Neal Shusterman has been one of my favorite YA authors since I was in high school. His Unwind Dystology is a riveting and haunting must-read for science fiction fans. In fact, I could spend, and probably have spent, an insurmountable amount of time gushing about Shusterman’s world building and mature, inventive twists in that series alone. So when I found Scythe, with a Michael Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and a recently released sequel (Thunderhead, available since January), I immediately put it at the top of my TBR list. Moreover, on finally reading it, I find myself happily in awe of Shusterman’s work once again.
Scythe is set in a future where natural human death has been cured, and people have the ability to heal all wounds and afflictions. To deal with the growing population and everyone’s immortality, society has created a population of Scythes, individuals responsible for choosing which members of society will be permanently killed (referred to as “gleaned”). Rowan and Citra, two teenagers living normal lives, have always revered and feared scythes, and like most citizens hoped never to interact with them. However, both are forced to when a renowned Scythe chooses them as his apprentices, although only one of them will be able to become a full Scythe. Rowan and Citra must now train in the art of killing, aide the Scythe, and learn what it means to take a life, all while competing against each other. To make matters worse, complicated Scythe politics hold danger and deceit at every turn, positioning the two at the center of a battle between old and new Scythe ideologies. And when everything is a matter of life and death, Rowan and Citra’s survival is anything but certain.
The protagonists begin as rather predictable archetypes of the genre, Rowan the kind, humorous hero and Citra the fierce, serious heroine. The real pull to these characters, however, is how they expand from these classic personas, each event of the book building who they are in both positive and negative manners. When forced to train as a killer, for instance, Rowan develops a bloodlust that he must fight throughout the remainder of the novel. When learning about the history of the Scythes, Citra comes to embrace the Scythe lifestyle and role in society. Ultimately, they respond to their experiences as people do, as teenagers do, making each new chapter as impactful to the characters as the readers.
An additional strength of the novel is its structure as a collection of journal entries and multi-focused narration. By having this format, Shusterman allows the reader a greater scope of the world he’s created, which subsequently makes the dystopian reality feel more plausible. Furthermore, the intentional narrative focuses precisely reveal character actions and motivations, permitting Shusterman to create suspense and surprise into certain events while still giving readers enough information to visualize the scenes presented.
A final significant aspect of the novel is its plot, which I found to be both fresh and familiar. Shusterman uses many common tropes of YA science fiction, such as corrupt conspiracies and omnipotent technologies, however he twists them in a way that I have rarely seen in other texts. To illustrate, the looming super-computer watching and governing all of society is actually a benevolent, or at the very least morally ambiguous character, instead of the common role of “root of all evils.” Continuing on, the tests given to the Scythe apprentices do not result in the unexpected revelation of unknown talents or complete success, as is usually the case with that class plotline, and instead showcase the shortcomings of such tests in actually measuring the characters’ worth.
Fans of fast-paced, thrilling science fiction will marvel over Scythe’s various intricacies and components. From the characters to the storyline, Shusterman successfully spins a dystopian future that seems all too possible, while showing respect to the expectations of the genre. I can’t wait to read the sequel!