Alright, I’ll admit it: this GAD mystery lover needs a little break.
I could tell something was happening as I watched the stack of books beside my bed grow taller and taller. These are the one that I’ve removed from my veritable TBR Tower of Babel and am “actually” reading, yet each of them has a bookmark jammed somewhere between pp. 17-22. Nothing has stuck with me, and I’ve started to wonder if I need to imbibe the literary equivalent of a cup of sherbet before the next mystery course.
I don’t often read science fiction or fantasies for the reason that sci-fi is too mired in its world-building for me, and most fantasy novels are so . . . damn . . . long! For instance, I did read the five existing Song of Ice and Fire books, there’s no way I’m going to reread them before/if/when/whenever George R.R. Martin gets around to publishing Book Six, yet I’ve forgotten so many details. And really, the last one was too long and left me totally confused and . . . oh well, a little bit bored.
Don’t look so smug, dude – get off the stick and finish Book Six NOW!
When I do read fantasy/sci fi, I usually go the Young Adult route. These sagas are often as trenchant as their adult counterparts and much more time-manageable! Not everything is good: I suffered through the four Twilight books, actually cursing the final novel while spooning in soup at a local restaurant as I read about Bella’s baby eating itself out of her mommy’s womb. But I loved Harry Potter (except that awful play), and I cheered for Katniss Everdeen – even if the final book is a leetle bit draggy.
J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins became rich and famous for their respective endeavors, but plenty of writers have been producing good work for a much longer time without achieving one speck of acclaim (and moolah) these two women have collected. Props, then, to author Neal Shusterman, who has been writing novels for adults and kids, short stories, poetry, even those cool How to Host a Murder Dinner party games, since 1989. It looks like Shusterman is poised to share in some of the good fortune his fellow writers Collins and Rowling have enjoyed, largely due to his latest epic. And while I couldn’t tell you much about Shusterman’s oeuvre – stuff about aliens, rewrites of fairy tales, lots of other high concept stuff – I can tell you that his latest work, the Arc of a Scythe saga, is, so far, really good
I can base this opinion only on the first novel, and I have learned from experience that fantasy authors can veer wayoff course as their world building gets more and more cumbersome. (Right, George?) But Scythe is a great start, both in the story it tells and the world it creates.
That world is ours, a long way in the future, and Shusterman does what the best authors do: he avoids info dumps and simply immerses us in the culture, asking us to learn and accept the changes that this world wrought as we go along. To sum it up quickly – well, there’s so much, it’s hard to be quick, but I don’t want to spoil too much. Suffice it to say that technology has reached perfection, and we have accepted the computer as our ruler. That sounds harsh, but to all intents and purposes it’s working really well. The future Google search engine/world leader – called the Thunder Head here – is benign and wise, and a huge side effect of its largesse is that humans have become pretty much immortal.
Unfortunately, being human, we don’t handle eternal life particularly well. I won’t give away all the fun details that prove this fact, but one notable issue must be mentioned: we keep having kids, and the population is growing. To prevent international disaster, a cadre of trained assassins called scythes, the only humans not held to account by the Thunder Head, has been commissioned to “glean” the world of excess humanity. They are bound by a strict set of commandments that prevent them from killing with bias or with any joy in the deed. It’s a freaky kind of system, but this future world has made it work.
Of course, it has to stop working, or there would be no story. The crisis that brews amongst the scythe-dom involves two teenagers who meet when they are selected to compete to become a scythe by both becoming apprenticed to one of the wisest of trainers, Scythe Faraday. (When you become a scythe, you take on the name of a famous wise person.) Citra Terranova comes from a loving family and catches the eye of Faraday when he drops by her house one to beg dinner and borrow a knife in order to glean her neighbor. He incurs her wrath for scaring her family half to – well, you know, and it turns out that Faraday admires her moxie! (Most people kiss up to scythes in order to avoid gleaning; too bad most scythes hate sycophants!)
The other teenager is Rowan Damisch, whose family is so large that his parents virtually ignore him. This is a common failing in the future world, where adults keep “turning the corner” and having more and more children. Rowan meets Faraday at school, where the scythe has come to glean another student, and insists on sitting in on the execution to comfort the terrified jock who had no idea he would be missing Friday’s football game – and every other one.
I think that’s more than enough detailed plot to tell you. One of the novel’s strengths is the plentitude of twists that keep sending Citra and Rowan into new directions and ever-increasing danger. The other main pleasure is the way Shusterman explores the repercussions of immortality. Modern teen fiction does not coddle young people: violence and death permeate Hogwarts, the ten communities of The Hunger Games, and most of the other best sellers emerging from the popular YA genre. There are some shocking scenes of violence in Scythe, and I can only imagine the upcoming movie version trying to figure out how to maintain a PG-13 rating and still retain the gutsiness of the source material.
But the violence is secondary to some of the interesting points Shusterman presents about how the value of life changes when death is taken out of the equation. As you can imagine, the author mostly comes down on the side of mortality, but it’s not as simple as that. The scythes as a race are both feared and idolized. Kids collect scythe cards and gather outside their thrice-yearly conclaves to get a glimpse of their favorite executioner, yet people shun these killers or behave so obsequiously that they embarrass themselves. And this is too bad, for Shusterman illustrates throughout the value of maintaining a strong, positive relationship with mortality. In this world, sadly, the fact that the possibility of dying has been reduced by 99.9% has done little to teach this fact to people. Some of the scythes we meet are truly monstrous, but others of them, including, potentially, Citra and Rowan, are ironically the only means by which this fascinating future world will survive.
So if you are thinking of a book to give to your kid, this one is chock-full of adventure and gory stuff but will also make them think. Best of all, it’s perfect for adults like us who relish a fast-paced tale with interesting characters and the right combination of adventure and ideas. There’s even a suspicious death in the story, with a surprise ending. Okay, I guessed the surprise, but that doesn’t hurt the tale one jot! There are other, far better plot surprises in store.
The second book, Thunder Head, has just been published and introduces the point of view of the computer-ruler itself. This promises to send the story in even more different directions, although I hope it does notdescend to the obvious Matrixparallels. It would be a shame after this strong, lively beginning if Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe went off the rails.
And don’t worry about me: I’ll be back on track with classic mysteries soon!