Updated: Nov 16, 2018
SPOILER ALERT!!! This review contains details about key plot points in the novel. You have been warned.
BLUF: Scythe by Neal Shusterman is an engaging and thought-provoking story of an age when death has been eradicated, but killing is still a necessity. Rowan and Citra are strong protagonists with compelling motivations. But the true star is the masterfully realized utopian society that rests in a plausible near future.
Imagine a world where there is no pain. No Illness. No death. Where a benevolent and nearly omniscient being meets the needs of almost every person on the planet. In the year 2042, this dream becomes a reality; but it is not without its cost. Scythe explores a world in which mankind has learned the secret to immortality and practically everything else. Unfortunately, the threat of exponential population growth has necessitated the random execution citizens. Those charged with this gruesome undertaking are known as Scythes. The story follows Citra and Rowan; two teens who have been selected to be scythe's apprentices but are quickly pitted against one another in a contest that will end in the execution of the loser.
The Scythedom and the Thunderhead
The post mortal world is a dystopian utopia governed by a benevolent AI known as the Thunderhead. This self aware repository of near infinite knowledge manages every aspect of society, erasing nearly all hardship from life, including death. As people reach old-age, they undergo a process known as turning the corner, which resets their physical selves to a younger state. Accidental death is also managed through revival centers that bring the deceased back to life as long as their bodies are somewhat intact. This has created a problem the Thunderhead couldn't solve and thus, the Scythedom was born.
Scythes are society sanctioned killers whose sole purpose is to perform gleanings; executions that render the subject permanently dead. As such, Scythes operate outside of the jurisdiction of the Thunderhead and are above its laws. They govern themselves independently and are regulated by ten commandments that were developed by their founders. Because death normally accompanies their presence, people tend to hold them in high regard. But this creates issues for an order that basically comprises the most powerful people in the world.
The Monotony of Perfection
"But like so many things, once we had possession of infinite knowledge, it suddenly seemed less important."
In a perfect world where humanity knows everything, what else is there to strive for? This is one of the central questions facing the people in Scythe. Immortality has made death seem trite; an annoyance more than a tragedy. The legendary Scythe Curie likens people to cartoons, using Wile E. Coyote as an example. Despite his repeated deaths, we laugh because we know he will be back in the next scene. Death is a joke. Board teens engage in an act called splatting in which they leap to their deaths, only to wake up in a revival center days later. Because the Thunderhead provides instant information on any topic, kids go to school mostly to pass time. No one has to earn what they have, depriving it of all meaning. Most wade through their existence finding fleeting joy in various pursuits. Yet they all eventually find themselves in a state of boredom — stagnation even.
This raises two questions: does hardship give life meaning, and with all the conveniences we experience today, have we already begun to walk the path to a trite and meaningless existence?
Executioner, Executioner and Execution
"Human nature is both predictable and mysterious; prone to great and sudden advances, yet still mired in despicable self interest."
In the numbingly pleasant world of the future, Scythes play a vital role in disrupting the peoples contentment by returning death to its capricious state. Scythes appear seemingly at random and often kill with little or no warning. Even the most compassionate don't allow people to say goodbye to their families and some kill before the subject is even aware of their presence. In this, Scythes bring fear — even terror — to an otherwise fearless world. Referred to as "Your Honor" by the common people, they act as judges, choosing subjects and the methods by which they will be gleaned. This gives Scythes an unnatural amount of power — presiding over death itself. While many Scythes (like Faraday and Curie) consider this mantle one of great responsibility, others (like Godard) use their license to kill as a tool to exploit others.
Scythe Godard exemplifies the qualities of a rogue Scythe and illustrates the corrupting influence near absolute power can have on a person. Flashy, indulgent, and murderous, Godard and his apprentices subscribe to the philosophy that Scythes are meant to shape humanity — to humble them — and to enjoy every moment of it. While most Scythes live a life of humble obscurity, he abuses his position to live a luxurious life full of pleasure and excitement. This excitement reaches its climax when he and his apprentices conduct mass gleanings, which have more in common with murderous rampages. He repeatedly complains about the quotas the Scythedom has imposed which limits the number of gleanings a Scythe can perform. This further illustrates his bloodlust, and coupled with his disdain for the Thunderhead shows his overall desire for control over his life. In this, Godard ironically echoes the complaints of the masses who have surrendered control to the Thunderhead, relegating themselves to a pleasant but joyless life.
The Power of Pain
“If you do not cry yourself to sleep on a regular basis, you are not compassionate enough to be a scythe.”
