By Neal Shusterman
Simon and Schuster, 2016
In the MidMerica of the distant future, hunger, war, illness, and poverty have all been abolished. While vestigial countries and regions exist, the world is governed by the Thunderhead, an all-knowing computer whose algorithms keep track of all citizens and ensure the peace and harmony of their lives.
The contented citizens of this world are immortal; when they become old, they “turn a corner,” returning to their 20s with all the wisdom and all the memories of their past lives intact.
There is only one trouble with this well-programmed society: potential over-population. But that problem is solved by a class of people known as Scythes; specially chosen souls who mercifully, quickly, and sorrowfully “glean” a fixed number of people every year, adhering to a quota that keeps the population stable.
The Scythes wear robes and are carefully trained in the used of lethal weapons and poisons. They have their own hierarchy, which is (important to the plot) separate from the Thunderhead.
As the book opens, Citra and Rowan, two teenagers from vastly different families, are chosen as apprentice Scythes by the Honorable Scythe Faraday, a greatly respected and deeply moral Scythe of the “old school”: one who believes in simple life, simple food, few possessions, chastity. As they train together, the two apprentices grow to be comrades, with a hint of more to come.
At the first Vernal Conclave of Scythes, however, the follower of a young, quasi-celebrity Scythe of a new generation, Scythe Goddard, points out that it is highly irregular for a Scythe to have two apprentices. Through Goddard’s efforts, the conclave is maneuvered into “slight stipulation”: only one of the two apprentices can become a Scythe – and the first job of the winner will be to glean the loser. Faraday, horrified because the idea of competition violates the moral code of Scythedom, frees the two apprentices by gleaning himself.
Technically, the two apprentices could just go home, but the High Blade of Scythedom apprentices Citra to Scythe Curie, “the Grand Dame of Death,” and Rowan to Scythe Goddard. The book then follows Rowan’s life with a celebrity who in the pre-immortal world would have been a terrorist, and Citra’s life with the powerful, merciful defender of the old guard and the opponent of the corruption Goddard’s lifestyle and cruelty bring to Scythedom.
This is a terrific read. It finds Shusterman, the award-winning author of nearly 30 books, at his very, very best.
It is the first volume of a trilogy, and is due to be made a movie. The plot is full of cliffhanging moments; the central characters are convincing; and its philosophical implications pose searching questions to thoughtful people of all ages.
What is the place of Scythes in a society that prides itself on the elimination of fear and death? What has immortality done to the richness of life? What politics is possible when the ruler of the world is “almost” all-powerful? And what happens to a society so innocent that two teenagers and their scythes are the only people who can prevent the spread of greed and mass murder?
Read it and consider the power of corruption and the determination that accompanies human strength and decency.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.