Author: Neal Shusterman
Death has been eradicated. There is no sickness, no murder, no war, no injury you cannot be revived from – even if you jump off a building. The only way to permanently leave the world is to be chosen for “gleaning” by a Scythe, a member of a corps of professional killers charged with keeping the population in check.
If you’re thinking “Oh my lanta this sounds awful why would I read this?” FEAR NOT. I had qualms about the premise, but there is more to Scythe than meets the eye. Like a Transformers movie, but…you know…good.
When Citra* and Rowan are chosen to train as apprentice scythes, neither of them wants the role. But as their mentor, Scythe Faraday, points out, when decisions about death have to be made, the people most averse to the job are actually the best suited for it. Faraday is devastated by every gleaning he carries out, and seeks to impart the gravity of a scythe’s responsibility to his apprentices.
Unfortunately, not every scythe shares that opinion. Many of the younger scythes have adopted the toxic ideology that they have the right to enjoy their work, to the extent that a gang of them fulfill their quotas in brutal mass gleanings. It’s this disturbing mindset that leads to the Scythedom retroactively decreeing that only one of Faraday’s apprentices can be fully ordained – and whoever is chosen at the end of their training will be forced to glean the other.
As you can imagine, this does wonders for their working relationship. The blurb for Scythe puts this “to the death” contest front and center, which is why I originally had qualms about reading it, sort of like if you heard the premise of The Hunger Games without knowing anything else about it. However, learning that the apprentice competition is a mirror of the ideological schism between Scythe factions takes this book from being a flippant assassination game to a well presented look at the value of a life fully lived and what society might lose as people gain near-immortality.
The futuristic world described in Scythe is distinctly different from the cookie cutter dystopias presented in many YA novels. In a refreshing change of pace, the world of Scythe is actually closer to that of a utopia – world governing functions have all been surrendered to the Thundercloud, a massive artificial intelligence that stores everything, predicts everything and controls everything. But instead of it all going south like VIKI in the movie I Robot, the tech in this book is pretty much infallible. The problem is with the human element – humanity was willing to surrender everything to the great computer in the sky except the power of death. The Scythedom is kept apart from the Thundercloud, subject only to its own laws. So when Scythe morality and objectivity becomes tainted by those who relish the kill, only other Scythes have the power to stop them.
That’s where Citra and Rowan come in.When the proverbial poop hits the fan, Citra falls in with the “old guard” and Rowan gets a nasty taste of the sadistic side. Each camp begins jockeying to see their favored candidate ordained, because the final decision will provide a telling look at what direction the Scythedom is headed. The power of death is on unsteady ground, and everyone wants to see it shift in their favor.
Out of the four(!) books I have read about teenage reapers, this one is the clear winner. Not just because Gina Damico’s Croak is a middle-grade series that reads like it’s on speed, but because Scythe is genuinely very good. Coming as it is from the author of Unwind, this is no surprise. Like in his Unwind series, Shusterman manages to take an extremely disturbing setup (be it retroactive abortion or sanctioned murder) and deliver a compelling story that hits hard at how we value human life. The sci-fi elements, particularly revival and age-resetting technology, do not detract from how it correlates to modern life. 40 is the new 20? In Scythe, 400 is the new 20. But in both the real and fictional worlds, we have to ask the same questions – will it make you happy? How long is long enough? And who gets to make that call?
*I picture lemons and oranges every time I read her name. Now you will, too. You’re welcome!