, and I can think of several character developments and plot twists that genuinely surprised me. I’m very much looking forward to continuing with Thunderhead, the second book in the ARC OF A SCYTHE trilogy, to see where these characters go and what will happen next to them.

Published in 2016. Two teens must learn the “art of killing” in this Printz Honor–winning book, the first in a chilling new series from Neal Shusterman, author of the New York Times bestselling Unwind dystology. A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery: humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now Scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control. Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own. Scythe is the first novel of a thrilling new series by National Book Award–winning author Neal Shusterman in which Citra and Rowan learn that a perfect world comes only with a heavy price.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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3 comments

  1. What an interesting read! This sounds like it could be in dialogue with the Claire North book I just read, AT THE END OF THE DAY, which follows the Harbinger of Death on his various assignments. It’s fantasy and not YA, but has a lot to say about death and the consequences.

  2. Kevin S. /

    I loved this book and I look forward to starting Thunderhead. I am often disappointed with the way authors end books but Shusterman nailed it. Great closure and lead-in to the next book.

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