Scythe by Neil Shusterman

Scythe is a very meditative piece about what it means to lose one of humanity’s most important aspects: impermanence. Those expecting a YA dystopian thrill ride such as Hunger Games or Divergent will likely be frustrated by the slow pacing, philosophizing, and bleakness. But Scythe is well written, has engaging heros, ends on a solid story arc, and nicely sets up the conflict for future volumes.

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Story: In the future, science has evolved to the point where all of man’s needs are taken care of by a supercomputer – the Thunderhead. Death is no longer possible (except in the case of fire) and it is a good life. But population must be controlled and so society has created the scythe – who ‘glean’ unexpectedly. Each scythe has a philosophy on how they do their gleaning and to ensure ‘fairness’, they are above the law of the Thunderhead. Unsurprisingly, they are both respected and feared by society. When two very different teens, Citra and Rowan, are enlisted to become apprentices to a scythe, they quickly find their lives changed in a very fundamental – and very dangerous – way. For the scythes are evolving and there is a cancer beginning to grow in their ranks.

First and foremost, this is a very somber book. Clearly, Shusterman has spent a great deal of time thinking through all the consequences of a society where people cannot die. Knowledge never disappears with death and therefore people know everything there is to know about life. The scythes have a very moral high-ground and a simple code to ensure that their gleanings are fair. But as with any philosophy, nothing is incorruptible. And with the entire first 3/4 of the book being about the various ‘gleans’ that our teens have to witness or do, it gets very bleak fast. Indeed, the book is mostly about musing on the repercussions of having a life that lacks fragility.

Rowan and Citra are interesting characters who are each given distinct personalities. Despite their differences, they grow to like and respect each other under the tutelage of their “Jedi Master”. There are several twists and turns but all of the characters in the book are nuanced, if perhaps a bit simplified in their doctrinal leanings.

So why 4 out of 5 stars? For me, the book felt a bit overwritten. Too much time spent on musings rather than interactions. The deus ex machina of the deaths were more to start a conversation about death itself; in other words, more of a purposeful set up than an organic happenstance. As well, the idea that a society built on knowledge wouldn’t anticipate corruption in an all-powerful force like the scythes was a bit far fetched (though we are teased that there is a fail safe in case the scythes needed to be handled). The good characters were too good (too Obi Wan or Qui Gon) and the bad characters too bad (yes, Senator Palpatine) to be rich enough for believably. The supposed charisma of the bad characters was completely missing here and problematically, the pervasive and unremitting gloominess was overwhelming at times. This is also a common sci fi theme (e.g., 1960s Star Trek episode A Tale of Armageddon this is explored rather than exploited.

So yes, Sythe is a very well written and thoughtful yA dystopian certainly at the top of its genre. Our heroes outwit the ‘system’ and set up the conflicts for the next two books in the series. Reviewed from an advanced reader copy provided by the publisher.

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