Scythe

scythe

Scythe was written by Neal Shusterman and first published in 2016. It’s a science fiction novel with horror elements that is set in a world where humans have conquered death and old age. The book forms the first part of a planned series, though at the time of writing no future instalments have been announced.

There is no one alive who remembers the Age of Mortality – the time when the world was dangerous and the tiniest slip could result in death. People now have the power to live forever, resetting back as far as their early twenties whenever they felt the touch of old age. However, death is required in order to keep down the population. The service is performed by the Scythes – an order of men and women who are permitted to “glean” the chosen – taking their life for the good of all.

When there becomes a need for more Scythes to be ordained, Honourable Scythe Faraday takes it upon himself to train two apprentices – Citra and Rowan. Both of the teenagers are taken from different walks of life and neither is keen to don the cloak and ring of Scythe. Yet this is for the best. Faraday believes that a good Scythe is one that does not want to burden. A Scythe that enjoys killing is nothing more than a mmurderer.

Yet taking on two apprentices is unheard of and not all of Faraday’s colleagues are impressed. It is decided that only one of his students is to become a Scythe and their first task will be to glean the loser. Citra and Rowan began their apprenticeship as allies but soon find themselves as rivals, torn between their friendship and desire to survive…

While Shusterman is a very highly regarded author, I must admit that this is the first of his novels that I’ve read. And I’m glad of that. Based on Scythe alone, I certainly want to take a look at more of his work. The setting of the story is original and intriguing. The world feels like it should be a utopia – a place where people no longer fear death because they are functionally immortal. No matter what injuries they sustain, they are quickly seized by “ambudrones” and flown to a facility where they can be restored. Because of this, the concept of temporary oblivion seems quaint to some (such as the “splatters” who hurl themselves off buildings for kicks) and murder is not considered a crime (you can push someone under a train in anger but in a few days they’ll be right as rain).

Yet, while the book is filled with nice ideas, Shusterman’s world building still seemed to be a bit hazy in places. Descriptions in the novel (beyond the colour of each Scythe’s cloak) seemed to be a bit lacking and so I never did figure out the level of technology. The novel implies that the book is set around three hundred years in the future, yet the world didn’t seem that different from our own. Unique concepts such as the Thunderhead and the process of “resetting” were also never fully explained. While I did grasp what they were, I didn’t understand how exactly they worked. Yet the basic idea of a world where the immortal population is controlled by legalised murder is a fascinating one, especially for its ethical implications.

This is an area that Shusterman really does focus on, especially in the journal entries that begin every chapter. At first, these excerpts are all written by Honourable Scythe Curie – a member of the old-guard who is highly jaded concerning the way that younger Scythes treat their power – yet as the novel progresses there are occasional excerpts from the diaries of other characters who hold opposing world views. Through these, the novel applies concepts such as the afterlife, moral culpability, and the corruptive nature of power in a way that is relevant to the story.

In terms of plot, I did find the novel to be a little slow-burning in places. While it was a tense read (and not as grim as you would imagine), the actual story did take a long time to kick in. While the “competition” between Citra and Rowan is mentioned in the blurb, it is not actually introduced until over a third of the way into the book and its impact isn’t truly felt until the final act. Yet, despite its sedate pacing, Scythe never seemed to drag. It was a very unpredictable read, filled with plenty of twists, turns and sudden deaths. I won’t say too much more about it here as I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I found the ultimate conclusion to be highly satisfying. Up until the final chapters, I didn’t even have any idea of which character would succeed!

The ending of the story was fairly tight and did a good job of tying up loose ends. This novel would have stood alone pretty well, were it not for the inclusion of a final journal entry which inferred the sudden emergence of a new villain – one who was not even hinted at previously in the story. Personally, this was the only thing in  that really disappointed me. Scythe was a pretty solid read up to this point but the final sting just felt like a cheap way to hook the reader into buying the next book, something that felt entirely unnecessary.

Yet the only place I felt that the novel did fall down was in its characterisation. I just didn’t feel as though Citra and Rowan received enough character development on page. The book had a tendency towards exposition, with months passing between chapters and a lot of the training (particularly for Citra) not being shown. Due to the lack of interaction between the characters after a certain point, I never truly felt for their situation. I liked them both, but unfortunately not to the degree that I especially cared which one of them survived.

The secondary cast were also varied. While Faraday and Curie were both very deep and interesting, particularly as Citra began to discover about both of their pasts, Goddard and his crew made for shallow villains and their overall scheme, while initially stoking my curiosity, was ultimately somewhat mundane. I also didn’t really feel that the historical names taken by the Scythes were used as effectively as they could have been. They never seemed to suit the characters, even in an ironic sense, which seemed to be a bit of a missed opportunity.

However, all in all, I did really enjoy this novel and will definitely review its sequel. It also made me curious to take a look at some of Shusterman’s earlier work, which I hope show the same originality and complexity as this one.

Scythe can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Sobeks 2016 – Part 4 | Arkham Reviews

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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