Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Horror, Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Dystopia, Young Adult
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: November 22, 2016
Hardcover: 448 Pages
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.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Arc of a Scythe series
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Hardcover
It is the future. Humanity has conquered illness and disease, age and decay. With the miracles of technology, anyone’s accidental stumble into oncoming traffic, their intentional jump off a building, their death by violence, illness, or dumb fate is no longer permanent. Thanks to a combination of nanites and impressive ambulatory measures under the auspices of an all-knowing artificial intelligence called “The Thunderhead”, humans have conquered poverty, racism, war, and death itself.
With old age, sickness, and death a relic of the past–the age of mortality–humanity must resort to other measures to ensure population control and self-governance.
So, the Scythes were created.
An organization completely independent of the Thunderhead, Scythes alone have the power to glean (that is, permanently kill). Scythes are not permitted to have spouses or children, they are not allowed to own any earthly possessions other than their robes, their immunity-granting rings, and their tools of destruction. Scythes follow a code of ten commandments and must meet a quota of death each year. No Scythe can glean any other Scythe; but a Scythe may self-glean, whenever he or she chooses.
This particular tale opens with two different MidMerican teenagers, sixteen-year olds Citra and Rowan, who are selected by Honorable Scythe Faraday, as his dual apprentices. Every Scythe finds his own way to glean, her own sense of justice and honor for those lives about to be ended–Faraday relies on statistics and patterns from the Age of Mortality, gleaning those who would have died in car accidents, drownings, and other such mundane occurrences. Under H.S. Faraday’s strict code of morality and empathy, Citra and Rowan learn the immense responsibility and heartache it takes to become a dealer of death–though only one of them will graduate from apprentice to Scythe, both take the lessons to heart.
Not all Scythes, however, are like Faraday. At the first Scythe Conclave, Citra and Rowan discover that complex politics and differing ideologies and personal agendas divide the Scythedom–some Scythes kill because they like it, contrary to everything that Faraday has taught them. When the pair of apprentices find themselves split apart by a tragic turn of fate, and pitted against one another in a competition to become an ordained Scythe, they must decide whether or not they will fall in line with the rest of the Scythedom, or if they will ignite the flames of change to burn it all down.
The first in a brand new series from National Book Award-winner Neal Shusterman, Scythe is a harrowing, poignant speculative fiction novel. Examining themes that range from the broadest questions (e.g. What does it mean to be human? What are we now if we cannot die?) to the most personal and specific (e.g. For narrators Citra and Rowan, how can I take someone’s life away forever?), Scythe is a rich examination of mortality, morality, and the meaning of life, when everyone lives in comfort forever.
In a different author’s hands, Scythe could have been a cheesy YA Dystopian star-crossed romance, full of longing sighs and prosaically smoldering exchanges; it could have been a literary adult novel with a dystopian-lite premise, full of self-conscious prose and excessive navel gazing. In Shusterman’s hands, Scythe is both YA dystopia and literary fiction, masterfully blending the best aspects of both genres while neatly sidestepping the trappings of both. Told in chapters alternating between Citra and Rowan’s third person narration, interspliced with journal entries from different Scythes throughout, Scythe never once falters in its heart, authenticity, or voice.
Citra Terranova is the first character we meet in the novel: an overachiever with a desire to prove herself right and question those around her, regardless of age of status. When she meets Scythe Faraday–who enters her family’s home to eat dinner before going next door to glean their neighbor–Citra is frightened but curious, and her blend of forthrightness and bravery pique the Scythe’s interest.
Rowan Damisch is the second narrator we meet: a boy who skims across the surface of life, who is overlooked by his parents who have their other children, but who feels very deeply. Scythe Faraday enters Rowan’s life when he comes to his high school with a mission to glean the school’s beloved quarterback–and instead of walking away from the gleaning, Rowan shows compassion and stays with his classmate through death.
These two characters challenge and compliment each other; they are pitted against each other in melodramatic fashion but never actually waver in their core beliefs (though they are tested sorely–Rowan, in particular). There is no sappy romance here, no cheesy dialogue or protracted melodrama. Instead, Rowan and Citra are driven by their desire to do right by the world, even if it means the end of their own lives and the Scythedom as they know it.
