Scythe: Arc of a Scythe Book 1 by Neal Shusterman, 448 pp, RL: TEEN

Neal Shusterman is a prolific author of YA and middle grade novels and, while I have only read one other book by him, I can tell you that he is a talented, thought provoking writer with a supreme gift for world building. A few years ago I reviewed Unwind, the first book in the Unwind Dystology, and I still think about the world he created often. Shusterman's chilling dystopian setting for this series is post Lois Lowry's classic, The Giver, but pre Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games. Gifted as he is, Shusterman recognized that a decade of dystopian YA novels called for something different. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly he said of his new series, Arc of a Scythe,

After a decade of teen dystopia, I wanted to do something that flipped it upside down. Rather than a tale of a dystopian world, I thought, "What would be the consequences of a truly perfect world?" A world without war, poverty, crime or disease. A world where we've found solutions to all our problems, to the point of even conquering death. Then I realized that once we stole death from nature, we would be obliged to be it's sole distributor. I envisioned a world where a jedi-like order - highly moral and ethical - was responsible for thinning the population. I called them scythes, because a scythe is the tool of a reaper, and these individuals are the tools of society. They do what they do not because they want to, but because they need to. Civilization requires it.

While I love it, I don't read as much YA as I used to when I was a bookseller and I was seeing it on the shelf everyday. But, my twenty-four-year old daughter, twelve-year-old son and I were about to embark on an eight hour road trip and I wanted a book all three of us would enjoy. YA was the answer. Scythe came out November of 2016 and won a Printz Honor (the YA version of the Newbery) in January of 2017. Shusterman's previous book, Challenger Deep, about a teen boy's decent into mental illness, won the National Book Award, among many other accolades. Shusterman called on personal experience as the father of a schizophrenic son to write the book, with his son illustrating the novel. After reading half of a review of Scythe, knowing Shusterman's talent and listening to a sample of Greg Tremblay reading the book (and he does a PHENOMENAL job creating the many characters, including a teenaged girl...) I knew this was the book for us. We listened to four of the ten hours on the drive up and listened non-stop, on the edge of our seats, for the entire drive home, finishing a few miles from our front door.

While Shusterman flips dystopian civilization on its head with Scythe, he has not created a utopian world by any means. Despite all the advances, including the ability to stop aging by euphemistically, "turning the corner," and setting physical and biological clocks back, becoming as young as twenty-one again, absolute power still corrupts absolutely. While the Thunderhead (the name for the IA force, once called the Cloud before it grew too big for the name) has eliminated the need for governments, proving fully capable, through a series of algorithms, of managing human existence from running driverless public cars to controlling the weather and preventing fires. Everyone leads a comfortable existence (some more than others, and that is a quirk of this world that I hope is explained later in the series) and wants for nothing. Immortality has removed the importance and urgency with which humans lived prior to 2042, when immortality was achieved. At this time, humans decided to maintain control over death, a necessity if overpopulation is to be avoided, by creating the order of Scythes. I know I've already gone too far, but I could go on talking about this world Shusterman created for paragraphs more it's so fascinating.

Scythes have a set of commandments (yes, ten) they vow to live by and, using numbers generated by the Thunderhead and operating in strict regions, they end the lives of roughly 150 humans each year in the manner of their choosing. Weapons are illegal in this world where regeneration is possible (the first one is free, after that, in an effort to prevent "suiciding" for the thrill of it, you have to pay) but not for the Scythes, each of whom has their own personal methods and manners for ending lives. Into this secretive world of Scythes come teens Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch who, in an unusual move, are both taken on, unwillingly, as apprentices by Scythe Faraday. Once a Scythe is ordained, she or he takes on the name of a Patron Historic, a luminary from history. There are Scythes Curie, Goddard, Chomsky, Rand, Socrates and Mandela. To their ranks are added Scythes Goodall, Schrödinger and Colbert. I was hoping this was a nod to Stephen Colbert, but it's probably in reference to paleontologist Edwin H. Colbert. While Scythe Farady is conscientious in his killing, seeking to mimic mortality patterns from the time before immortality, he does bring about death in violent ways. Killcraft is something that apprentices are taught by Scythes who learn to use a variety of weapons and are taught the Korean martial art, bokator, so that they can use their own bodies as instruments of death. Despite the rules put in place, there is corruption and cruelty among the self-regulated Scythes and Citra and Rowan quickly find themselves the targets of this.

There is a lot of world building in Scythe, which is why this review is so long. Shusterman covers so many details of life in this utopia (there are museums for mortal art and immortal art, which are markedly different and it's interesting to ponder why, nanobots in the bloodstream that prevent pain, control metabolism and address the chemical imbalances that cause mental illness) but there is also a lot of action and violence. Having read so much fiction, I can usually see plot twists coming, and anticipated a few in Scythe. However, Shusterman genuinely surprised me, especially with the ending. And, while there was a lot of world building, he kept Citra and Rowan in front of it and, by the end of this first in a series, it was thrilling to see how their characters developed and deepened in response to the situations their apprenticeship and the corruption among the Scythedom put them in. Book 2 in the Arc of a Scythe series, Thunderhead, comes out on February 6, 2018.

Source: Purchased Audio Book

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