I first picked up Scythe a few months ago, when I saw that its sequel, Thunderhead, had come out. The cover was intriguing, the shiny Michael L. Printz Award on the cover was a definite indication that this might be worth a read, and the synopsis on the back was even more interesting. I ended up reading both books in a matter of days. While I didn’t initially feel compelled to do a book review, I think I’d be doing a disservice to these books by not writing about them on my blog.
So, without further ado, here is my review of Scythe and Thunderhead, of the Arc of a Scythe series by Neal Shusterman.
This book series is set in a technologically advanced future where humans have essentially eliminated natural death, and are able to “reset” their biological timeclocks as their bodies age. They live under the rule of a benevolent AI, called the Thunderhead, which possesses all of humanity’s knowledge and history. The Thunderhead has everything under control: it eliminated food scarcity, global warming is just a mere memory, disease is a thing of the past, and the hypocrisy of human government was abolished, too. Unfortunately, population control is the one thing out of the Thunderhead’s domain.
That’s where the scythedom comes in. Scythes are a group of humans who have been selected and arduously trained in the art of death. They alone are responsible for dolling out death with compassion for the betterment of society. The series follows two teenagers, Citra and Rowan, as they are unwillingly apprenticed under a scythe to learn the art of death, with their own lives hanging in a precarious balance.
So, that’s basically the non-spoilery synopsis of Scythe. The first book in the series is very character-focused, moving between the points of view of Citra and Rowan, with a few perspective shifts to some other important Scythes, as well as the journal entries of a very high-regarded Scythe, whose reflections expand on what it means to be a Scythe, and all the moral weighing that comes with the job. We learn some of the intricacies and intrigues of the scythedom, and Shusterman makes some interesting commentary on politics through the lens of this last remaining group that is governed by people. This book focuses a lot on what it takes physically, mentally, and emotionally to kill, and reflects on these themes with surprising depth.
In the second book in the series, Thunderhead, the world building is even more expansive, and instead of a Scythe’s journal entries, we now get to read the reflections of my favorite character in the series: the Thunderhead itself. I’m not going to spoil major events of the previous book, but Thunderhead no longer covers Citra and Rowan’s apprenticeship, and instead follows the events that follow the incredibly dramatic conclusion of the first book. There’s a lot of power-grabbing and political intrigue, calamity, and some new characters who reveal more of the inner workings of the Thunderhead.
I enjoyed these books. Shusterman is good at packing a narrative punch: he’s got great world building (I didn’t like all of his choices in crafting the world, but these are really ambitious books that still manage to pull it off) and his pacing is pretty fantastic. I tore through these books quickly. Shusterman’s good at raising the stakes, creating a sense of urgency, and winding the clock down to force his characters to act out in heroic desperation.
All that being said…I’m not a big fan of how he writes his characters. I don’t think there’s some quantifiable element to the way that some authors can write incredible, flawed, compelling characters in their stories. Shusterman falls a bit short in his character writing for me. I do like most of his protagonists, and he’s good at writing easily despicable antagonists, but there’s just something missing. Maybe part of the reason I feel this way is because very few of the characters are given particularly distinguishable physical characteristics.
Where I think Shusterman most succeeds is in his exploration of big questions and themes: What would a society look like where people no longer live in fear of death? What sort of humans can or should be trusted with deciding who lives and who dies? What would the consequences be of handing over the keys of our society to an AI of our own making?
All these questions and more are explored in this series, and if you like books that make you think while raising the stakes higher and higher, you’ll love this book.
What’s your favorite new adventure/sci-fi/fantasy series?
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.