Book Review, Review

Review of Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Tags: YOUNG ADULT, SCI-FI, DYSTOPIAN, FICTION

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Would I recommend this book to a friend? No.

I’m a big fan of YA novels. I grew up reading them, and I am fascinated by them even in my final year of university. Raw emotions of youth and childhood are captured and expressed in YA literature far more often than in other genres, and these feelings transport me back to a time in my life that I will never experience again. Sadly, I didn’t get this feeling with Scythe. The characters, sadly, brought nothing new to the YA table. Honestly, they really didn’t bring much to the table at all. Imagine Bella from Twilight, but with stock “spunk” rather than stock “sadness.”

The dystopian YA novel has become increasingly popular in the past ten years or so, with the biggest bump coming from the popularity of the Hunger Games. With that in mind, this title has the common theme of human continuity, dealing with the struggle of life and death. If you’re interested in grappling with the idea of immortality, then this book has an interesting, if not somewhat contrived, vision and version of the future. The story even draws in upon today’s “Cloud,” and turns it into the ominous, “Thunderhead.”

Yet, while the story’s setting is interesting and touches on an aspect of sci-fi that is not common in dystopian YA novels published today, I found that the story itself – and the characters within it – lacked elements of humanity and good storytelling.

I would have liked to recommend this book, because it has a fantastic setup. The scythes are the only ones who can cull life from their dystopian society where humans are immortal (or as close to immortal as they could ever possibly be). I was expecting a novel that delved into the rights and wrongs of humanity and science; of what it really means to live forever, or to be the hand that ends the life of an immortal. However, the book falls short of this depth. As I was reading, I felt that Shusterman continued to pander his writing towards a simplistic, action-driven theme that is doted upon in modern YA literature. The two main characters of the book – Citra and Rowan – are characterized only by how they react to the world around them. They have no true personality or attraction for me as a reader. Shusterman plunges his characters into the action too early, and he does not define them as people before he defines them as apprentices. I feel like he wrote his characters into a hole with that one. While it was a convenient way for Shusterman to avoid having to draw the readers through “boring” backstory – it was also a convenient way for him to pander to today’s audience. I understand, though – starting with a hook is the only way for anything to be noticed in today’s publishing game. However, the main characters of Citra and Rowan were your average, stock, YA main characters. While they had a unique situation, their characters did not match the uniqueness, and so they fell dramatically flat. Shusterman, I would have forgiven you if you’d given them life.

I was also unimpressed by the pacing of the story. The first 4/5 of the book is generally the same. The characters do a lot of thinking, and a lot of reacting, but they do nothing themselves to drive the plot forward. Everything happens to them, which gets repetitive and boring. The biggest part of the book is, essentially, a training montage where nothing important happens. This is the most unforgivable part of Scythe to me. It’s just not a very entertaining book, because the majority of it is spent on how our cardboard main characters feel and react – which, ultimately, is cardboard and boring.

The action is compressed into the final fifth of the story, which does not do the book much good. Shusterman transports the reader from location to location within the story, and errs on the side of Citra’s thought processes to describe the locations, rather than artfully describing them through a more visual and artistic 3rd-person narration. He keeps his writing stuck inside of a bland bubble. This did not help my understanding of the various locale that he places the characters within, and honestly it really turned me off from the final arc of the book. I did not enjoy how Shusterman wrote from one place to the next, without savoring in the delights of creating the world surrounding the plot. At this point in the book, however, I had become so desensitized to the characters that I generally didn’t care for their surroundings. So, maybe Shusterman did this on purpose. At the same time, the fact that all of the action and movement happened near the end of the book, I felt that I had been strung along through nearly 200 pages of a training montage, to only be given a half-cocked try at an action sequence. You can imagine that I was soured about the book at this point.

In all, the book felt incredibly rushed. The beginning of the book was enchanting, but mostly because the premise of Scythe is something that is rather unique. However, as the story unfolded, and the events within the book happened, I found myself becoming less and less interested in the plot and in the characters. I knew what was going to happen. The characters were flat. The villain was characteristically maniacal. All in all, Scythe had potential, but failed in delivering. I wanted Shusterman to slow down, to really dive into his characters, to really give me a villain worth caring (or double-thinking) about, but he did none of these things.

Sadly, a great setup cannot be saved if the characters are bland, and the writing does not scratch below the surface of the world. I wanted to like Scythe, I really, really did. But I just felt like Shusterman was writing too safe – like he was afraid of turning this book into something deeper, into something great.

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Thought, Uncategorized

Why College Isn’t Fair

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Not everyone can afford college. Some of the smartest and brightest students (in the US) still can’t get the scholarships they need to succeed. On the flip side, some of the dumbest people I know are attending college full-time, and are doing so through the good old “daddy” scholarship. They’ll get average scores in all their classes except for a few, party their way through extracurriculars and internships (because who needs a paying summer job?), and then get placed in jobs that won’t really benefit from them (but won’t really hurt from them, either). Of course, there will always be those people. We have known, and will know, about these “easy-breezy” kids until the end of time. Maybe you are one of these kids – and I’m jealous. I’m not mad at you. Heck, I’m happy for you! Live life to the fullest! But what I am mad at is the situation that students on the opposite end of the money spectrum find themselves locked in to.

Not everyone gets a free ride to college. Now, I’m not talking about kids who fail in high school because they can’t be bothered to care (I’ll get back to them later). I’m talking about the kids who make A’s and B’s in high school (they have few, if any, C’s) who get glossed over for scholarships, or those who are awarded smaller amounts of scholarship money because they weren’t offered the same opportunities in high school that other (usually kids from wealthier school districts) were given. You know (or perhaps you didn’t), I’m an undergraduate student myself. I had a 4.0 GPA in high school, was my graduating class’s STAR student, had all of the band and art awards, and I still had to make the decision to commute an hour from home to college, instead of getting to have a “college experience”, just to make ends meet.

