Also by this author: Violent Ends
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on November 22, 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Science Fiction
Pages: 448 •Format: Paperback •Source: Purchased
Thou shalt kill.
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.
Hello again dear readers. Another one I was excited for. Is this a common theme? It’s almost as if I only read books I like… Lucky me, eh Cristina?
Any who this one was a real hum-dinger. A real page turner at a scant 435ish pages, I blistered through this one shortly after I bought it. Now after having read this and Thunderhead, I am looking back even more positively on this one. This one is worth your time if you want something that breathes fresh life into a horse that (let’s all be honest) has been beaten and re-beaten to death. By that I mean it’s not your mama’s dystopian.
We open on a world with the central problem of economics resolved: Scarcity. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, it means that the unlimited wants and needs of humans can now not only be met, but completely fulfilled. There is no longer a risk of food running out. There is no longer a danger of environmental destruction destroying the world and making it uninhabitable. While this sounds great on the surface, there is of course a dark side. With all of these and many more problems solved, humanity now faces new issues. Chiefly, there is the problem of people not dying. If you know anything about population growth, you may be able to see the problems with that one. Aside from that, and perhaps more importantly, conquering death has taken a lot of the luster out of the lives of the people of the world of Scythe. What do I mean by that? Well it’s kind of hard to explain.
Many philosophers and authors have mused on death. It’s an interesting rabbit hole to dip into if you’re ever writing a thesis or are a complete and hopeless nerd like myself. I will give the brief Cliffnotes versions of the take on death I believe most relevant to this book. Tolkein alluded to this in his collected works, in which he called it the Gift of Men. In the beginning, when Iluvatar made men, his youngest children, he blessed them with a gift unique from the elves. This gift, for all intents and purposes, was twofold: He gave men death and he gave them free will. Why is death a gift? Aside from the heaviest metaphysical stuff, death gives life meaning. It makes it so that humans must get to work within the short time they’re on Arda (or Earth for us) and make our mark before our brief flame snuffs out. So great was this gift that even the Elves, whose beauty and power was peerless, envied that Iluvatar had given it to us and not them.
TL;DR Version: If you have infinite things to do and not very much time to do it, it makes what you do impressive. If everything under the sun has been done, you can only hope to improve upon already perfect processes, and you have, in theory, unlimited time to do it, you’re just another perfect drop in the perfect ocean. When the book begins, this is the central conflict of the world we find our characters in. It’s easy, nay, enticing to be apathetic to the world and your purpose in it as a young person. Even growing up here in our far from perfect time, it can be tempting to see what it takes to succeed and call the whole thing a wash; quitting before you ever have a chance to truly fail.
We see the two main characters of our story reach an important crossroads to their lives that makes up the lion’s share of the book. They are both about to leave high school, deciding which direction their lives will take after. Rowan, our main guy, is alluded to as being the “poorer” of our two protagonists. One among a score of siblings, he struggles to stand out in any meaningful way. Even so, it is implied that he purposefully tries to fly under the radar academically and otherwise to keep himself under the radar of the Scythedom. (More on that later.) Our main girl is Citra, who serves as a foil to Rowan in many ways. She is from a small family, her parents only on their first marriage each and only has one brother (very uncommon among the people of the world of the book.) Her parents are both professionals and seem to care deeply for their two children.
Both have a chance encounter with a Scythe, the Honorable Scythe Michael Faraday. I’ll not give too much away here, as I always strive to, but guys. The Scythes are pretty freakin’ cool. They pick a name from historic figures. They train in all kinds of death dealing. They have their own martial art. They’re expected to be paragons of their society. Gifted with true immortality and very nearly limitless power, the Scythes are supposed to be the paragons of their time. They are expected to follow 10 commandments and no other rules. The rules are vague, but absolute. They meet regularly and are punished or given accolades. They have a highly hierarchical struggle. They are expected to use their power responsibly though it is only very specifically confined. They are the only things in the world, after all, that can kill.
Through the Scythedom, and the scythes, we find the central themes of our work explored. Important questions that are rightly left up to our own interpretation to answer. Things like “what are the limits of Free Will?” “Does absolute power always corrupt absolutely?” “In a world run by a perfect AI, is it really a good idea to give so much power to an organization run by fallible men and women?” I believe the most important theme explored in the novel is empathy and its limits. Scythes are expected to kill, but do it with empathy always. They are expected to put their petty dislikes and flaws aside and rise above them to be perfectly impartial, or as close to perfect as humans can get. That struggle to be truly perfect is contrasted well against the supposed perfection of the world in which the characters lived. I loved the exploration of human nature and the philosophy of death brought up by this book.
