Book Review, Review

Review of Scythe by Neal Shusterman



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.