In a world where disease has been eliminated, the only way to die is to be randomly killed (“gleaned”) by professional reapers (“scythes”). Citra and Rowan are teenagers who have been selected to be scythe’s apprentices, and—despite wanting nothing to do with the vocation—they must learn the art of killing and come to understand the necessity of what they do.
Only one of them will be chosen as a scythe’s apprentice. And when it becomes clear that the winning apprentice’s first task will be to glean the loser, Citra and Rowan are pitted against one another in a fight for their lives.
The Premise of Neil Shusterman’s Scythe
Most science fiction and dystopian writers out there agree — in the future, humanity will have either colonized space and left our beleaguered Earth behind, or we’ll still be here, living in post-apocalyptic misery. Neil Shusterman, however, has come up with an alternative scenario in his latest book, Scythe.
Shusterman imagines that our Earth is saved due to our many advancements in technology. We’ve successfully stabilized our environment, eliminated war, and created an integrated, global community, all with the help of a benevolent AI, called the “Thunderhead.” The author’s biggest hook, however, is that humanity has cured death.
Obviously, such a massive medical innovation creates issues, population control being at the forefront. So because natural death is moot, people have now embraced unnatural death as an unpleasant necessity.
In this futuristic utopia, monastic men and women called “Scythes” are now in charge of who lives and dies. Scythes are greatly respected, but live as outcasts. So when our two teenage narrators, Citra and Rowan, are tapped to become apprentices of the Scythe they both stood up to, they meet the news with disgust and trepidation.
They’re given a choice, and they make it. They become the Scythe’s students. To their infinite surprise, it isn’t long before Citra and Rowan grow to love their teacher, the deeply honorable Scythe Faraday… but although Faraday tries to shield his pupils from the deviants within his profession, Citra and Rowan are soon entangled in the plot of a mass murderer and a political death game.
Shusterman Likes to Make Readers Question
Shusterman has a easily digestible writing style, which makes his books pleasant and fun to read. He also bulks up his plots with themes, which often deal with the future, technology, and life and death. When a younger teen I look after told me that he was reading Shusterman’s Unwind in his eighth grade English class, I wasn’t totally surprised. Shusterman’s books can appeal to that species known as “reluctant readers” and also eke out of them meaningful conversations about higher concepts.
I can see Scythe being a versatile book, like its predecessor Unwind. It will appeal to a wide range of readers and make them ponder certain questions. When we, as a civilization, advance, must we expect new issues to arise? Who should decide the answers to these ethical problems? And here’s a doozy, my favorite question that Scythe presents to us — Is unnatural death always wrong?
All these ponderments and more wait for readers within the pages of Scythe. Even better, Shusterman doesn’t have an obvious agenda at play in his book, but presents these questions with subtlety and suggestion.
Why Only Three Stars?
Most of all speculative fiction requires some suspension of disbelief. It’s part and parcel of the genre. This is especially true of fantasy books. For science fiction writers, however, it’s a point of pride to get as close to scientific reality as possible.
In Scythe, there are a handful of moments where Shusterman half-heartedly tries to make his technology seem realistic, but fails. This only offended me mildly, however, compared with the book’s many illogical events, inconsistencies, and impossibilities. The book’s plot and premise were riddled with holes.
I found it peculiar, in a novel where Shusterman so clearly wants us to think about things, that we’re expected to nod our heads and go along with these flaws of reason. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
Finally, I took issue with the total want of chemistry between our two main leads — Citra and Rowan. Their relationship, in whatever form, should have been the beating heart of the book. Instead, I’m disappointed to say that Shusterman phoned in his efforts on this front. An actual line from the book reads: “he was, in fact, attracted to her.”
Those familiar with writing craft have no doubt heard the adage, “show, don’t tell.” The idea is that merely telling the reader that a character feels something is far less emotionally resonant that demonstrating that feeling through descriptive suggestion.
This is why the line, “he was, in fact, attracted to her,” baffles me utterly. It’s so baldly unimaginative, and really is indicative of how human relationships are depicted within Scythe. For an author of Shusterman’s experience and acclaim, I expected better.
The Bottom Line
I was tempted to give Scythe a mere 2.5 stars, but ultimately decided upon three. For all of his faults, Shusterman knows how to write a well-paced and entertaining book that stimulates the mind with its thematic questions.
However, the plot holes within the story are impossible to overlook, and the cardboard emotions of Citra and Rowan do this book no favors.