Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, Book 1) - Neal Shusterman


Summary:  Thou Shalt Kill.  

A world with no hunger. No disease. No war. No misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death.  Now scythes are the only ones who can end life -- and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe -- a role that neither wants.  These teens must mater the "art" of taking life, knowing that the consequences of failure could mean losing their own. They learn living in a perfect world only comes with a heavy price. 

A Prince Honor Book, Scythe is the debut of a thrilling new series by National Book Award-winning author Neal Shusterman.  (Summary from back of book - Image from

My Review:  Dystopian fiction is my jam.  I love reading about messed-up societies parading around as utopia and the perspectives of ordinary people who fight against the imposed social construct.  Scythe is most definitely dystopian fiction, but it takes a different tack.  Citra and Rowan live in a world where natural death has been virtually eliminated and sanctioned killers called scythes operate outside the standard laws to manage the population. Messed up? Certainly.  However, Citra and Rowan aren't part of the noble resistance; they are scythes-in-training, would-be professional assassins destined to wield instruments of death on an unsuspecting population.  In a sense, they are the bad guys...or are they?

Scythe creates an emotional conflict within the reader, which I love/hated.  Our society at large seems to have revised the rulebook in recent years, especially in regards to when it is acceptable to end a human life, but in general we still frown on out-right murder, which is what makes the story so unsettling. Obviously in a futuristic society where death is infrequent, population control would be a natural concern.  It makes a kind of sense that there would need to be a way to end life to prevent overcrowding.  Enter the Scythes, seen by some as a holy order, chosen to perform a sacred sacrament -- the ending of a life.   And yet, within the Scythedom there are those who have distorted the calling, and become greedy, sadistic, and corrupt, showing favoritism and killing for their own nefarious purposes.  So, in Scythe there are bad guys and then there are bad guys.  When faced with a greater threat, it becomes a lot easier to root for the lesser of the two.   

It was interesting to read Citra and Rowan's perspectives, each reluctant to be part of a world that centers around death, but pulled in different directions and yet toward a common goal.  Their stories mirror one another for part of the book but eventually they separate and have unique experiences.  Both characters are likeable in their own ways, which made it incredibly difficult pick a 'right' side when they were thrown into competition.  In a lot of ways, I was never able to choose.   

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the included 'excerpts' from the journals of more seasoned scythes.   Most of the regular text follows Citra or Rowan, but the journal entries, offered an invaluable glimpse into the beliefs and motivations of other characters and helped establish a sense of who they were.  They provided additional context and evocative ideas that enhanced the story, but occasionally felt like a commentary on our own society, as well. 

For most of this book, I wasn't sure if I was going to continue reading the series.  I liked the basic premise and characters, but felt torn by the obviously controversial subject matter.  The ending solidified things in my mind and I put the next two books in the series (Thunderhead and Toll) on hold at the library.  Without spoiling things, that says something.  However, you'll notice that I didn't buy them outright, which says something as well.  In short, I am hopeful but not yet sold.  Time will tell.

My Rating:  3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This book is about a society where certain people have been selected to kill other people in any way they see fit.  So, there's that.  Some methods of execution are bloodless, while others are not.  The more violent deaths are not overly graphic or gory (no descriptions of brain matter, viscera, spurting blood, or excessive sensory details, etc.) but people die throughout the book.  There is no sex in the book nor are there any sexual themes, other than some mild attraction between characters.  There are 2-3 instances of profanity (of the A and G-d variety).

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