Scythe by Neal Shusterman

The Blurb On The Back:

Thou shalt kill.

What if death was the only thing left to control?

In a perfect world, the only way to die is to be gleaned by a professional scythe.  When Citra and Rowan are chosen to be apprentice scythes, they know they have no option but to learn the art of killing.  However, the terrifying responsibility of choosing their victims is just the start.

Corruption is the order of the day and Citra and Rowan need to stick together to fight it.

Then they are told that one of them will have to glean the other …

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s the future.  Technology has developed to the point that people live for ever, “resetting” when they want to appear younger or a specific age and get sent to a revival centre whenever they suffer an injury that should kill them.  Although the Thunderhead (an AI programme) governs society to ensure that resources are adequately distributed and people are generally looked after, it was recognised that it would be bad for humanity in the long term if people were able to just keep living forever.  To deal with the issue the Scythdom were created – a special community of humans who are allowed to ‘glean’ (i.e. permanently kill) humans according to certain criteria known only to them but who can also grant immunity from gleaning for set periods.

17-year-olds Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch don’t want to be scythes and have no desire to kill anyone but the Honourable Scythe Faraday identifies those qualities as being perfect to make them his apprentices.  He offers them a deal where they will train with him for a year, at the end of which the Conclave of Scythedom will choose one of them to become a scythe and the other will return to their normal life.  Each is certain that at the end of the year, they will want the other to win, but as Scythe Faraday trains them in how to select those for gleaning and the various ways of killing, they come to respect the terrible duties of a scythe.

Unfortunately, Scythedom is not without its internal politics and divisions and not all scythes think the way of Scythe Faraday.  It isn’t long before Citra and Rowan find themselves pawns in a deadly battle for control of the Conclave, one that changes the rules of their apprenticeship: now whoever is chosen to be a scythe, will have to glean the other …

Neal Shusterman’s YA SF novel (the first in a trilogy) is a gripping, action-packed read with vivid world-building (both technological and political) and interesting, proactive protagonists but it’s marred by an unnecessary and unconvincing romance and the pacing becomes very rushed in the final quarter, although none of this prevents me from wanting to read the sequel.

Citra and Rowan are both interesting characters who have their own individual plot arcs and their own personalities (Rowan is compassionate and caring, Citra outspoken and challenging).  I specifically enjoyed how they’re each informed by their family backgrounds (Citra from a stable, loving family; Rowan is the ‘lettuce’ in his family – never noticed) and how that in turn affects their relationship with the caring Farraday.  However, I was disappointed that Shusterman decided to push them into an obligatory romance because there isn’t any real romantic chemistry between them on the page and I felt that it would have been more convincing for a genuine friendship to have developed between the two partly because Citra isn’t shown as having any real friendships while Rowan grows apart from his best friend Tyger and partly their shared experience of being apprentice scythes gives them common ground and would have leant a poignancy to their predicament.

The world-building is great.  Shusterman has given a lot of thought to his world where death has essentially been conquered and I enjoyed the ways he shows the implications of this from kids like Tyger who deliberately kill – or splat – themselves for kicks to families who find themselves extended multiple times as people reset their ages and get married numerous times, creating more children.  I also enjoyed the way he shows the impact of the scythes on society as they represent real and permanent death, with people either trying to curry their favour to win immunity or trying not to interact with them at all.  The Thunderhead doesn’t get a lot of page time but it’s a fascinating concept – essentially the cloud meets the singularity – and the separation of Thunderhead and Scythedom creates an interesting tension that I hope will be explored further.  The internal politics of the Scythedom are a little bald, in part because Shusterman seems more interested in exploring what happens when sociopaths find themselves admitted to the Scythedom but the tensions between those who hold to the ideals of Scythedom and those who are more ambitious again give rise to interesting potential for the forthcoming books.

For the first three quarters of the book the pacing is very good – Shusterman combines action with conspiracy and world-building to good effect, combining a number of different plot strands – but in the final quarter events start to get rushed, e.g. Citra rushes from country to country in an effort to uncover a conspiracy, which, for me, took away some of the tension.

Despite my nitpicks, I did find this a gripping read that kept me turning the pages and I will definitely check out the sequel.

Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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