“Immortality has turned us all into cartoons.”
What would you do if you were chosen to be the apprentice to a State-sanctioned killer? Neal Shusterman’s novel Scythe explores this and many other aspects of morality in the age of immortality.
The book takes place in the far future, when humanity has conquered natural causes of death, and advanced technology to the point of immortality. Humans have given control of society to a sentient computer system known as The Thunderhead. The Thunderhead benignly controls all aspects of society except one: The Scythes. They are an independent organization that is tasked with the burden of death.
Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch are two teenagers from vastly different upbringings with one thing in common: The Honorable Scythe Faraday, for the first time, selected both of them to be his apprentices after seeing how they each handle a “gleaning,” the process in which a Scythe chooses someone to kill. Scythe follows Citra and Rowan on their reluctant journeys to Scythedom, and all the politics, intrigue, and horror that this entails.
This is not the first of Shusterman’s novels I’ve read, and his gift for world-building and storytelling using multiple narratives is not something new to me, but it is on full display with Scythe. Written as a Utopian society, rather than the fashionable dystopian YA novels crowding the shelve, Scythe still feels like a world I’d rather not live in. On the surface, everything is perfect: There is a base income, everyone has food, a job if they want one, crime is near non-existent (except the petty crime the Thunderhead allows), and nanites in your blood do everything from heal wounds to balance moods. The cost of immortality, however, seems to be a lack of purpose or meaning in life. With no finite amount of time (that you know of), and nanintes not allowing you to feel any extreme emotions, people in a post-mortal world seem to simply be coasting.
“People used to die naturally. Old age used to be a terminal affliction, not a temporary state. There were invisible killers called “diseases” that broke the body down. Aging couldn’t be reversed, and there were accidents from which there was no return. Planes fell from the sky. Cars actually crashed. There was pain, misery, despair. It’s hard for most of us to imagine a world so unsafe, with dangers lurking in every unseen, unplanned corner. All of that is behind us now, and yet a simple truth remains: People have to die.”
It’s hard to review and discuss this book without giving away any spoilers. I read this book for my “YA for Adults” book club, which has often introduced me to amazing (Between Shades of Grey), absurd (Grasshopper Jungle), and awful books I would have never thought to otherwise pick up. Scythe belongs in the first category. I love Shusterman’s writing style, but after the glut of YA dystopian novels that followed The Hunger Games, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to read another. Thankfully, I had no choice!
The people who inhabit this “perfect” disease-disaster-and-death-free world can no longer relate to the intense emotions that are needed to create, but we as readers are fortunate enough to be able to feel. The story is told from multiple perspectives, both in real time and through excerpts from the journals of different Scythes and it’s not surprising that the beings who are closest to death also have the most life. It’s even less of a surprise that, in a world where the only organization that is still run by humans is the only one rife with scheming and corruption.
The book is full of twists, and Citra and Rowan are a couple of kick ass characters, and that’s not even getting into the Honorable Scythes Faraday, Curie, and Goddard. The Scythes have ten commandments, but otherwise are not bound to any laws, and while they’re all killers, the methods of killing go from quick and merciful to downright brutal. You can’t help but read this book and ask yourself “What if this were real? Where would I stand?,” because even some of the most reprehensible characters make some really good points about their place in the world, and the role death should have in a society, and even the “good guys” are people who have spent hundreds of years literally killing people. The only people who are allowed to become Scythes are the ones who don’t want the job, but everyone understands the reason Scythes have to exist, and even the most reluctant Scythes take pride in their work, while others take a horrific glee in it.
I loved this book. I loved the world building and the moral ambiguity surrounding it. I said “Holy shit” more than once while reading. It’s brutal and extremely violent, so it’s not for the faint of heart, but the characters are well-rounded and the story has enough twists to keep it interesting. There are times when the pacing slows down a bit, but overall it’s a quick read, and without the angsty star-crossed lovers trope that exists in most YA books. Yes, there are hints of romance, there are moments, but they do not permeate the entire book, nor is the romance a major focus in the story. I also really appreciate that the Thunderhead isn’t the “Evil A.I.” villain in the story, which is a nice change of pace, and I immediately downloaded the book’s sequel, Thunderhead, when I finished reading.
Suffice it to say that this book both caters to the What If The Future Were (insert horrible possibility here) audience while subverting the genre. It is a breath of fresh air in a category that can be a bit repetitive and trite and absolutely worth a read.
If you’re ready to dive into Shusterman’s world, you can buy a copy of Scythe here!