Neal Shusterman seems to often write about death. Unwind was one of the few books that has truly scared me—I remember staying up late reading it when I was about twelve, feeling sickened and enthralled at once. In that book, he examines what it means to have someone else choose your death. In Everlost, he explores what might happen after death, the things that are able to change and the things that don’t. Again, it’s spooky, atmospheric, and very, very compelling. I’ve been hearing about Scythe for a long time—mostly, people raving about how good it is—and so, after checking it out from the library, not reading it, waiting in the holds list, checking it out again, not reading it etc. about five times, I have finally finished it.
In a world where disease has been eliminated, the only way to die is to be randomly killed (“gleaned”) by professional reapers (“scythes”). Citra and Rowan are teenagers who have been selected to be scythe’s apprentices, and—despite wanting nothing to do with the vocation—they must learn the art of killing and come to understand the necessity of what they do.
Only one of them will be chosen as a scythe’s apprentice. And when it becomes clear that the winning apprentice’s first task will be to glean the loser, Citra and Rowan are pitted against one another in a fight for their lives. (blurb from Goodreads)
You have read dystopian books before. You have read books where they have weird gimmicks about death before. Sometimes those books are dystopian, and this book is dystopian. But it defies such genre classification, really, because this intricate novel has the heavy weight and ceremony of a fantasy book, the interpersonal relations of a contemporary story, and the contrived situations to explore themes of morality which often characterize dystopian narratives. Neal Shusterman, it seems, really can do it all.
What is death? Personally, like a lot of people I guess, I am afraid of death. Yet I am also fascinated by how it manifests physically in stories—the cool river of Sabriel, the ALL CAPS and friendliness of the Discworld version, the wry cool tone of the narrator of The Book Thief. The Scythes are more like a high tech version of the ominous, sweeping robed shadows of the Tale of the Three Brothers from Harry Potter, though. The concept is that a Scythe is a person of extreme moral character who feels duty, but no joy, in killing. Now, I’m absolutely a pacifist, I think soldiers and particularly military systems are amoral, but questions of death need to keep being asked. Neal Shusterman, whatever approach he is taking, is unafraid to interrogate the nature of death. Here, he asks what death will mean in a society where most people—that is, the survivors—will never die. The two protagonists, Citra and Rowan, are a Scythe’s apprentice, and they must learn the art of killing—and the art of choosing those who die.
Death, necessarily, intersects with politics. Shusterman did an excellent job of portraying the Scythedom as a system where morals were being lost in the name of change, where no human killer could live up to the ideals given to them by their charter, where corruption was insidious and constant. It brought to mind the democratic system, or even capitalism: no system is perfect (not even the Thunderhead) and this one was gradually eroding itself.
The two protagonists are spunky. Their Scythe master says that the person who wants to be a Scythe less should be the one that makes it, which is a great opening premise. They wrestle so much with the idea of choice, especially as they are entering a role where they are asked to make absolute choices on behalf of others. Is that ever okay? At the end of the book, Citra and Rowan have made choices with enormous ramifications, and yet they still don’t know the answer to this, really. That’s why there are sequels, I guess.
As I read, I found myself questioning the role of death in my own life, and my expectation of it as a distant reality. I think Shusterman’s observation, delivered through his wonderful “High Dame of Death”, Scythe Curie, is that a limitless life is a boring life. Life is joyful because it is so essential to take risks and choose how you spend your time wisely. As Rowan and Citra encounter this, they bear the weight of their circumscribed existence quite magnificently, slowly becoming more alive—perhaps more human—as they invoke the power and compassion of death on those around them. Shusterman’s approach to religion via the very weird ‘Tonist’ cults echoes this—the world of his story explicitly rejects religion, but I’m not sure the story itself does. Mechanisms that make meaning, like God and fiction, are perhaps something he welcomes. I was also compelled by the Thunderhead, the neutral and all powerful AI, and I’m looking forward to its role in an eponymous sequel.
If anything, my critique of Scythe is that it is so involved, so internally coherent, that it is hard to grasp on to the story when you are not immersed in it. This is a forgettable book, and that is not because it is bad: the questions it asks are framed utterly elegantly and its pieces form a wonderful sort of picture. But the dystopic background, the characters, and the plot sometimes just felt like machinery for asking questions and producing answers, lacking full emotional resonance. Still, the story was engaging, and the sequel looks promising, so I don’t mind.
Have you read Scythe, or any of Neal Stephenson’s other books? Do you want too? what’s your favourite manifestation of Death in fiction? lemme know in the comments!