Thou shalt kill.
There is no more aging.
There is no more sickness.
There are no more accidents.
But there is death.
A few hundred years from now, mankind will have conquered biology--effectively rendering themselves immortal with the ability to reset a person's age to approximately 25. The sentient AI known as the Thunderhead has advanced science to resurrect human bodies. No one just dies. They just become deadish.
But humanity continues to procreate. Viability tests for colonizing the Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies have failed. We're stuck here, on our blue and green marble, with nowhere else to go. A culling must take place. And thus, the Scythedom was born.
Scythes are all-powerful and outside of the law. They are the only people whose memories the Thunderhead cannot access, and whose actions the Thunderhead cannot control. Scythes have their own Commandments. They are tools, serving humanity to ensure balance in the population. They are feared, and rightly so. They are revered, because they can grant immunity to being gleaned. They are the new gods of our future, ones who did not wish this position, along with some who crave it. To be a scythe is to have everything and nothing at the same time.
One night, a Scythe appears at Citra's door. Everyone in her family is, naturally, terrified. However, according to the rules of Hospitality for Scythes 101, they invite him to share their dinner. The scythe is quiet, and after an unbearably tense dinner, leaves to glean their neighbor.
The same scythe goes to a high school to glean a random student, and Rowan just happens to be there. He decides to stay with this kid that he barely knows as he is gleaned.
As it turns out, both of these situations were tests. The scythe in question, the Honorable Scythe Faraday, chooses both Citra and Rowan to be his apprentices. They are forbidden to become attached to one another, as they will be competing as apprentices. Although the idea of killing people repulses both Citra and Rowan, they feel trapped. However, as they train with their master, he teaches them that in order to be a good scythe, you have to hate killing. You have to be more compassionate than anyone. And you have to find a way to forgive yourself.
Meanwhile, a elegy of scythes in blinged out robes (directly contradicting the image of Scythes as abnegating figures) storm through crowds and perform mass gleanings. Although such actions are not strictly forbidden, they are not looked upon with favor, either. Their leader, Scythe Goddard, rages against the limitations of the Scythedom, and looks for every possible way to exploit loopholes in the ten commandments. He throws lavish parties, encourages adulation, and revels in bloodlust.
Citra and Rowan grow closer despite being forbidden to do just that, but before anything comes of it, they are separated. Citra is given into the care of the Honorable Scythe Curie, the Granddame of Death, and Rowan is sent to be part of Goddard's entourage. The two teens describe very different paths in their pursuit of the Scythedom's ring. But in the end, it is their humanity that is the only thing that can save them from being gleaned.
Scythe is a brilliant book. It meditates on death and life in a an incredibly nuanced manner. Unlike Unwind, by the same author, which I found very hard to get into, Scythe sweeps you into our perfect future and almost convinces you that we have fixed everything. No death? No pain? Not even any maiming? Awesome! But in the tradition of the best of dystopian literature, there is something rotten in the Scythedom, and Citra and Rowan take very different approaches to rooting it out. I am very, very happy that this is going to be a series--when is the last time I said that?
Shusterman intersperses entries from famous scythes' journals in the main narrative, and these were fascinating glimpses into the minds of those whose profession consists of delivering death as creatively and diversely as possible. H.S. Curie is by far my favorite scythe. I mean, if your nickname is the "Granddame of Death," you have some very interesting thoughts.
Scythe also impressed me with its treatment of diversity: in this future, having an equal mix of heritages and races is the ideal. If a scythe gleans too many people with, say, a high mix of Mesolatino genes, he would be severely punished. A person's cultural index should be as evenly distributed as possible. And yet, it's not perfect. H.S. Curie brings up an interesting point: "The index is supposed to keep the world free from cultural and genetic bias, but aren't there underlying factors that we can't escape? For instance, who decided that the first number of one's genetic index would be Caucasoid?"
This is one of the best science fiction novels I have read this year in either YA or adult. It's thought-provoking and disturbing and incredibly detailed, and I highly recommend it.
I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley. Scythe is available at bookstores and libraries now.