“Thunderhead” by Neal Shusterman (2018)

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“Peach velvet with embroidered baby-blue trim.”

Last year, fiction conquered death. I’m now back with the sequel. As ever when reviewing a sequel, spoilers are abound so if you haven’t read Scythe or don’t want to know what happens next, look away now. We’re about to dive in. For those who need a refresher, however, recall that this series is set several centuries into the future where natural death has been eradicated, everyone only dies when chosen by a scythe, and the otherwise fairly utopian world is governed by the Thunderhead, a sentient AI that remains neutral and neither can or will interfere.

A year has passed since the events at the end of the last book. Rowan has been off-grid all this time, and has managed to turn himself into an urban legend, using the skills he learnt in his apprenticeship to hunt down corrupt scythes and glean them for good. No one has ever caught him, and for now it seems that no one ever will. Elsewhere, Scythe Anastasia – formerly Citra Terranova – is getting into the swing of her role, and has developed her own way of gleaning. She gives people a month’s notice to get their affairs in order and then lets them choose their own method of death.

Things in government, however, are not so rosy. A schism is forming in the Scythedom, with some believing the old ways are best and others looking for total reform. Worse still, it seems that someone is trying to glean Scythe Anastasia and Scythe Curie, and no one is quite sure who. The Thunderhead might know, but it is forbidden from speaking to the scythes. Instead, it nudges Greyson Tolliver, a neglected young man who was all but raised by Thunderhead into acting on its behalf, but the consequences are severe.

With confusion reigning across the Scythedom, and with High Blade Xenocrates standing down as the leader of the MidMerica region, there is a time for change ahead. But when an old face that everyone thought they’d seen the last of reappears and another lost figure has solved a centuries old puzzle which could save the world, nothing is certain anymore.

The first book in the series very much dealt with the nature of being a scythe, explaining how their government works, how they are trained, and what rules surround their jobs. This time, the focus shifts slightly and we get to learn a lot more about the Thunderhead. As sentient AI systems go, it seems one of the most benevolent. It provides for people and can control most aspects of the world including the weather and unemployment levels, but never interferes with anyone specifically. The Thunderhead and the Scythedom also cannot speak to one another, which feels like a massive oversight in the system, and this comes into play here.

As before, it’s a fascinatingly complex world that Shusterman has designed here. Set far enough into the future for everything to be slightly too weird, it is a world unlike ours in many ways, but humans will always be humans, so their failings continue even if their deaths have ended. The viewpoint jumps around considerably, but that just makes the world richer, as if we were following the action from just one or two places, the story wouldn’t have nearly as much depth. Like Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series, it feels like one of those worlds where morality is not tied to the “black and white” philosophy, and where you can see points on both sides. One can imagine how the series will end, but I’m not sure quite how we’re going to get there, as the book ends on a superb cliffhanger, and with several of the characters we’ve grown to know and love, well, if not dead then deadish.

The Toll, the third and final book in the series is out next week, and I will be getting to it sooner rather than later.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Scythe” by Neal Shusterman (2016)

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“The scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon.”

Death is the ultimate certainty. While some scientists believe that the first person who will live to be over 150 is already alive right now, the time will come eventually. Many books, especially novels, have been written on the subject and I think despite many of us having a primal fear of death, we also have a curious fascination with it. But what if there was no more death? What would happen to the world? In this novel, Neal Shusterman explores the concept.

Once upon a time on Earth, people got sick or injured and died. But that hasn’t happened for hundreds of years, now. When the Cloud evolved into the hyper-intelligent Thunderhead, it learnt what was best for humanity and took over the running of the planet, dismantling governments and corporations and leaving people with equality, health, happiness and eternal life. For once in fiction, its motives were genuine. But there were a group of humans who decided that there still needed to be a small measure of population control in place, thus the scythes were born.

Selected at a young age for training, you can only become an apprentice scythe if you have absolutely no desire to kill, or “glean” as it’s now known. When Citra and Rowan both independently stand up to Scythe Faraday and question his methods, they are both employed as his assistants and begin to learn the art of killcraft, as well as the ins and outs of the Scythedom, the one group of people that the Thunderhead has no jurisdiction over as they act above the law. Bound to their studies, the two of them begin to learn the ways of the scythe, despite their own protests. Choosing who to glean is just the start.

But then, at a conclave of all the MidMerican scythes, attention is thrust upon them and there is some debate as to whether a scythe can take on two assistants. The choice is made – Faraday can have two assistants, but only one will gain the robe and ring of a scythe … and their first task will be to glean the other…

I was obviously curious enough about this book to make the purchase, but as someone who is somewhat wary of Young Adult fiction, I wasn’t sure whether it would turn out well or be disappointing. On the sliding scale, however, I’d pop this higher than The Hunger Games (to which is appears to be frequently compared) but maybe not quite as good as the Chaos Walking trilogy. The world is richly developed and the lore and history behind it is explained to us by the use of diary entries from various scythes, it being one of their rules that they must keep a journal. This is a world where death still happens regularly from accidents, but unless you’ve been gleaned officially by a scythe, you are taken to a reanimation centre and brought back to life. Death here is merely a hassle, not an ending, but people still fear it and crave the blessing of the scythes for immunity. The Thunderhead may have done away with politicians and crime, but corruption still exists here, as it seems to wherever there are humans. The scythes are treated as above the law, and the Thunderhead cannot interfere with them.

The concepts here are great fun, despite the darkness at the heart of the novel, and I enjoy a future where no one knows what murder is as death isn’t seen as a crime, and that because people are broadly speaking on an equal footing, there’s no need for theft and so on. Even religion has faded away in a world not obsessed with the afterlife, and instead been replaced by tonal cults, who worship sounds and smells.

The characters that inhabit this story are intriguing too, and while it’s quite obvious from the outset which way it’s going to go, there are a number of surprises along the way that kept me hooked. As I said, one of the first rules of becoming a scythe is that you must have absolutely no desire to do it, as anyone who enjoys killing would be wrong for the role. Scythes are respected and admired, as well as feared, and each has their own methods by which they glean. Interestingly, gleanings are not always bloodless and kind – you are just as likely to be beheaded, stabbed or shot than you are poisoned or drowned. Scythes must work to a quota that vaguely relates to the death rates in the Age of Mortality.

Really, I’m a sucker for great worldbuilding and Shusterman has that here in spades. The ending sets up for the rest of the series, and I’ve already put the sequel in my basket on Amazon. I look forward to returning to these characters.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and failed relationships, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!