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 master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.
Description taken from Goodreads.
If the new-wave dystopias don’t cut it for you and you’re much more partial to the classics like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World, then I’d recommend you Scythe. Today, Neal Shusterman is the closest we can get to the feelings and implications of the dystopias that started it all.
What struck me most about Scythe was the good-and-evil/gray space theme. This is one of my favorite ideas to explore in literature and took me by surprise because it wasn’t talked about at all in the synopsis, which is probably one of my favorite blurbs this year for giving me just the right amount of information. The themes aren’t quite as obvious as in Vicious, but they’re there, and I get the feeling that they’ll be more prominent in the next books.
Here, the dark side of the talk centers around Rowan’s transition from a quiet, earnest boy into an adult under the tutelage of a bloodthirsty monster. Try as he might to hold onto his values and ideals, he can’t deny the influence that his mentor has had on him.
With the scenes of Rowan’s mentor’s massacres and twisted games, Shusterman gives us an unique perspective into the horrifying world he’s created. He talks about ostracism, happiness, and murder through the lens of a world that has, for the most part, never known natural death. In circumstances like that, what constitutes “acceptable” killing, and who should be killed? Shusterman never answers these questions directly but tastefully weaves together different sides to many possible answers like he’s hosting a discussion for his readers.
I’d go so far as to say that Rowan is the follow-up to The Hunger Games‘ Peeta Mellark, the person Peeta could’ve been in another time and life. Both are, at their cores, incredibly decent people who are forced against their wills to become killers. One of the lines that has stuck with me over time from The Hunger Games is Peeta’s line from his first days training for the Games, when he says, “I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” If you’ve ever wanted more from that line on Peeta’s side, I’d recommend looking into Scythe.
A very different perspective is offered by Citra and her mentor, who hosts mourning meals for the families of the people she kills and teaches Citra that mercy is about more than just restraint. Most of the journal entries that separate the chapters in Scythe are written by Citra’s mentor, and they provide a keen eye into the current state of affairs. They also provide further insight and history of the world Shusterman’s build to the discussion.
Apart, the two storylines are intriguing enough. Together, they create fascinating twists, both literal (like when Rowan snapped Citra’s neck), and figurative (like Citra’s conviction that Rowan can still be good). They raise the question of, if their mentors were switched, would each have followed the same path as the other? Is Citra as good as she hopes that she is, and did Rowan always have a slight predilection for violence? Even though this is told in the third-person, it manages to bring in an element of unreliable narration that makes the story that much more.
As for the romance, do I think it had to happen? No. It served to break them apart (when they were initially under the same mentor) and to complicate matters. The story can stand without it, but I would argue that the romance is less about being romantic and more about friendship, which is another one of my favorite concepts to read about.
Rowan does admit to wanting to kiss Citra and Citra has feelings for Rowan, but they both agree that there’s too much at stake for them to fall in love with each other. Their relationship is marked by the ways that they support each other and the courage they inspire in each other. In the beginning, when there are no death stakes, they’re even allies of sorts, both reaching toward the same goal because of their sense of duty. When the death stakes do come into play, they still seek to protect one another. Rowan and Citra’s sense of camaraderie lends to the unreliable narration, our knowledge of who the characters are as people, and their development throughout Scythe, all of which is necessary to make the book work.
Rowan and Citra are the stars of the show. The supporting cast is artfully blended into the background, present and unimportant. The one supporting character who drew a lot of attention was Volta, a junior scythe of Rowan’s mentor, who doesn’t believe in the work that he’s doing and eventually prompts Rowan into action. His presence deserves its own discussion in and of itself, but for now, I’ll just say that he’s a good look into who Rowan could turn out to be. He serves as a great example of the question of if good people do terrible things, what are they? I’d like to read the book again and take further note of his actions in it.
won’t be loved by everyone. It doesn’t have the rapid-speed pacing of most mainstream YA novels, and it’s not incredibly exciting at all moments. It’s gripping in a dark, thought-provoking way. For me personally, I thought it was one tiny step short of being perfectly paced. Things moved along quickly enough to keep my interest intact but slowly enough for me to notice the pages turning. The world-building was well-done, but the made-up language went a little bit too far and there were points that it took up pacing padding.
I would say this is a YA novel only by the definition of a YA book being a book written about young adults. Instead, it fits more alongside adult reads like V.E. Schwab’s books. Scythe is sophisticated, intricate, and deep, with little focus on the romance or the maturity of the themes presented. If you’re already a fan of Shusterman, this one won’t disappoint. If you haven’t read any of his work but this seems interesting, go for it. And if you’ve already read Scythe, I’d highly recommend Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. 4.5 stars.