Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Published by Simon and Schuster on November 22, 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Science Fiction
“My greatest wish for humanity is not for peace or comfort or joy. It is that we all still die a little inside every time we witness the death of another. For only the pain of empathy will keep us human. There’s no version of God that can help us if we ever lose that.”
Scythe is the first Neal Shusterman book I’ve read and yet I own three of his books. I saw the book on a book haul youtube video and the brief snippet of the description caught my attention. Scythe is about a world where humans have become immortal, conquering death and illnesses. And in a world where humans can’t die of natural means, they have appointed people called Scythes to control population and administer death.
There isn’t a lot I have to say in a non spoiler section because most of my ramblings include some sort of spoiler. I will say I came for the concept but stayed for the questions it gave me. I didn’t feel a strong connection to any characters but I continued to find out what had happened and learn more about the politics of the world Shusterman built. Because of this, my rating for the book is somewhere undefined in the range of 3.5-4 stars.
Now, I’ll start my spoiler-y, philosophical review of Scythe. If you haven’t read it go read, and if you have read it or haven’t and like to be spoiled then continue on,
When I read books I like to take notes of what I think while I’m reading so it’s easier for me to write a review when I’m finished, but this only works when I remember to do so. For this book, the concept brought up so many questions to what we consider death to be and things of that nature that my note taking became more of a discussion fit for a philosophy class.
I’ve heard great things about Neal Shusterman’s books and I do believe he is a great writer, but I feel this book lacked a little. I felt more attention was turned towards world building and educating the reader about Scythes, Scythedom, and the Thunderhead than what was given to characters and their own internal monologue and their arcs. Don’t get me wrong, the characters did have arcs and they ended up different people from where they started, but I feel like I missed a lot along the way. I saw a review before I read and the only part that I read of it was where the reviewer mentioned they thought Scythe was going to be about star-crossed lovers. I considered that idea but I never really felt any sort of growing connection between Citra and Rowan. In fact, I hardly remember if they got any sort of proper physical descriptions outside of their genetic index. I’m not sure if this was because they were always going to be Scythe apprentices and their looks don’t necessarily matter once their Scythes. Regardless I always pictured Citra as a tougher, more stubborn version of Amandla Stenberg from Everything, Everything’s movie. Rowan I couldn’t necessarily precisely picture who he looked like but maybe a shyer version of Dylan O’Brien or something I’m not sure. I felt Rowan’s arc into a darker side of him was more detailed than Citra’s. She didn’t necessarily change quite like Rowan did or nearly to the extent but hers was more to a self-aware version of herself. Still, there was a lot of building the story line versus the character’s development. At the end when Rowan said “I love you” I’m not sure if he meant that romantically or what but it felt weird and out of place. They spent half the book apart and even when they were together as twin apprentices under Scythe Faraday, I felt no romantic connection even when they kissed. There just wasn’t much there for me to grasp onto unfortunately. Even when Citra had to kill her brother (despite the fact he’d go straight to the revival center to live on) and it was a heartbreaking scene, I felt nothing. Maybe it’s because I knew Ben would be okay or because I just didn’t feel a real connection to her or him. But having a younger brother myself, I could imagine the act Citra had to commit well enough to understand how hard it would be.
