Friday, May 11, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: Scythe by Neal Shusterman

I am once again extremely late to the party for a YA series that many have been excited about since the first book came out in November 2016. Scythe (Arc of a Scythe #1) is the first in what will be a three-book series by Neal Shusterman. The second book, Thunderhead, already came out earlier this year and will be making a DSN appearance in June for YA Fest. My explanation for just now getting to this book is simple: I avoided it. I read the synopsis, and decided that it would be too much for me. But then I saw that Shusterman was scheduled to appear at the 6th Annual San Antonio Book Festival, and after hearing him speak, I felt like he was the kind of writer I could trust. 

The Situation: It is the distant future, though no one knows exactly how distant, as the human race lost the need to number the years once death ceased to be a natural thing. There is no more hunger, or disease, or war, or misery; everyone can live forever. Of course, if everyone did live forever, while more people are still being born, Earth would become desperately overcrowded, so the Scythedom was created. With every need they could possibly have taken care of, and death taken almost completely out of the equation, humans fear very little and are not motivated to do much. The only exception is when a Scythe is spotted in the vicinity, as anyone can be gleaned at any moment, including children.  The Scythes are the only people allowed to "glean" other humans as a means of population control. Those who are picked for the job are chosen carefully, and must undergo a year of training and several tests before they are ordained. This year, Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch are two of the newest apprentices.

The Problem: To be chosen to study under the Honorable Scythe Farady is no small thing. Though neither Citra nor Rowan had any previous desire to be a Scythe, such an aversion actually makes them a suitable choice, and having Scythe Farady as their mentor certainly works in their favor. Unfortunately, even the Scythedom is not immune to the petty politics of an organization run by humans, and those who wish to cause trouble decide to object to Scythe Faraday having two apprentices instead of one. The discussion ends with Citra and Rowan's apprenticeship being tagged with a critical stipulation, one that will be upheld despite it being unprecedented and unnecessary. Training to essentially become an expert in taking life is hard enough, but now the two pupils must compete against each other for their very lives.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in a future where years are no longer numbered, but instead are named after animals. People can now live forever, unless a Scythe gleans them, and they are ruled only by Thunderhead, which is essentially what we know of as the Cloud, but much more powerful. Technology has finally achieved the sentience that science fiction writers had warned us about, only Thunderhead is not evil and has no desire to turn against us, or use us for its own aims. It provides everything we could ever need, and this goes beyond simple clothing, shelter, and food. Thunderhead also holds all knowledge, and has made it easily accessible to anyone who wishes to know...well...anything. The only thing Thunderhead stays away from is the Scythedom, who live by their own rules and govern themselves. If a Scythe appears to be showing bias, either in their gleaning or in their granting of immunity, they are punished as the Scythedom sees fit. It is not a perfect system, and removing death as a primary threat has not made for a perfect society. Most things that humans do are useless and unnecessary endeavors, as Thunderhead can provide anything ever needed. What do humans strive for after everything is given to them? And is someone whose job it is to take life, even in the name of aiding society, anything more than a killer?

My Verdict: I was incredibly afraid that I was going to end up in another Strange the Dreamer type situation where after reading the first book, I had to make the ugly decision not to continue with the second and subsequent ones. But it turns out I was right to feel like I could trust Shusterman after hearing him speak at the San Antonio Book Festival. Make no mistake: this book is intense, and troubling, and it describes a world that honestly disturbs me. Given a choice between the world I know and the one Shusterman described where death and disease and war and famine are no longer a thing, I actually find myself choosing my present reality, as messed up as it is. And while the two main characters of Citra and Rowan are thankfully easy on the nerves as well as easy to root for, the trials they go through are nerve-wracking and brutal and painful and sometimes cruel. Even so, this is a great book and another wonderful addition to the dystopian YA collection.

Favorite Moment: The word "favorite" does not really fit how I feel about this scene, but it is certainly the one that sticks out in my mind the most and had the biggest effect on me. There is a moment early on in the book where a man sitting in an airplane, waiting for take-off, sees a group of Scythes walk onto the plane. Only when he notices one of the stewardesses running away from the plane does he begin to understand what is happening. 

Favorite Character: Scythe Faraday is a character in the tradition of Atticus Finch or Jean Val Jean, or even Gandalf. His mere presence makes you feel as if everything is going to be okay. 

Recommended Reading: Speculative fiction is fun. Or at least it can be. I recommend Nnedi Okorafor's Binti series as a follow-up.        

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