Review by Juhyun Tony Bae
Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016
435 pages, paperback, $15.99 CAD, 978-1-442-47242-6
Ages 14+, Grades 9-12
Young Adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Rowen’s head was swimming. The smell of blood and the smoke pouring in through the shattered windows made him dizzy and muddled his thoughts. The curate looked no different than the strangers he practiced on every day—and for a moment, he felt himself out on the lawn in the middle of a killcraft exercise. Rowan unsheathed his sword and stalked forward, feeling the hunger, living in the moment, just as Goddard had said, and allowing himself to feel that hunger was freeing in a way Rowan couldn’t describe.
If you like reading sci-fi/fantasy you’re probably familiar with stories that grapple with immortality—you might even find the line, “death gives life meaning,” a tad cliché. With Neal Shusterman’s Scythe traveling that heavily-trodden dystopian road, for me, the question of the novel’s success came down to the story’s handling of the ideas and its ability to pave its own path.
In the story, humans have not only figured out immortality but have discovered the peak of technology and science—they know everything there is to know about the world. Human purpose and drive are nonexistent. However, there’s a catch to the immortality (there’s always a catch, right?). To control overpopulation, agents named “Scythes” exist to glean—kill permanently without the possibility of regeneration—select individuals. Our protagonists, Citra and Rowen, are high-schoolers suddenly chosen to become a Scythe’s apprentice. They both despise the idea of having to glean for the rest of their immortal existence but can’t help but feel attracted to having a purpose in a world where purpose no longer exists.
Pretty awesome, right? Other than the minor head-scratcher at the fact that they decided to kill random people rather than deal with the birthrates, I was sold. Reluctant protagonists, a mentor figure, thought-provoking ideas, violent action scenes, potential romance—the whole YA shabang!
Unfortunately, although the action is thrilling, Scythe is the reaper of its own brilliance when it comes to its world-building and themes. In trying to make the scythes intimidating, the author took it a step too far. Since scythes glean so often, instead of people living peacefully with immortality, they live in a world where death is always a sudden murder. People live in constant fear of the scythes. There is no clearer example for this other than the masses’ desperate and constant vying to be awarded a one-year gleaning immunity (which is a short time, immortality or not) from the scythes. On top of that, people work important, needed jobs, and entrepreneurs/scientists are still creating new tech, which completely goes against the whole peak of technology and knowledge thing that Shusterman set up in the opening chapters. This whole concept of “immortality taking away purpose”—something the book constantly tells us—is never shown and is often contradicted. This had me confused because while Shusterman is an experienced sci-fi author, it felt like the world-building was a throwaway setup for the author to write a cool action novel.
What is, however, undoubtedly a throwaway is the romance in this book. On top of having no chemistry, Citra and Rowen fall in love too quickly without the readers being able to see them interact in a meaningful way. This makes the romance feel shallow and unsatisfying as the readers can’t see what makes them a good couple or why their love is deeper than a simple hormonal fling. This problem is worsened by the fact that they are separated from each other almost immediately after the confession, so we can’t even see their relationship grow.
The book isn’t without its shining moments though. What it does best is making things cool: from the naming of the scythes, their customizable robes that speak for their identity, martial arts and weapon specialties, everything about the scythes is badass. The action scenes, once they get going, are a blast to read, and the plot is full of surprises.
Although this book wasn’t for me, I did walk into it expecting a thoughtful dystopian novel. If, however, you’re in the market for a sci-fi themed action adventure full of gadgets, weapons, and martial arts displays, Scythe might be what you are looking for.
Juhyun Tony Bae is a Korean-Canadian writer currently studying at UBC. He’s been working on a dystopian YA novel that he says will be completed between the next one to fifty years. His work has been published in Grain, FreeFall, and Wax Poetry and Art. You can find him at tonybae.com