What I did feel a connection to was the world and the deaths the reader witnessed. The first one that Shusterman truly let us witness was Kohl Whitlock. This one hit me and really got me thinking. Kohl was just a teenager and while I respect the reasons behind Scythe Faraday choosing him (not saying it’s fair), it still got me. I found Faraday to be my favorite Scythe because of how he performed his duties. He chose statistics and narrowed down the victims by who fit those statistics. He strived to imitate the Mortal Age deaths. Still, it’s hard to hear of teenagers or younger dying. Even harder when someone has control over whether or not the kid can walk away or not. This book really makes you think about death in a way you don’t often. If giving the chance to choose who lives and dies, how do you choose? Even on statistics alone, there’s a sense of guilt. Just because someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time or made the wrong decision, doesn’t necessarily mean they have to die. When people die now, there’s usually something to blame. Lack of medicine technology to save them, someone else for doing it (car wrecks, murder, etc.), or fate alone (saying it was simply their time, old age, etc.). When a Scythe does it, it’s consciously done. And consciously done by someone who doesn’t have to. When immortality reigns and nothing naturally kills, how do you choose? Knowing even a little bit about the persons life makes it difficult to deal the killing blow. Unless of course you are a sociopath and are incapable of feeling emotions. It brings us to a moral grey area. Who are we to decide that we get to kill? That we get to choose? More importantly where did religion go in this world? When people stopped dying naturally did people stop having to look for a higher power to save them or ensure they wouldn’t just cease to exist after death? When immortality is at your fingertips, do you need to believe in a god when you may never need to meet one? In one of the journal entries when the victim asked “what will happen to me?” And the Scythe said after her death “I don’t know” it got me wondering…does anyone know? Or do people just think their chance of being gleaned are slim enough that religious activities and finding a moral ground are moot? Of course there are no crimes in this utopia because certain ones are punishable by death and the Thunderhead can punish them anyway. What happens when humanity becomes stagnant? What becomes the point? Especially after a lifetime has been lived? Why keep reliving your life over and over by resetting? These are questions that swarmed my head while reading. Faraday did become a favorite character (one who I felt we got a glimpse into his personality), but even at the beginning I didn’t know if I could let myself like him because he administered death to innocents. It’s much easier to accept an untimely death when the person has committed an atrocity. In fact, here’s something I wrote in my notes early on in the book:
I’m conflicted about Scythe Faraday. Human nature wants us to hate Scythes because they do the killing. Killer of innocents or otherwise. But, they are still human. No more or less human than those they glean. Faraday has his sharp edges but he also has softer sides. I think maybe after 100+ years of gleaning it has hardened him in a way to make dealing with his life’s purpose easier. Of course, naturally we do want to dislike him. Dislike all Scythes. They get the chance to not kill people and yet they choose to. Or at least get to choose other people. Faraday tries to make it as non-personal as possible with statistics, I think. Most of his gleanings so far we’ve been given access to, have been fitting in parameters or the statistics they would’ve ultimately met in the Mortal Age. Still, there’s always that chance to move on to someone else. But…when the world is immortal, you can’t let population grow forever. Someone or thing needs to control it.
There were a lot of moral grey areas that I felt while reading. Where do you draw the line? Is there a line when you’ve taken over the Grim Reapers job? It brings the classic question: what happens when you give death a conscience? We did get somewhat of an answer to that with the undeniably evil Scythe Goddard. Goddard who was some sort of futuristic, dystopian Gatsby. He threw huge parties that went on for days because he could and it was…weird. Sure, they kind of helped Rowan get to Goddard’s side but also so did the endless brainwashing in his training. Goddard thought he was an innovator and was tired of all the rules surrounding being a Scythe. He wanted freedom to do what he pleased, glean who and how many he pleased. He already was able to get two faithful followers and one slightly less faithful follower. At least these were the ones who openly supported and participated in his antics. However, Voltra was my favorite because he hated it. He didn’t deserve his end. He was a young Scythe who got in with the wrong group and couldn’t bring himself to leave their group because he thought Goddard was the future of Scythedom. Not because he believed in Goddard but believed Goddard would convince plenty of people and it would move in that direction. While I was sad when Voltra took his own life, I was happy when Goddard was served his death in the Toners chapel. I didn’t think Rowan would have the guts to do it or didn’t think he’d actually go through with it but I’m glad he did. And I will say I enjoy the turn this series took. I thought that Citra and Rowan were going to have to be on the run in book 2 with Goddard or someone chasing them or Goddard would continue his evil, mass gleaning ways. Instead, Rowan is being referred to as Scythe Lucifer and killing Scythes by fire. Also, I love Citra’s Scythe name? I think it’s fitting and now I want to read more about Anastasia Romanov. I look forward to where this series is going. Despite not being completely invested in it, I still will read Thunderhead. I hope Shusterman spends more attention to the characters and bringing them to life on the page since the world surrounding them (and the Scythedom) is rock solid and doesn’t need anymore attention. That was the biggest thing lacking from this book for me. Thunderhead does come out here in a few days and I may or may not run to get it. I haven’t decided but I am looking forward to seeing where this trilogy goes.