By: McKenna Graham, Columnist
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: YA fantasy
Rating: Two stars
“Scythe” is a novel with a great idea that falls flat. I was immediately attracted to the world: society has overcome disease, aging, and death, and the only way to control population is an organization of people whose only job is to kill. They’re called “scythes,” and they’re basically government-sanctioned murderers, except society has no government, just an AI that helps run transportation and give dinner recommendations.
So the reader is presented with an intriguing concept that garners enough curiosity to flip open the pages. And from there, things kind of go downhill. The two main characters, Citra and Rowan, are seemingly entirely out-of-place in society, which is of course characteristic of main protagonists in a YA fantasy novel. They are taken on as apprentices to Scythe Faraday, who begins to teach them the art of killing with a respectable amount of compassion and tortured-soul rumination.
For the first part of the novel, you’re stuck wondering what the plot is, where the story is going, and why Shusterman doesn’t want to just say “drugs” instead of “illegal chemicals of recreation.”
That was my first major issue with the book: the author spends so much time making it apparent that this world is far distanced from “mortal times” when people still died of natural causes and knew what “terrorism” was. The book is full of irritating attempts to immerse the reader: Shusterman makes it clear that people don’t know what sports are, don’t know what murder is, and don’t know what handcuffs or torture are.
While I can understand that he was trying to craft a society free of crime, people still go to school and people still have easy access to the AI that has all of history recorded—why didn’t Shusterman put two and two together, and let the reader focus on his plot instead of reminding them, “This is a totally different era!” over and over again? Because a plot does come in, and it has such potential: something happens about halfway through that I won’t spoil for you, and all of a sudden the reader is exposed to two entirely different ideologies, two entirely different ways of thinking and interpreting both the novel’s history and modern society, and conflict is introduced.
A story is nothing without conflict; the better the conflict, the better the story. I’ll let you think about how it takes over one hundred fifty pages for an actual problem to come to light; in the meantime, I’ll talk a bit more about the two main characters.
Citra is terribly boring and a total Mary Sue—she’s self-righteous and unrealistic and so boring because she can do no wrong. Rowan is the interesting one — he struggles with his conscience and his morality, he has issues with his identity, and because of this he feels more real, more flawed, and more interesting. Not always, though, and not by as much as I maybe would’ve liked.
Now as for the conflict, it was good enough. It wasn’t spectacular, but it kept me interested enough to read until the end, where the most life-threatening struggle was promptly resolved in a rather anti-climactic way. The antagonists of the novel seemed so critical and dangerous, but it takes less than two pages for them to be rendered irrelevant. The rest of the story’s conflict is resolved later, but is so inconsequential that by that point, you find yourself not really caring. And I don’t even want to get into the “romance” aspect, other than to say it was totally unnecessary and honestly laughable.
I was truly excited to read this book—I even bought it instead of asking the publisher for a free copy, because I was so sure I’d like it—and it let me down. In over four hundred pages, I can count on one hand the number of times Shusterman made me think, “That was a good line.” The rest of my experience was just me waiting for it to get really good — and sighing in the meantime at all the clichés and disappointing writing.