Scythe (Arc of a Scythe #1) by Neal Shusterman (2016)
YA Fiction | Sci-Fi | Dystopia
“Thou shalt kill.
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.”
pooled ink Review:
I really hadn’t heard much about this book so I had no idea what to expect but I had a giftcard and the blurb sounded awesome so I decided to go for it. Well, overall I so loved this book, but it is one of those books that you have to commit to. The more you read the more you’ll get wrapped up in its story and once you pass that halfway-mark things really start to escalate until you’re spinning into the excellently epic ending. I was intrigued enough to keep going but I’ve heard some other people grumble and give up. Don’t.
Gleaning is necessary…It only seemed terrible now that he was the one lined up in the cold crosshairs of death.”
-businessman in seat 15C
I love books that have some totally radical ruling philosophy that dictates a society and have it actually manage to convince me. I mean, yeah, it’s crazy, but it’s written cleverly enough to make sense. Which is probably concerning.
You end up walking side by side with Citra and Rowan as they wrestle with the whole ideology up close. Life drops them off at death’s doorstep to become apprentices to the Scythes. Their struggles with this life, a reality that most hold at arm’s length, and what it means for their new place in the world is gripping. And the future that Scythe Anastasia and Scythe Lucifer aim to forge will be historic.
On one hand it’s ludicrous to condone a group whose sole purpose is to methodically “glean” the population (in other words they’re legally sanctioned murderers) and yet their function is easily defendable and arguably necessary. It’s far from holy but it’s undeniably a logical solution despite how unpleasant it may be. The story does a good job balancing the twisted insanity of it with the rationality behind it. Neither Citra nor Rowan desire to become a Scythe but as Scythe Faraday tells them, that is precisely the first requirement for becoming one. Or at least it should be.
So basically this story takes place in a future version of Earth where there is no more government, just an AI overlord that disproves every popular doomsday sci-fi theory. It’s called the Thunderhead (an evolved form of the Cloud) and it is incorruptible. It sees all and rules all, except for the Scythedom. The result is a highly technologically advanced society that eradicates death and establishes equality – essentially a utopia of immortals.
Of course without the villain to fight then what is left for the hero? Or vice versa? In other words this new perfect world is boring. When life is not a question, death shrinks from inevitable to a simple unlikely chance encounter. Murder is of the past and gleaning is a job of the future.
“Never lose your humanity or you’ll be nothing more than a killing machine.”
“Take great satisfaction and pleasure in this, Rowan, or you’ll be nothing more than a killing machine.”
Up/Down, Left/Right, White/Black, Light/Darkness, Good/Bad, Life and Death. A world of opposites is a world of balance. Without light then what is darkness? It would no longer be the absence of light for light has ceased to exist. It has been removed from the equation entirely. So what is goodness without evil to compare it to? Or to hit closer to the world in this book: What is life without death? Well…it’s a problem, sure and simple. No one wants to die but no one can live forever. At least, not everyone.
It’s a very good point though. You cannot open humanity to immortality while still able to procreate. If you let that go on soon there’ll be nothing but standing room only and less than that soon after. The earth won’t get bigger but the population certainly will. Death is a natural and necessary function. So without nature to uphold this duty, the Scythes maintain the balance.
Told in a third person narrative that bounces back and forth between many lives but namely the lives and thoughts of two characters in particular: Citra and Rowan. Plus each chapter is prefaced/concluded with an excerpt from the journal of a Scythe (usually H.S. Curie). As I mentioned before, we follow Citra and Rowan during their apprenticeship to become Scythes and it is through their eyes that we philosophize and unravel this place the world has become.
Without the crutch of a higher power. I am the highest power I know, and I like it that way.
–From the gleaning journal of H.S. Goddard
A morally ambiguous story indeed, it explores the impossibility of crafting a perfect world, or eradicating the faults of humans. You can conquer genetics, you can conquer death itself, but you cannot create perfection for perfection is an abstract and ever-evolving concept. It is a moving finish line. It’s like trying to reach the edge of the horizon. To eradicate evil and imperfection is a feat humans will have to eventually admit is a feat beyond their power.
The thing is, no matter how perfect a utopia the Thunderhead has created, Scythes, which are humans, perform the gleanings and thus remains a fatal flaw. A loose thread which, if left alone, will unravel slowly. And if pulled, could destroy everything.
People tend to truly underestimate the YA genre. This book is exciting and catchy and features two teenagers as the story’s lead characters, but conceptually this book digs deeper than many adult books I’ve snoozed through. YA can handle any subject or idea that adult books can, heavy or light, but they seem to do it with a far better ability to capture interest.
They often excel at mixing the catchy intrigue of Hollywood blockbusters with the philosophical, societal, and psychological concepts of the world around us. It doesn’t get too heady and it doesn’t get too daft. Not all YA books obviously, but the good ones become best sellers for a reason…usually. Ha.
