I am completely new to Neil Shusterman; this was the first novel of his that I’ve read and I am hooked! I loved this book and the world that Mr. Shusterman has created.
The blurb is as follows:
Two teens must learn the “art of killing” in this Printz Honor–winning book, the first in a chilling new series from Neal Shusterman, author of the New York Times bestselling Unwind dystology.
A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery: humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now Scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.
Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.
This novel takes place in a utopian society in future at a time where hunger, disease, crime and even death no longer exist. Once people begin to age, they can opt to go through a procedure called “turning the corner” in which they can once again inhabit the body of a 21-year-old (or older, if they so choose).
People who do end up getting killed from accidents are only considered “dead-ish” and immediately after their demise, helicopters show up to whisk the dead-ish individual to a revival center where they are restored to their former selves, usually within three days or so. Thus, people in this new, improved society are more or less immortal (the only exception of fire – if you die by fire, you’re dead for good).
Additionally, each person has “nanites” in their system which control pain and speed up the healing process.
Enter the Scythes
But humans still reproduce, meaning that there needs to be some sort of population control — and that control falls under the jurisdiction of a legal authority called the “Scythdom”, which is made up of individual Scythes.
Scythes are the only individuals in society that are allowed to take a human life. Each Scythe is charged with going out and killing a certain number of people every year (about 240 or so, if I remember correctly). When a Scythe kills someone, it’s referred to as “gleaning”, and that person can no longer be revived. They are dead for good.
Now the thing about Scythes is that they must be of the highest moral discipline and possess qualities of empathy, humaneness, and compassion. As such, a Scythe must choose their individual victims with careful consideration allowing no bias, bigotry or malice to enter into their choice of victims (this is one of the Scythe’s “10 Commandments”). The author provided plenty of detail of the day to day activities in a Scythe’s life, which I found fascinating, as well as the training regiment of the apprentice Scythes.
Speaking of apprentices, it is only through deep study and training by the apprentice and intense scrutiny by the Scythdom that a person is ordained as a Scythe. Oh — and one of the first rules of becoming a scythe is that the person must not want to become a Scythe. I think this would be a good rule for politicians as well. But I digress.
The “Not So Good” Scythe’s
Of course, the ideal is not always the reality and somehow, a few “bad apples” manage to squeeze through the Scythdom cracks — and this is where things get really interesting (we’re introduced to some of these not-so-moral Scythes pretty early on in the book). These bad apples are Scythes who take pleasure in killing and even toy with their victims before gleaning them.
They may not have started out so heartless and cruel, but as scythes are given the ultimate power of life and death, it’s not surprising that there would be those who would be corrupted by that much power. Power does have a tendency to corrupt, as we have all seen over and over in our history books.
Scythes are, after all, placed above civilization and are even referred to as “Your Honor” by anyone who crosses their path. It’s not surprising that some would abuse this power much like many organizations or governments become corrupt with too much power.
I loved the villain in this story — he was definitely someone that you “loved to hate”. The author did an excellent job of provoking feelings of anger, disgust, and heartache in the reader through the villain’s actions – a testament to the author’s ability to portray vivid and realistic characters.
The Scythe’s Apprentices
In this novel, the story revolves around two main characters, Citra and Rowan who are chosen by a particularly well-respected Scythe, the Honorable Scythe Faraday, to be his apprentices. What follows is the adventures these two go through, as they train to be effective killers, compete with each other and struggle with romantic feelings that emerged as they got to know each other (romantic involvement with anyone is strictly forbidden for Scythes). Now I will say that is is NOT a romance novel. Though romance may perhaps place a small part in some of the decisions of the characters, this is not what drove the plot of the story.
I really liked Citra and Rowan and enjoyed getting to know them as the story progressed. As the plot moved forward, we learn that these two are quite complex and multi-layer characters, especially when faced with impossible choices. What I really liked about them is that they were strong both as individuals and as a team.
Citra and Rowan, along with their Scythe teachers, attend these Scythe quarterly conclaves, where we enter deeply into the realm of Scythe politics, which I found incredibly interesting and eye-opening, especially once we learned about rampant corruption in the Scythdom.
The Thunderhead – Good or Evil?
It’s worth mentioning that there are no longer any governments in this society – all jurisdiction falls under what is called The Thunderhead (evolved from the Internet’s “Cloud”). The Thunderhead is the ultimate jurisdiction and knows everything about everyone, and intervenes when necessary. It’s like the Internet at some point evolved into a sentient being (which is kind of how I understood it). As a society, nobody fears the Thunderhead; on the contrary, it is revered, almost like a god. The Thunderhead protects and provides for everyone.
The only exception to the Thunderhead intervening in the lives of others is when it comes to Scythe business. It was agreed upon long ago that the Thunderhead would have no jurisdiction when it came to Scythes —- and it completely and always stays out of Scythe business — which may not always be a good thing as we’ve seen with the power-corrupted Scythes.
Thus, the “Scythedom” is a self-governing entity whose success and efficacy relies upon the moral compass of the individuals who belong to it. When certain individuals gain too much power, then the entire entity is in danger, which is what we get in this book.
The Scythe’s Journals
One of the requirements of being of a Scythe is keeping a journal, and each chapter in the book opens with a short excerpt from the journals of one of the Scythes in the story, such as Scythe Faraday and Scythe Curie (the Grande Damme of Death). These snippets provide not only additional insight into Scythe politics but also gave essential information about the current society in which the story takes place.
I especially enjoyed the comparisons of the current society to the “Mortal Age” before technological advances enabled people to potentially live forever.
Twists and Turns
Just when I had pretty much figured out the premise of the book and had a general idea where the story was going to take me, the author threw a major wrench in the works, that I did not see coming at all.
At this point, the entire plot of the story changes as it veers off into directions I couldn’t have anticipated. I loved the twists, turns and surprises that the author threw in, adding even more layers to this already fascinating story. And just when you think you got a handle on what was going on, the author throws in another twist.
This was a compelling story with excellent world-building that kept me guessing until the book’s end. The character development in this book was also amazing as each character, even the secondary ones, were quite multifaceted and complicated.
This is the kind of novel that will get you thinking, especially as it pertains to moral ambiguity — those “gray areas” of right and wrong, and what the decisions we make say about the kind of person we are. It also demonstrated nicely how our environment can affect the kind of person we become. This was illustrated in the differences of the morality of the Scythes, depending on who trained them.
As it turns out, this book is part of a duology but you’d never know it. I felt that the story is nicely wrapped up at the conclusion of the book, and it felt finished and complete to me. In my humble opinion, this is the perfect example of how books in a series should be (I loathe cliffhangers, but that’s another discussion for another time).
All in all, I loved this story and can’t wait to read the next book (Thunderhead) in this series. I also look forward to reading more of Mr. Shusterman’s work. Recommended!!