Speculative fiction isn’t my favorite genre, but I can appreciate its importance. It’s important for people’s ideas to be challenged. Some of the best speculative works I’ve ever read are Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Chinese SF author Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem. But for some reason, putting out something truly speculative for younger audiences seems to be much harder than for adult audiences. Works like The Giver and Chronicle of the Dark Star set the groundwork to challenge young minds into questioning the world around them, but fall short and end up ham-fisting easy answers in the end. The Arc of a Scythe trilogy, written by Neal Shusterman and published by Simon and Schuster, seems to try to challenge the young mind as well. But does it succeed?
Arc of a Scythe is set in a world where humanity has achieved total bliss; all knowledge has been learned, and anyone who dies instead comes back in fresh new bodies at a clinic. However, the population is still a thing, so they hire people called Scythes to off folks, which results in what is called gleaning: the true, final death. Two plucky teens named Citra and Rowan are recruited as apprentice Scythes, and go on adventures in life and death.
Immediately, this idea is really neat. Scythe‘s premise could’ve asked a lot of questions about morality and the greater good. Unfortunately, it’s not so much the case in execution. Murder is a horrible act, and the idea of hired killers being able to arbitrarily murder whomever they want is inherently scary, but the world in Scythe could’ve been a genuinely good solution for mankind. However, Scythe doesn’t reach that potential, at least not from what I could GLEAN off of the dialogue and worldbuilding.
The way the world is put together comes off as Shusterman going out of his way to make it as corrupt as possible, so that it can’t be interpreted in any way other than “bad”. First off, the fact that TEENAGERS become apprentice Scythes is utter bullcrap. Of all the people to give the power to commit murder willy-nilly, teens aren’t the best choice. Secondly, how come this world lacks that real-world thing called background checks? Maybe some like that might be important when hiring someone to ARBITRARILY COMMIT MURDER. And don’t get me started on the Thunderhead! This thing was built to oversee everything that happens in the world and run all machinery. It does its job well enough, except for Scythes; it is forbidden to interfere with them. You’d think that maybe, just maybe, it should do just that, especially when someone gets a BIT drunk with power?
Speaking of drunk with power, the biggest disappointment in Scythe is the main antagonist, Scythe Robert Goddard. It’s natural to think that anyone who has the power to murder without punishment (among other ludicrous perks of being a Scythe) would be a raving lunatic, and Goddard is said lunatic. He and his lackeys save all their gleanings for the last day of their quota so that they can perform literal acts of terrorism just for fun. Like in Marissa Meyer’s Renegades, he has no motive, and he apparently doesn’t need one because “Absolute power corrupts absolutely herpaderpderp.” They wait until the third book to give him any real backstory, but it doesn’t help much.
The other characters aren’t that much better. The two leads are just classic YA tropes; Citra’s the brat, and Rowan’s the edgelord. Their relationship is a load of bullcrap because they inevitably get romantically involved despite the fact that they spend more than 80% of the story separated. I don’t mean a long-distance relationship; I mean that they hardly even communicate with each other! Introduced in book two is Greyson, who is basically the emo. Unfortunately for him, all he does is join some cult and have conversations with the Thunderhead that aren’t really that interesting IMO (at least until the third book). In fact, at least half of the series is uninteresting conversations.
So what are the positives? It’s entertaining. The writing is solid, and when the story gets going, it gets going. There are also some good one-liners as well, and some parts that are unintentionally funny. And even though Goddard ruins all sense of moral ambiguity in the story, he’s still got some charisma as a try-hard, edgy villain.
Most of book two, Thunderhead, was a boring blur for me, except for the climax. It was a really intense string of events, and the author had done something genuinely ballsy. Unfortunately, 95 pages into book three, The Toll, he once fails to commit to that risky move. But other than that, The Toll is actually a [somewhat] satisfactory finale. It still fails to touch upon any speculative narrative themes (it damn well tries, though), but it’s definitely the best of the three.
Final Verdict: 7/10
I wanted to give Arc of a Scythe a 5 or lower, but I couldn’t. It’s my fault for expecting something more intellectual, when that might not have been the author’s intent. But for what it is, Scythe is decent at best; not the worst YA book series out there, but be wary that it will not explore any gray areas whatsoever.