Numb. Rowan could feel himself growing numb—and while it might have been a good thing for his beleaguered sanity, it was not a good thing for his soul…Yet this great plain of numbness was not the worst place to be. Numbness was a mere purgatory of gray. No, there was a much worse place. Darkness masquerading as enlightenment.
Okay, so for this book I was really intrigued by the concept and I was so into the story, but it wasn’t a book that kept me seated unable to move until I’d finished the whole thing from start to finish. It was really good, no doubt, but it was the sort of book I kept picking up and putting down and picking up and…etc. Until the last 100 pages or so when I just couldn’t tear my eyes away! Oh, also, a plus in my opinion is that even though it’s marked as a series this book could totally be read as a standalone with a slightly open ending. It gives you the option of being content with the mystery or curious enough to continue.
A lot of exciting things happen in this book, loads of gut-wrenching plot twists, and a lot of death as well, but I wouldn’t quite classify it as an adventure or action novel. I’m 100% certain if it were adapted as a film it would certainly be such, but as a book it thrilled the philosophizing mind just a tiny bit more than the beating heart. Except for some truly awesome scenes (BASICALLY THOSE LAST 5 OR SO CHAPTERS!! OMG!! FIRE! ROWAN! CITRA! AHHH!!!).
Oh and also except for GODDARD. Boy, did he get my heart rate up! [random: I wonder if he chose his name for the rocket scientist or the psychologist?]
Scythe Goddard is one of those rare characters who actually succeeds in filling me with visceral fury. He is just the WORST. I loathe characters who just won’t stop being the utter WORST! I mean he’s a good character technically [reluctant eye-roll and grumpy huff] so I suppose hats off to the author for that, but oooooooh I really hate him and his silly sparkly robes. Sometimes it got to the point that I had to put the book down and watch something like Friends to cool off. I swear this reaction doesn’t happen that often for me and I’m honestly rather surprised it happened at all.
I wonder if my hatred for Goddard would be quite as ferocious if he were not posing as a person of high morals and duty? If he claimed no such grounds, guidelines, laws, or principles, would he simply be another villain in a story? He never pretended to be humble or modest, but his views were just so… The Scythedom is supposed to be above pettiness, corruption, selfishness, and bias. They are to glean with compassion and calculation. They are to live simply, owning nothing more than the barest of needs besides their robe, ring, and journal. The people are to put their trust and faith in them. And Goddard pisses on it all. (When I read the line: “I need a new pool boy.” (chapter 16) I literally threw the book across the room)
He abuses his position and twists every well-intentioned meaning in the Ten Commandments of the Scythes. He is psychotic. He loves killing, but in a perfect world should he not be free to do what he loves? Ugh, the answer is No, Goddard. Not when you’re crazy.
But enough of that pestiferous bejeweled abomination.
This book kept me captivated with every page I read and with every twist my intrigue only grew. Both Citra and Rowan are such dynamic characters, it’s evident from their start that they would shake the world. A certain death really kicks off the action and as I held my head, eyes wide at the storming future, my breath all but stopped when certainties shook apart in a bloodbath of fire and I could hardly drag in air until I read the final page. If you feel like the beginning is a bit slow then stick with it because O M G. It’s definitely a book that might gain more points the more I muse over it or when I get around to giving it another read.
Scythe is a creative and utterly intriguing exploration of a dystopian society taken from a unique angle not yet beaten to death in the YA genre. Filled with gut-sinking twists and controversial ideologies that’ll give a philosopher mental whiplash, this book presents a future both within grasp and past the cliff of impossibility. With a heart-stopping conclusion, be ready for a book of inevitable chaos that holds you captivated in its steely gaze.
P.S. Okay, I have a question for the Scythedom though. If you have the ability to give a person a pill that when bitten instantaneously and painlessly ends their life then why the hell are the Scythes being trained and given the option to use knives, swords, guns, fire, electrocution, and a number of FAR more painful and awful ways to end lives? If the purpose for gleaning is strictly for the good of population control then why not make it quick and painless??? I understand Faraday’s argument of trying to imitate the death statistics of the mortal world, and apparently all Scythes “choose their own path” or whatever, but really that seems silly. It sounds like an invitation for psychos like Goddard to have a sick party. I’ll let it slide though, because I suppose it does make the book more exciting and allows the whole can of worms and corruption to explode but if this were to be a real debate then that’s my two-cents [shrugs].
Purchase here: Scythe
Similar Recommended Reads: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bowman, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Meet Neal Shusterman!
Award-winning author Neal Shusterman grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he began writing at an early age. After spending his junior and senior years of high school at the American School of Mexico City, Neal went on to UC Irvine, where he made his mark on the UCI swim team, and wrote a successful humor column. Within a year of graduating, he had his first book deal, and was hired to write a movie script.
In the years since, Neal has made his mark as a successful novelist, screenwriter, and television writer.
Neal Shusterman lives in Southern California with his children Brendan, Jarrod, Joelle, and Erin, who are a constant source of inspiration!