With Thunderhead, the second novel in his Arc of a Scythe trilogy, author Neal Shusterman continues to put a damper on the notion of immortality.
C’mon, people! Did you think that if we ended war and want (and government – we don’t need that anymore!) and came up with the technology to install microscopic nanites into our bloodstream that reversed the ravages of age, prevented disease, and repaired any cellular damage brought on by internal or external violence, allowing us to live forever, fit, sane and happy, even to the point of turning back the clock to stay as young as we like (well, so far, the legal limit is twenty-one) whenever we like, that we wouldn’t waste every opportunity before us, eliminating the best of humankind and rendering life as meaningless as it is endless? Welcome to Dystopia!
As I reported last year, Scythe was a gripping read, a sort of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone for licensed killers. In a world where falling off the top of a building and landing splat on the ground can only render you “deadish” until your nanites kick in, an elite cadre known as scythes are trained to glean (kill forever) citizens in order to control the out-of-control population. Two teenagers Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch, train as the apprentices of the noble Scythe Faraday (all scythes take on the names of Mortal-Age celebrities), forced by the scythdom to compete to the death for the one available spot.
Scythe was full of delightful plot twists and turns and, best of all, some marvelous world-building. A good fantasy lays its more intimate stories against the background of a grander picture. Citra and Rowan’s unwilling competition plays out against a power struggle within the scythedom between the Old Guard – those scythes who embrace the founding principles that gleaning is a weighty responsibility and must be done humanely – and the New Order, which basically consists of psychopaths and narcissists, who can’t understand why killing people shouldn’t be fun and profitable. It’s an intriguing main story, but some of my favorite parts of the book are found in the details about life in this world: the inability of immortals to understand the death-obsessed art, literature and theatre of mortal times; the inevitable taking-for-granted of life itself, at least until the scythe’s blade focuses on you; the odd ways some people try to find meaning in their lives. (Shusterman creates a religious cult based on music that worships a giant pitchfork and waits endlessly for The Great Resonance; it is intentionally ridiculous – until it is not.)
The question always rises in these YA sagas as to whether the author can keep the momentum going from book to book, and whether that difficult middle novel in a trilogy can extend what has come before and set up what is yet to be. I am happy to report that Shusterman does a bang-up job of world-expansion in Thunderhead. The continuing adventures of Citra, now a full-blown scythe called Anastasia, and Rowan, who has donned forbidden black robes to go rogue as Scythe Lucifer, Killer of Corrupt Scythes, are the means for Shusterman to tell a larger story of a utopian world on the verge of falling apart.
And unlike, say, Suzanne Collins, who centers each volume in the Hunger Games trilogy around a similarly-structured series of killer traps, Shusterman changes the game in thrilling ways. Most significant is in point of view. In Scythe, each chapter was prefaced by an entry into a scythe’s journal, giving us insight into the history of the cadre and the competing philosophies of the Old Guard and the New Order. In the second novel, the Thunderhead, the benevolent computer system that runs humankind, takes center stage, prefacing each chapter with insights into its purpose . . . and its feelings about its purpose.
Oh-oh! When you enter a story to find a benevolent computer running the world and speaking in a kindly voice reminiscent of HAL-9000, you kind of want to start counting down to doomsday. But it’s not as simple as that. The Thunderhead possesses the insight to understand how screwed up the world is and how dangerous the brewing civil war within the scythedom has become, and yet its prime directive does not allow interference.
“What are you worried about, Dave . . .?”
Enter Greyson Tolliver, a new character and an ordinary immortal, whose parents basically forgot they had him and so allowed him to be raised by the Thunderhead. Greyson’s aim in life is to basically work in the I.T. division, helping the Thunderhead be the best system it can be. But HAL er, the Thunderhead has other plans for Greyson, which opens up this world for the reader, introducing us to factions of society we have not met before, and setting us up for some exciting – and violent – new adventures.
It’s impossible to say much more about the plot without spoiling the great surprises awaiting you. Suffice it to say that many old characters return and take on new significance while new characters give us more of an understanding of how hard it is to make the world “better.” Best of all, the climax – and while I understand a film of Scythe is in the works, if they take on Thunderhead, I’d like to see someone film this ending – changes up everything and makes us wonder how the third and final book (The Toll comes out November 5) can sort out this wonderful, complex mess.
I, for one, can’t wait!