Pretty much every time I’ve been at the bookstore, I saw this book pass me by and I considered getting it. I read Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, but just the first book. I did enjoy it but as the years have went on I felt it was a little overhyped. But this one, boy, the chills were comparable to Sabaa Tahir or maybe Ransom Riggs. I am so psyched for the rest of this series! Or should I say, scythed for the rest!
But the concept is not as peppy as my joke there. Like how Unwind was a future in which kids could be chosen by their guardians to be not exactly killed but unwound, their body parts taken so someone else more fit for the world can use them…yeah, that was getting killed but just a more glittery name for it. Like how Unwind does this, the world of Scythedom calls it gleaning. I’ll back up a little. Back in 2042, humans developed a technology, with probably a smudge of fantasy, that prevents mortality by allowing them to reset their bodies, basically turning from someone with an 85 year old body back to a 25 year old one. Or more likely 35, cause no one wants to be even close to resembling a teenager more than once. But that’s besides the whole point. There are no more crimes, because if someone did one, it would be known in the Thunderhead, a network with somewhat of a mysterious soul of its own, which knows everything about everyone. So if you did something bad or out of touch with regulations, it means an early gleaning. What that is, is a side effect with the immortality. With overpopulation, especially with the problem of people having babies but no one dying to balance it out, scythes have to perform the task themselves. They pick people to take off this Earth to maintain the environment, because death is no longer natural but deliberate. There’s now a world where scythes are tasked with the most depressing job of all, but thankfully there are requirements they themselves put in place which is that you have to be humane, and you have to make these gleanings as painless and fast and happy as possible. Some scythes don’t like that, and one has the attention of two new recruits of Scythe Faraday, a scythe who does his job but does it with compassion. Two new recruits that are both quite traumatized by their new responsibilities, taking them only so someone more monstrous won’t take them, and they’re about to be in for a new life of death they’ll never be able to crawl away from.
Every chapter in this book ends with not the next chapter but an excerpt of the journal of one of the characters, usually on the side. I normally don’t like this, as I suspect most readers don’t, stopping our thought processes of what’s going to happen in the next chapter and distracting us with something often either irrelevant or not yet important. But these journal excerpts spread difficult humanitarian questions, both completely rooted in the world and relatable to the one we have now, allowing him to elaborate on the already-genius dystopian concept. I put it this way; in the military there are people who like to kill. In law there are judges who like to sentence people heftily. Then there’s the opposite spectrum side, those who want to be lenient and imagine who these people are and what stories must be behind them. The concept of authoritarian attitude is emphasized in a whole new light here, because essentially, what this world and being a scythe actually means is that actual death, the foe we all face and has taken away our loved ones sometimes instantaneously or slowly, is now personified, like a stormcloud floating just five feet above the ground with an evil grin thirsty for our souls. Except it’s not a stormcloud. It’s people just like us.
There are also some genius concepts involving a spoiled and power-hungry monger named Scythe Goddard. There are accusations that come through about him being rough with his gleanings and the court dismisses them as simple hearsay, and Goddard himself asks the room for whoever is accusing him to come forward. When no one does, Scythe Faraday explains this makes it so now if anyone does come forward, they’ll be seen as a former coward, and that Goddard probably put in the complaint himself so no one would be able to respond to the complaint and give himself leverage over everyone else. When I read that, I thought, Whoa! Shusterman really knows the mind of evil.
Whenever someone is gleaned, I felt a serious chill, especially when one of the protagonists had to do it and even more when I remembered this was a society where it was a law that scythes had to do it. The two protagonists, Citra and Rowan, balance their story arcs out pretty nicely, and they both equally end up pulling stunts that had me cheering for both of them mightily.
Neal Shusterman invents a genius concept about personifying actual death, and the result is not necessarily a frightening book but instead a very shiver-inducing and unsettling one, using ideas relevant to our current political climate in properly messed-up delivery.