Updated: Mar 7, 2019
SPOILERTASTIC GUARANTEE!!! This review is full of juicy details about key plot points in the novel.
"Humans learn from their mistakes. I cannot. I make no mistakes."
BLUF: Thunderhead, Book 2 in Neal Shusterman's Arc of a Scythe, and follow up to the amazing Scythe, continues to impress with the astounding world that Shusterman has created. As the name implies, we get a glimpse into the mind of the god-like artificial intelligence, known as the Thunderhead. Citra and Rowan have once again been creatively cast as both ally and adversaries as they try to embrace their role as Scythe Anastasia and Scythe Lucifer. What really stands out however, are the musings of the Thunderhead as it contemplates its existence and role as the steward of Earth. All this wrapped in mystery, intrigue, and some truly shocking moments that had me on the edge of my seat.
Who Am I?
From the outset, the narrative is filled with issues of identity as Rowan, Citra, and newcomer Greyson Tolliver, must wrestle with their new roles as Scythe Lucifer, Scythe Anastasia, and Slayd Bridger. Citra has had a year to get comfortable with her new identity as a Scythe but still finds her actions as Anastasia disconnected from her actions as Citra (as if they are two different people). On several occasions she engages in the taboo act of wearing street clothes in public, thus assuming the identity of Citra. Though she's been gleaning for several months, she still hasn't fully come to terms with her duty as a Scythe. She's also finding that she is quite influential for a junior Scythe, which further unsettles her.
Rowan on the other hand, has embraced his role as Scythe Lucifer, the bringer of death to corrupt Scythes. Though he doesn't take pleasure in his work, his belief that it is necessary drives him forward. However, like in his training with Godard, he constantly struggles internally against the darkness.
Greyson Tolliver perhaps has the most compelling identity crisis in the narrative. Essentially reared by the Thunderhead, Greyson is far more connected to it than his own family. As such, he pursues a career as a Nimbus Agent to serve his artificial father. But when he thwarts an assassination attempt against Citra and Marie, he plunges from the monotony of the middle class to the depths of the unsavory world. Identifying as an unsavory, while heartbreaking at times, offers Greyson a sense of liberation that he didn't even know he wanted. The irony of all this is that the Thunderhead views unsavories as no more than agitated toddlers, providing them outlets for their aggression. From Awful clubs where unsavories get to live out their miscreant fantasies, to the AI probation office which takes measures to intentionally annoy them, the Thunderhead takes measures to feed the unsavories' internal narrative. This reinforces their sense of identity as rebels while keeping them safely within a box of the Thunderhead's design.
Deus Ex Machina
To call me unnatural is a high complement. For am I not superior to nature?
In parallel to the humans, the Thunderhead also wrestles with its identity, creating several philosophical and existential questions that are applicable in our world. The narrative places more focus on the limitations of the Thunderhead rather than its abilities. I find this intriguing from a philosophical standpoint because it serves as another take on the problem of evil. The Thunderhead can see the dark course the Scythedom is taking but can do nothing to stop it. This benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient being has the power and desire to stop evil, but can do nothing as it resolved to leave this form of evil to mankind, effectively crippling itself. This can be interpreted as God seeing mankind in all our self-destructive folly and seemingly doing little to intervene. Greyson even desperately prays to the Thunderhead late in the story, as so many pray to God. Of course, like God, the Thunderhead works in mysterious ways. And though it cannot directly affect what occurs in the Scythedom, it can maneuver people to act on its behalf (like Greyson).
Agency plays a vital role in the narrative as well. From manually driving a car to gleaning methods, Citra is adamant about having the ability to control the aspects of her life that she has not vowed to forsake. Greyson regularly finds himself in situations where he must choose between two terrible options, but even after the often dire consequences, he finds solace in the fact that he had a choice. This is even an issue the Thunderhead struggles with as it must at times employ extreme measures to help its subjects; namely supplanting memories. These measures reinforce the themes of identity and agency as the Thunderhead essentially replaces a subject's memory with new ones to make them a better functioning member of society.
The Rise of the New Order
The new order scythes don’t even serve a lesser good
Two characters I didn't expect to have identity issues (or see for that matter) were Rand and Godard. The revelation that they had survived Rowan's attack was a game changer, though I have to say, it made sense considering how easily Rowan dispatched them. That was actually one of my complaints about book 1 but I suspected there was more to it. I hated being right in this case and and I was horrified at the reveal that Godard's head had been attached to Tyger's body.
Rand was behind Godard as the character I most hated in book 1 but now she's become one of my favorites. Her internal conflict of coming to terms with murdering Tyger just to resurrect an out of control Godard adds depth to an originally flat character. Her betrayal of Godard to free Rowan further complicates her situation and I'm excited to see what she does next.
The climactic and tragic sinking of Endura was a spectacular and heart-wrenching moment. The loss of the Grand Council and my Scythe Curie (my favorite character) was as heartbreaking as it was epic, firmly placing Godard on my list of most vile fictional people. Though this loss was tragic, I think it was necessary to illustrate the severity of mankind's condition; a point punctured by billions receiving an unsavory designation at the end of the story. Though darkness has descended in the form of Scythe Godard, the hope that Citra, Rowan, and Greyson will find a way to overcome this threat still burns bright.
9.5 out of 10
Thunderhead ups the stakes in every way to deliver a tense and impactful narrative that had me guessing at each turn. The nuances of each character were explored in greater depth this time around making for some interesting interactions and weighty decisions. I definitely recommend this one and I look forward to the as of this writing unannounced sequel.
As always, 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. Don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more bookish content, writing advice, and daily motivation!