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Review: Arc of a Scythe series

Updated: May 19

4/5 stars

Scythe, Thunderhead, & The Toll, by Neal Shusterman (2016, 2018, 2019)

I'm going to start with a review of only the first book, Scythe, since you could definitely just read that one and feel like it comes to a satisfying conclusion.


Humanity has transcended death. There is no hunger, disease, or war. Everyone has everything they want and need, and the Thunderhead - a futuristic version of the Internet that has progressed into an all-powerful, all-knowing AI - makes sure of it. Humans now have "nanites" in the bloodstream that allow them to heal from most injuries (& feel no pain), and if they should die, they are brought back to life at a revival center.

But in a post-mortality world, population control is a problem. Attempts at colonization on other planets have failed, so scythes have been created. A scythe has sole control over permanent deaths. Scythes walk the earth with the sole purpose of "gleaning" - i.e., killing - people to help control the population, and the Thunderhead has no jurisdiction over them. Instead, each region has a Head Scythe, overseen by the the Supreme Blade and the World Scythe Council of Grandslayers.

So, you can't quite call this world dystopian... more of a utopia on the brink of dystopia? Because of course things go wrong. Some scythes take their responsibilities seriously, humbly gleaning without prejudice, but power-hungry, narcissistic, discriminatory factions have begun to grow, led by one particularly brutal man named Scythe Goddard. In the meantime, teenagers Citra and Rowan are chosen as apprentices to one of the "good ones" - Scythe Faraday. They must learn from him the "art" of killing.

I thought this one section was really poignant: Rowan is complaining of having had his healing nanites turned off so he could feel the pain of a beating, and says he felt plenty of joy before this, with his nanites on. Another character replies: "You felt some - but just a shadow of what it can be. Without the threat of suffering, we can't experience joy. The best we get is pleasantness." Which led me to ponder the power and importance of facing adversity. Is happiness hampered by the absence of pain and suffering? Would everything just become a vague, grey "pleasantness" if you don't have anything to measure your happiness against?

One other quote that gave me pause: Someone is beating on a door and when it's finally opened, they comment, "How could you not hear me knocking? Last I heard, no one's been deaf for two hundred years." Ah, yes. So, the eradication of disability as well. Is that the goal? What happens to Deaf culture? What happens to all cultures when diversity is removed?

I wish Shusterman had tackled these questions a little more, but truly, he does create a dynamic and fascinating world, with complex and fully-realized characters. And while the ending leaves the door open for more, it also comes to enough of a conclusion that you could stop there and be happy.

Continue reading only if you have finished Scythe...


Thunderhead and The Toll

I won't write too much since I don't want to spoil these two books at all. But if you've finished Scythe, you know that the Scythedom is divided... and has divided even further in the time between the end of Scythe and the beginning of Thunderhead. The rift between the "old guard" and the "new order" continues to grow, and there are more and more questions about how the Scythedom should be conducted.

Citra is now junior Scythe Anastasia, under the mentorship of Scythe Curie, and Rowan has gone rogue. Having left the mentorship of the hated Scythe Goddard, he now roams the continent disposing of corrupt scythes - killing, then burning their bodies so they cannot be revived - and taking on the nickname "Scythe Lucifer."

New characters are introduced including Greyson Tolliver, who has a special relationship with the Thunderhead, and Munira, who works at the Library of Alexandria, which houses all the scythes' journals. We get a deeper dive into the Tonist religion - those who shun the Scythedom and the Thunderhead, and believe in a holy resonance. We learn about those that don't fit into society - the "unsavories" that the Thunderhead allows to break the law, to a point, because it knows they need to express themselves that way. And finally, we learn more about experimental areas on Earth, like Texas, where the Thunderhead observes all but does not interfere in anyone's lives.

Thunderhead ends with a major cliffhanger so if you get that far, just keep going! The three books maintain intrigue, and all are written well, creative, and original. The world Shusterman creates is certainly not one I'd want to live in, but it's fascinating and thought-provoking to read about.

There is actually a fourth book called Gleanings, which is a collection of short stories set in the same world. The stories are written by Shusterman and six other authors. The description says that "Storylines continue. Origin stories are revealed. And new Scythes emerge." It does sound fun but I think I'm ready to move on to a different made -up world!


UP NEXT: Ink Blood Sister Scribe, by Emma Törzs

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