Beyond the characters, though, my favorite thing about this book is how complex and nuanced the moral questions and worldbuilding are. This is a utopian world: one where crime, poverty, and hate have been replaced with complacence and peace. In such a world, though, what becomes of humanity? When we have nothing to strive for, what do we become? In humans that have “turned the corner” (i.e. have been rejuvinated back to youth, but retain all of their memories and experiences) many times over, this can result in a weariness with the world. For those who are charged with the power of gleaning, it can mean an immense burden (as seen with Scythes Faraday and Curie), or a license to live to excess as Gods among Gods.
I loved this book. I was challenged by this book, I was entertained by this book, I was rendered speechless by this book. Scythe is one of my favorite reads of 2016 and will make my top 10 list for the year–I cannot wait to read the next novel in the series.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
The scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon. Citra was at the dining room table, slaving over a particularly difficult algebra problem, shuffling variables, unable to solve for X or Y, when this new and far more pernicious variable entered her life’s equation.
Guests were frequent at the Terranovas’ apartment, so when the doorbell rang, there was no sense of foreboding—no dimming of the sun, no foreshadowing of the arrival of death at their door. Perhaps the universe should have deigned to provide such warnings, but scythes were no more supernatural than tax collectors in the grand scheme of things. They showed up, did their unpleasant business, and were gone.
Her mother answered the door. Citra didn’t see the visitor, as he was, at first, hidden from her view by the door when it opened. What she saw was how her mother stood there, suddenly immobile, as if her veins had solidified within her. As if, were she tipped over, she would fall to the floor and shatter.
“May I enter, Mrs. Terranova?”
The visitor’s tone of voice gave him away. Resonant and inevitable, like the dull toll of an iron bell, confident in the ability of its peal to reach all those who needed reaching. Citra knew before she even saw him that it was a scythe. My god! A scythe has come to our home!
“Yes, yes of course, come in.” Citra’s mother stepped aside to allow him entry—as if she were the visitor and not the other way around.
He stepped over the threshold, his soft slipper-like shoes making no sound on the parquet floor. His multilayered robe was smooth ivory linen, and although it reached so low as to dust the floor, there was not a spot of dirt on it anywhere. A scythe, Citra knew, could choose the color of his or her robe—every color except for black, for it was considered inappropriate for their job. Black was an absence of light, and scythes were the opposite. Luminous and enlightened, they were acknowledged as the very best of humanity—which is why they were chosen for the job.
Some scythe robes were bright, some more muted. They looked like the rich, flowing robes of Renaissance angels, both heavy yet lighter than air. The unique style of scythes’ robes, regardless of the fabric and color, made them easy to spot in public, which made them easy to avoid—if avoidance was what a person wanted. Just as many were drawn to them.
The color of the robe often said a lot about a scythe’s personality. This scythe’s ivory robe was pleasant, and far enough from true white not to assault the eye with its brightness. But none of this changed the fact of who and what he was.
He pulled off his hood to reveal neatly cut gray hair, a mournful face red-cheeked from the chilly day, and dark eyes that seemed themselves almost to be weapons. Citra stood. Not out of respect, but out of fear. Shock. She tried not to hyperventilate. She tried not to let her knees buckle beneath her. They were betraying her by wobbling, so she forced fortitude to her legs, tightening her muscles. Whatever the scythe’s purpose here, he would not see her crumble.
“You may close the door,” he said to Citra’s mother, who did so, although Citra could see how difficult it was for her. A scythe in the foyer could still turn around if the door was open. The moment that door was closed, he was truly, truly inside one’s home.
He looked around, spotting Citra immediately. He offered a smile. “Hello, Citra,” he said. The fact that he knew her name froze her just as solidly as his appearance had frozen her mother.
“Don’t be rude,” her mother said, too quickly. “Say hello to our guest.”
“Good day, Your Honor.”
“Hi,” said her younger brother, Ben, who had just come to his bedroom door, having heard the deep peal of the scythe’s voice. Ben was barely able to squeak out the one-word greeting. He looked to Citra and to their mother, thinking the same thing they were all thinking. Who has he come for? Will it be me? Or will I be left to suffer the loss?
“I smelled something inviting in the hallway,” the scythe said, breathing in the aroma. “Now I see I was right in thinking it came from this apartment.”
“Just baked ziti, Your Honor. Nothing special.” Until this moment, Citra had never known her mother to be so timid.
“That’s good,” said the scythe, “because I require nothing special.” Then he sat on the sofa and waited patiently for dinner.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 9 – Damn near perfection. This book rekindled my love for the YA dystopian genre, and will absolutely make my shortlist of best books of 2016.
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