Thankfully, my scholarships cover tuition and books, but I would be at least an extra $8,000 in debt per year if I had decided to live on campus. And that, my friends, was not how I wanted to start my life. No thank you. I’ll take all of my millennial handouts except for the student loan debt.

I count myself fortunate. There’s a public university 60 miles from my home town. It’s one that I can drive to, and it even offers majors in subjects that I am passionate about. But not everyone has that – and this is where college starts to show its teeth. Bright kids – smart kids – are choosing to forego university because it’s too expensive. A few thousand dollars in debt is manageable when you’re settled into a career, but it’s nearly impossible to stomach when you’re 18, especially when the amount you’re being shown reaches the $30,000 mark – per year. This sucks, because not everyone is blessed with daddy’s infinite bank account.

What happens, then, is that these students make one of two choices: A.) They forego college, and find work elsewhere, or, B.) They take the loans, and work twice as hard for the same degree that everyone else gets. Naturally, this isn’t fair. I’m not whining about this. I’m not crying about this. I’m stating this as a fact. What makes it less fair is that these students – the ones who take the loans – often end up working part-time. You know, working so they can live. But students who go to school full-time, and then who proceed to work part-time, are hard-pressed to find extracurriculars and opportunities that fit into their sporadic schedules. And all the while, the easy breezy kids are partying, networking, and having a great time. Our A-B student, on the other hand, is reading Gulliver’s Travels and writing research papers in that (frantic) time-slot between his 3 o’clock class and his Papa John’s shift from 5:00 to 10:30 (though he most likely won’t get to clock out until 11:00, if he’s lucky). Of course, one may suggest that our A-B student cuts down on his school hours; that he should take a lighter load. But, at 18 hours a semester, to complete a dual-major in English and Classics (Latin), with a minor in Medieval Studies – he’s barely squeaking out of the college on-time, without scheduling in any extra debt. And why so many courses, you ask? Well, it’s because he’s paying for it – so he may as well take full advantage of his college’s offerings while he can. Our A-B student loses out on friends. On parties. On opportunities. None of these things are essential, of course, but they are (funnily enough) expected of college students, regardless.

But, he does learn discipline, and he does learn the value of his own dollar, and he does begin a more adult conversation with Time. Through these lessons, our A-B student has mature advances that are above those of the easy breezy students.

But let’s not forget our choice-B students. Where do they go? Well, thanks to America’s consumer society, these students end up in sales positions. They are cashiers, baristas, and waiters. Car-washers and bank tellers. Day-care workers and gas-station cooks. They are the grease that smooths the turning wheels of modernity. Their jobs (some, at least) are essential to society. Deep down, though, I’ll always be aware of how many of them became State Farm, McDonalds, and Wal-Mart thralls. These are not even the thralls which the wandering Odin fathered.

College can act like a sorting cap that creates America’s lower, middle, and high classes, and it’s not fair. The cost of education alone should not dictate whether or not a kid slaves away at overpriced coffee shops or insurance call-desks. Rather, the outcome of an education should have the final say. Additionally, once you’ve made the decision to work instead of going to college, it’s so much harder to take the plunge and go back to college after you’ve already propped yourself up on your own two feet.

It’s not fair that wealthy students get a free ride through life. It’s not fair that some students have to study, work, and then never get the chance to play. It’s not fair that some students never even get to try their hands at college – that, after (at least) four long years of work, and four bathtubs full of student loan debts later, that they’ll never be handed those embossed sheets of paper that amount to… what, exactly? A title? A new sense of being? Knowledge would have been gained, of course, but must we really rely on college anymore to signify that for us?

Oh, but the kids who didn’t care in high school? The ones who didn’t take learning seriously? Yeah, I didn’t take them seriously, either.

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Poetry, Writing

Echo

Distant voices bounce from mountains,
Strangling words and mangling minds.
Echoes of past and gossips of present,
Into my ears these strange ideas find.
Often I catch a sentence or two,
A phrase,
A fragment,
A word.
But in my mind,
These echoes still bounce,
Mumbling words of a strange,
distant mind.

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Poetry, Writing

Perish No Memories

Feeling my fingers around the
Coldness of the
Food-
Chilled and left
Forgotten in the back.

I pick out the perished:
Moldy fruit,
Curdled milk,
Expired meat.
I throw it all away.
No pick and choose-
Whatever’s bad must go.

Useless satiates.
Nourishment tumbling to the
Bottom. The pit of an overflowing
metal bin, covered in handprints
and cans.

No pick and choose-
What’s good is known,
And the bad is easily weeded.
Ain’t no nonsensical questions over
the correct sequence of events for
protesting a divorce,
or how many shirts one should
really wear
on a Tuesday.

No, it’s just specks of green
on the crust.
And that’s all that
really matters
anyways.

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Poetry, Writing

The God

The wind blows cold, from your dead God unpleased.
Sickly hands feeling ‘round, plucking the strings.
Breath of a shadow from one long deceased,
Pervading the children, and peering, sings.

He tells them a tale, lies of good fortune,
And tunes them to sing with His song.
God for the faithful ones, those in his cocoon,
Who strike and damn all who are “wrong”.

He uses the children, takes them for masks,
Donning their innocence, fooling you all.
Sitting above you, in reverence he basks,
Raising your young ones to bid as his thralls.

And they wrote down his tales, they spread the word,
Innocent, ignorant that His song had been blurred.

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