Early in his apprenticeship, Rowan is beaten within an inch of his life by Godard and his disciples. His pain inhibiting nanites are turned off during this ordeal so that he can feel every bit of the pain and have to recover naturally (as opposed to the rapid healing future humans enjoy). Godard believes that this pain is transformative and that Rowan will emerge from it a stronger person. This is akin to the adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and reflects our belief that painful experience is often the most powerful. Throughout our lives, we encounter physical and emotional pain. Depending on the severity, it can prompt growth within us as well as help us to become more resilient.
As Godard's apprentice, Rowan is repeatedly subjected to physical and psychological pain, the height of which, is the repeated killing of human subjects, including his once best friend. Rowan becomes numb this pain, making killing easy — and sometimes enjoyable — for him. He talks about the numbness and is wary of the fine line between feeling nothing during his killings and feeling joy from them. He feels himself slipping into the darkness and it is an all too common downfall of tragic characters who allow themselves to descend too far.
Godard's philosophy is a striking contrast to Faraday's and Curie's, who believe good Scythes should kill because they have to, not because the want to. They cultivate within themselves and Citra a spirit of compassion so that each gleaning hurts as if it were their first. They treat their subjects as people which is a juxtaposition to Godard's dehumanizing view of his subjects. All use pain to drive their actions. But while Curie and Faraday find ways to keep feeling that pain, Godard is focused on escaping the pain by twisting it into pleasure. However, pain keeps us grounded. Reminds us of our humanity. And in Godard's attempt to escape it he becomes the monster of the story.
Thoughts on the Story
"We are not the same beings we once were. So then, if we are no longer human, what are we?"
Scythe is one of the best books I've read in 2018. The post 2042 world is realistic and plausible which I've found to be a bit of a rarity in YA dystopian fiction. Shusteman does an amazing job of setting the rules of his world early on without a boring info dump. The story starts off somewhat slow but still has several tense moments; notably when Faraday appears at Citra's home presumably to glean someone in the house. As the story progresses however, the pace accelerates to breakneck speeds, constantly keeping me on my toes. Scythe is full of unexpected twists and rapid changes in direction which I found quite engaging.
Citra and Rowan were both likable characters with realistic motivations. Citra fits the bill of a strong female protagonist who is highly intelligent, determined, and capable. Her evolution throughout the story was more subtle in my opinion and I think this in large part had to do with the fact that she lacks significant character flaws. This is not an issue as I still found myself rooting for her but it almost seemed unfair because for me, Citra was the clear choice to become a Scythe. Her conversations with Faraday and Curie were some of my favorites and the parallel between her and Curie was unmistakable.
On the note of Curie, she is by far my favorite character. She is calm and collected, yet exceptionally lethal. However, buried under that cool facade of the "Grande Dame of Death" is a compassionate and caring soul whose wisdom is unmatched. Her Gleaning Journal entries were some of my favorite parts of the book and a clever form of world building.
Rowan falls into the model of a brooding male protagonist. He has some deep flaws which the antagonist (Godard) exploits to make him question his place in the world. I found Rowan's story to be more interesting because it was far less predictable and considerably more tense. Rowan had a moral foundation from the start but it seemed to erode as time went on and I found myself wondering if Rowan would eventually give in to Godard's influence. Rowan's relationship with Volta was an outstanding way to keep him grounded and cling to his humanity. Volta's latent compassion and struggle to resolve his conscience with his believe that Godard was a visionary was a great parallel to Rowan's internal struggle. Volta's loss was sad but necessary as the inciting incident of Rowan's antihero arc. Rowan escaping the Scythedom and assuming the mantle of Scythe Lucifer was a satisfying note to end on.
I wasn't very engaged in the romance between Citra and Rowan. It seemed a bit forced as they really didn't have any meaningful interactions that would lead them out of the friend zone. This isn't a huge issue and I'm interested to see where this goes in the future.
Godard using Esme to blackmail Xenocrates and the fact that she was his illegitimate daughter wasn't a bad revelation, but to me it was one of the weaker twists. The way Godard talked about her, I thought she was connected to the Thunderhead or something big. But no, she was just another example of Scythe corruption. Again, this wasn't bad, I was just expecting more.
All in all, Scythe by Neal Shusterman is an engrossing tale of what happens when mankind achieves perfection in an imperfect world. The plausible reality that we are likely driving toward asks the age old question of how we derive meaning from life. Scythes are a terrifying cadre of killers, but like any human institution, the Scythedom is susceptible to politics and corruption. Scythe reminds us that we are imperfect and that a life without pain, can be exponentially more painful.
9 out of 10
I absolutely recommend this book and have already started on its sequel, Thunderhead. There was a lot more I wanted to cover in this and if you are interested in more Scythe related content let me know in the comments below. Don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest updates on everything we are working on.