“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.”
― Neal Shusterman,
Scythe by Neal Shusterman is set in a near perfect world. Death has been conquered, crime has been abolished, and the concept of government has become obsolete. Humanity is now ruled by the Thunderhead, a compassionate, all knowing and sentient being that formed from the data uploaded by the people of earth to the internet (it’s pretty much Google – but a very kind, caring, Google who wants to protect and nurture humankind). There is only one problem left in the world: overpopulation. Medicine has advanced to the point where all diseases have been cured, and death is literally reversible. Humans need no longer even grow old. They can simply “turn the corner” once they reach an undesirable age, and their body reverts back to the age of their choosing. The Thunderhead has done it’s best to cater to the planet’s ever growing population, but it only has so much space to work with, thus the order of the Scythes was created. The Scythes exist outside the jurisdiction of the Thunderhead and it is their job to cull the human population; they literally have a license to kill. Some do so humanely, choosing to “glean” victims who have grown tired of immortality. Others are far less compassionate, choosing to kill with flamethrowers, bask in celebrity, and find joy in the act of murder. Our story focuses on two young apprentice Scythes, Citra and Rowan. We follow them as they learn the art of kill craft and decide which kind of Scythe they hope to become.
The first thing I want to talk about is the setting of the book – personally I was absolutely fascinated by the idea of a near perfect society. Dystopian themed YA books tend to feature futures in which humanity has suffered a great setback. Either there’s Mad Max style chaos and anarchy, or a totalitarian government in which the population is strictly controlled (e.g. The Hunger Games, or The Divergent Series). Here we have something completely different – a flawless and benevolent ruler who has created an almost utopia. Though humans do face the possibility of being chosen for gleaning by a Scythe, the likelihood of that happening is stated to be only 1 in 5000. So that’s 4999/5000 people who get to live forever. The impact that immortality has had on the minds of the people of MidMerica (the region in which Scythe is set) was one of the most interesting elements of the book. We have little girls pushing each other in front of busses out of bad temper, teenagers throwing themselves off twenty story buildings for an adrenaline rush, and adults having sprawling, twenty children families. Ultimately, the setting and it’s implications was what most drew me in to Scythe. MidMerica is a unique setting and it definitely got me thinking.
While Shusterman shows a great deal of skill in world building and crafting a fast paced adventure filled story, I do feel he could have spent more time on character relationships and development. Scythe features two POV characters, Citra and Rowan, and honestly I felt like I knew very little about their natures by the end of the book. Both were chosen to be apprentice Scythes by their mentor Scythe Faraday because of their high moral fibre. Thus, we know both Citra and Rowan are good people who are determined to use their status as Scythes to make the world a better place. However, we don’t learn a lot about their actual personalities. Citra is ambitious, resourceful and loves her brother Ben fiercely, but does she have any hobbies? Friends? Opinions of her own? I really don’t know. Rowan is even more of a blank canvas. Other than his desire to do “the right thing” and generally be a good person, I don’t think he had any significant character traits. Through out the book he was calm, amicable, and easily influenced . . . Honestly he was a boring character. Even when his story arc got interesting (not to mention, dangerous and suspenseful), he stayed boring, continuing to show no sense of humour, passion, or emotion.
The weakest point of Scythe is arguably the relationship between Rowan and Citra. As you can probably guess, Scythe Faraday’s decision to choose two hormonal teenagers as apprentices and have them live under the same roof lead to a blossoming romance. However, this romance was completely devoid of spark and chemistry. Here’s a description of their first kiss.
Then to his surprise, she lurched forward and kissed him, catching him completely off guard. “There,” she said. “We’ve done it. Now it’s out of the way and you can leave.”
I mean, where’s the intensity?! The fireworks?? Who the hell says “now it’s out of the way” after a first kiss? I don’t need melodrama or Sarah J Maas style chapter long sex scenes, but I do feel that no romance at all would be better than the lack lustre relationship between Rowan and Citra. The two have so few scenes alone together, that it’s hard to see how they even formed a friendship. Yet, by the end of the book *mild spoiler* we’re expected to believe they’re in love?! Given the pair had maybe two conversations without Scythe Faraday around in the entire book, I would expect them to be comrades at best.
After all that criticism, you may be surprised to hear that ultimately, I really enjoyed Scythe. The world building was great, and the book was packed full of twists and turns that kept me on the edge of my seat. Despite Rowan’s dull personality, I felt entertained for the entire time I was reading Scythe. I think it would make a great movie; there’s so much action and adventure, and the characters aren’t particularly complex, so they’d translate to cinema easily. If I were to rate Scythe purely on entertainment value, I’d give it five stars, easily. However, I didn’t feel able to relate to the main characters on an emotional level at all. Though Rowan was in quite a few life threatening situations, at no point did I care whether he lived or died. And while I liked Citra, I didn’t love her. I just didn’t know enough about her to become attached to her character. So while Scythe is definitely a good book, for me it fell just short of being great.
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