As for everything else in the world? Provided for by a mega-AI. What’s a mega AI? Well, it’s a program called the Thunderhead. (Based on the Cloud. Get it?) The Thunderhead is Good Skynet the Internet, Good Big Brother, and the mega UN all in one. It runs the world. It saves us from ourselves. Like the scythedom, it is the only other thing in the series that has very nearly unlimited power. The only thing it cannot and does not run is the scythedom. On top of all this it is a mysterious force in the background of the plot, ever present but rarely felt as we focus on the Scythes. While the Scythe is a character in and of itself, its presence in the book is felt less than the humans who live in what is effectively its world. The Thunderhead is one of the most fascinating parts of the book for someone like me who has read, watched, and played a lot of sci-fi.
All that said, the plot itself is mostly a standard “apprenticeship” story. We see the characters lose their innocence and initial optimism about the role. We learn that that’s kind of the point. Through their apprenticeships we learn about the world and how people interact with each other in it. We learn about our characters and see them grow. You’ll likely notice I said “mostly.” The other parts of the plot seem to be the setting up of the proverbial game of mousetrap. An odd, alluded to shadow war going on between characters who appear to be one thing but act like something else. I liked a lot more of the plot than I didn’t and as the story went on I found myself liking Rowan a bit more than Citra, especially in the third act.
I liked a lot about this book. I liked learning about the scythedom and seeing the foibles of the “perfect” world. I liked the Thunderhead and the setup I think I see forming in this and the following book in the series. I liked the main antagonist and really felt like he was believable in the world they set up. I liked the refreshing take on dystopia and the tension that Shusterman builds throughout the work. I liked almost all of the characters, including ones we don’t spend a lot of time with until the third and fourth Parts of the book. Most of all, I loved the pace the book keeps up. It was brisk, never feeling like it was dragging or padding out the read time. I liked the journey that the two main characters took in this one, and how the big plot was kept tightly focused on them in this one.
All that said, there were things I didn’t like. I disliked the ending. It felt a little cliched and unsatisfying when compared against the excelling buildup. I didn’t really like Citra’s plot in the third act. I didn’t find the romance very natural or believable. While the conclusion of it made sense and felt believable, the events leading up to it strained my suspension of disbelief a bit. Most of all though, I found the idea of anything truly covert being done in a world run by a basically omniscient AI to be a little frustrating. At some points it felt as if the whole “Oh the Thunderhead can’t because of the separation of Scythe and state” got stretched a little close to its limits. I also found it hard to believe that a certain group of characters were truly following the rules set up for the scythes.
Even so, Scythe was a fun read and an exciting intro into a unique world. I loved the feel of the world and getting to know more about it. If you’re looking for something that’s fast paced, full of twists and turns and exciting characters, this one is for you.
Final Verdict: So close to five stars, but tripped at the finish line.
About the Reviewer
Max is a twenty-something psychology grad, avid gamer, and self-proclaimed Hufflepuff. He and Cristina met in high school, where they bonded over a mutual love of food, Harry Potter, and Disney. When he’s not dutifully attending book events with his book blogger fiancé, he can be found gaming, reading fantasy & sci-fi, and becoming overly invested in Food Network shows with Cristina.
I’m absolutely intrigued! Thanks for the review!
It was a real page turner! Thanks for your comment.
This sounds really interesting! I haven’t read any of Neal Shusterman’s work yet but I keep hearing amazing things about him. I’m actually kind of fascinated by death and how, like you said, it gives purpose to a potentially meaningless existence. I mean, it’s one of the big three themes in poetry so that has to mean something! In any case, I don’t think I’ve ever read a dystopian quite like this one. I’ll definitely have to try and read it this summer sometime. Lovely review, Max!
Thank you very much!
Yes I loved the exploration of death as a theme and seeing people who have even more cause to ignore it than we do reacted to it literally walking into their homes. I hope you will enjoy it as well.
The last Neal Shusterman book I read was Unwind, and that was YEARS back! I do recall it being about a bunch of kids “losing their innocence” as well. Neal’s great with thought-provoking, dark reads. I really need to read this, huh?
100% would recommend a read if you haven’t yet. I could scarcely put it down at the resort.
My 9th grade English teacher said that “loss of innocence” was one of the 2 themes you could find in all books. I think that still rings true.
Thanks for your comment!