Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Genre: fantasy, (dys)(u)topia, YA
Scythe brought up some fascinating philosophical questions, which I was not expecting from from reading the synopsis. In fact, if my friend had not recommended this book to me, I would have never picked it up because the premise sounded ridiculous. I was pleasantly surprised. While Scythe is by no means a perfect book, it is well written and thought provoking, which is something that is sorely lacking in the YA genre.
Humanity has conquered death. Governments have become obsolete as the world is run by an all-knowing AI called the Thunderhead. Malaise is rampant. Utopia has arrived.
In order to control an ever growing world population, “scythes” are tasked by society with “gleaning”–or killing–people. The scythedom is an old order, steeped in honor and mystery similar to the Jedi Knights. However, corruption is seething at the core of the scythedom, and apprentices Rowan and Citra find themselves thrust into the center of it.
I wrestled with the premise for a good quarter of the book. It presupposes, for instance, that man is essentially good and will strive for rational ends. It simplifies human nature and its complexities in order to create this bizarre utopia. As I continued to read, however, I realized that the questions the book was exploring and the story it was telling were enough for me to suspend my disbelief.
At its core, Scythe asks questions about what it means to be human. It uses the “death and suffering defeated” trope to explore whether it is exactly those things that make life worth living. That suffering and the knowledge that life on earth is short make the joys of living all the more sweet. These themes are primarily explored through the readers’ glimpses into the journals of Scythes Curie and Faraday, and I wish we had seen more of that. The question of humanity playing God–choosing who dies, when, and where–was touched on briefly, but is something I thought should have been given more space.
As characters, Rowan and Citra were not particularly interesting. They seem to merely be shells swept into a story that is bigger than they are, surrounded by secondary characters–such as Curie and Faraday–who were far more nuanced. I wish that Shusterman had not included a romance between the two, because it seemed extremely forced. I found if I read their relationship as an apprentice camaraderie with mutual attraction that it was more compelling than a rather unconvincing “love that conquers all.”
Some reviewers have complained that the pacing was too slow, but I felt generally engaged the whole book. I tend to like coming-of-age apprentice tales, though, probably a lay over from my obsession with the Jedi Apprentice books in elementary school. Other aspects of the plot and parts of the premise of the scythedom were sloppy, but not enough to derail my immersion.
Overall, Scythe was a very well written book, and it made me think. Despite my initial misgivings, it was the world that carried me through to the end. I wanted to see if Shusterman could pull off such a human-nature defying world in a convincing manner. While it wasn’t perfect, I found it to be a breath of fresh air from the run of the mill YA dystopia and the endless love triangles. I am looking forward to the next book in the series, and I just read that Shusterman is in negotiations to make the book into a movie–which could either be very interesting, or very terrible. Hopefully not the latter.