As a librarian, I read a lot of young adult fiction. I also read about a lot of YA fiction, as who can read all of it? I grow pickier and pickier, in fact, about what books I am willing to spend time on. Especially YA speculative fiction; so much is redundant or reminiscent of something else. And all of the dystopias! I am, in fact, a fairly intense fan of dystopias as done well they are a sort of warning about where we are heading, but I think it takes a genius to write an innovative, profound, future-changing dystopia, and so I get annoyed at all of the merely good or even decent ones.
So the majority of YA books I read about ever make it to the list of the ones I actually read. And the ones that will linger with me—that list is even shorter.
But I think Neal Shusterman’s newest YA novel, Scythe, makes that list.
I loved his novel Unwind. It was one of the first books I read after becoming a librarian, and it helped me to have a better grasp of how to make recommendations to teenagers. Can we, as librarians, even talk about novels that grew out of the abortion debate? Turns out, we could. (We even nominated it for a CLAU award here in Utah.) But even better, it was a fantastic, thought-provoking novel with an ending scene I hope to never forget. (If you’ve read Unwind you know what I mean.) I didn’t ever read the rest of the series, mostly because for me the first book felt like enough, but I have admired Shusterman ever since.
And the second I read about Scythe I requested the library buy it, even before it was released.
In the world of the novel, humanity, with the help of a cognizant AE called the Thunderhead, has eliminated all human problems. Poverty, hunger, illness, environmental issues, war, accidents, pain, emotional trauma, even death (in all forms except for burning): humanity doesn’t experience these things anymore. To compensate, there is a group of scythes whose job it is to eliminate people based on quotes of age, race, and gender. This is necessary because without scythes, a population who can live forever, as well as being able to “turn back the clock” and have their bodies reset to a younger (and more fertile) age whenever they want, would eventually become too large for the earth to sustain.
The story is about Rowan and Citra, who have been chosen by Scythe Faraday to become apprentice scythes. As they learn the arts of reaping, they are also instructed in history, art, and philosophy, especially of the mortal time. The scythes follow a strict set of commandments, some based on who and how they can reap, some based on how they should think. As they go deeper into their training, they learn that not all scythes are stoic, ascetic people like Scythe Faraday; some take advantage of their position and work around the scythe commandments to gain wealth and power. Which kind of scythes will Citra and Rowan become?
While it has plenty of the earmarks of the YA speculative fiction genre (but not, thank goodness, a love triangle), Scythe turns all of them on their head by the ingenuity of the original idea. It plays fairly intensely, in fact, with the dystopia/utopia concept. The world is seemingly a utopia, a place of peace and happiness for everyone, but can it be sustained? The dark side always seems to be hovering, even if only the scythes sense it. And can one truly be happy, when all opposition has been removed? When time is limitless (except for the unlucky few who are gleaned each year) and there is no threat of death, how can life itself have any meaning?
I loved this book so much!
Not just for the story or the characters or the questioning of humanity, but also for Shusterman’s sheer brilliance in writing. The pacing is perfect, the tension never gets frustrating, and the transitions between Citra’s thoughts and Rowan’s are elegant. Each chapter begins with a page from the gleaning journals of the scythes, which they must write in every day, so not only do you meet the two main characters, you begin to know some of the scythes as well. The sheer narrative skill to make so many characters believable in that world was just…gah. So good.
When I finished it, I did stop to ask myself: is this one of those rare, genius, future-predicting dystopias? I’m not 100% sure, because I think the best dystopias are warnings: if we continuing following this path (biological science taken to its extreme in Brave New World; social apathy against anything that requires thought and effort followed all the way to Fahrenheit 451, for example) where will we end up? Scythe’s technology seems to try to answer this question: If we continue with digital everything and storing all our memories, literature, art, history, and scientific advancements with computer technology, how will that technology change to influence us? At the end of that path he finds a technology that is able to create a perfect human society, and then he warns us about the dangers of perfection. If I did have a grapple with this book, it is that basic concept, because I don’t have enough faith in humanity to think that the end of our path will lead to anything but our own destruction. It’s interesting, though, now that I think about it, that while I disagree with the major idea of possibility behind the book, it was so well-written that I agreed wholeheartedly to follow the story anyway.
Scythe was the last book I read in 2016, a year that didn’t hold many books I absolutely loved. But I did love this one. In fact, I think it is my second-favorite book this year, following closely behind Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle. It was memorable and powerful and so well-written I almost couldn’t stand it. My only regret is that I broke my read-no-unfinished-trilogies rule and, unlike Unwind, this definitely didn’t feel like enough. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. Hurry, Neal Shusterman. Write faster!