I get to meet Neal Shusterman next month (!!!), so figured I’d better read one of his most beloved series, Arc of a Scythe, before I do. And I’ve decided, since I marathoned this entire trilogy, to write a review for the whole thing at once. So there might be minor implicit spoilers, but I’ll try to avoid giving away major plot points.
In the world of Scythe, Thunderhead, and The Toll, people live in a world ruled by a benevolent AI called the Thunderhead. Society and technology have progressed so far that no one dies—all ailments are cured. So to keep the population from becoming too large, people known as scythes must “glean” a certain number each year. Our protagonists, Citra and Rowan, are chosen to be apprentices of a scythe called Faraday, learning about morality and the solemnity of their task. But dissension in the ranks of scythes is growing, the Thunderhead has a mysterious plan, and the cult-like religion called Tonism is becoming more and more powerful. So Citra and Rowan must decide where they stand, and how to navigate a changing world they thought was forever static.
I liked Citra and Rowan well enough, though my favorite character in the first book is definitely Faraday. I also especially like Grayson, Possuelo, and Jeri. Other side characters like Tyger, Constantine, Xenocrates, Scythe Curie, and others were also well-written, though not my top favorites. Meanwhile, the main antagonist is intriguing and cruel, genuinely frightening. I appreciated that he was less about only thwarting or destroying the protagonists, but had wider goals too.
On the other hand, I feel that the character of Rand should have been a lot more fleshed out. I never felt invested in her journey or convinced of her changing nature. I just couldn’t see the transition from what we saw of her in the first book, to how she was in the second and third installments. And the romance between her and [redacted] felt quite forced to me. Still, overall, Shusterman is skilled at making a rich and interesting cast to populate this interesting universe.
On the subject of relationships, (almost) none of the romances held any interest for me. As for Citra and Rowan (this is the main spoiler I’m “revealing” because I don’t think it’ll be that surprising to say that the male and female protagonists of a YA trilogy have a relationship), I never picked up on much genuine chemistry between them. In the first book, to me, they only kiss because it is convenient and they have common ground as scythe apprentices. After that, they spend so little time together that there is no opportunity to actually develop their relationship beyond the superficial. That said, at least I didn’t have to deal with a love triangle.
The only romance I can say I more than tolerated was in the third book—Grayson’s attraction to [also redacted, sorry. Avoiding spoilers is getting harder the more I write]. I just wish we’d had time to watch it develop more! Such potential!
One character I haven’t talked about much yet is the Thunderhead, who I found fascinating. Maybe it’s the Person of Interest fan in me, but the scenes from the AI’s point of view were some of my favorites, especially as the plot developed. Having a godlike artificial intelligence replacing human government, seeing how society operates in this situation, and what the Thunderhead thinks about humanity is incredibly thought-provoking.
I have a couple minor critiques of this series as a whole, though mostly with the last book: Sometimes the timeline wasn’t entirely clear to me. A lot of this has to do with this society’s decision to not number their years—when you’re basically immortal, numbers don’t matter, which I understand, but it’s hard for normal humans reading this to tell how much time is passing. Further, Shusterman has a tendency to switch points of view mid-scene, which is a pet peeve of mine.
Also, Simon & Schuster, what is with all the typos, especially in The Toll? Don’t think I didn’t see them; I did!
In the end, though, this is a wildly creative and entertaining trilogy. The character development is good, the world is rich in detail but not without mystery, and the examination of what it means to be human is deftly handled. The first book provides an excellent introduction to the universe and characters, with an engaging storyline with promise for more. The second book expands the world, with unexpected twists and increasing stakes. The final book is a bit slower and has the most problems for me, but still tells a wonderful story with a satisfying ending. This is a compelling series, meriting rereading and discussion.
Overall ratings: Scythe—8.6/10; Thunderhead—8.7/10; The Toll—8.3/10