I will start off by saying I never read anything by Neal Shusterman before, and I was pleasantly surprised at the power of some of his sentences. He can pull out a oneliner on morality, aging or art, and while it would be cheesy in anyone else’s hands, he makes it profound and beautiful. They were dispersed throughout the book, mostly in the diary entries that comprise the beginning of each chapter.
Now that I have put that out there, I guess I need to start addressing plot, worldbuilding and characterization. These were the things that I had a problem with, considering the average rating I gave this book. Starting with the worldbuilding, I admit that I may be a bit biased. I have a strong dislike of utopia’s on account of the fact that it’s not possible to do. I did a course on the topic once and it became clear to me that it is extremely difficult to pull off. Every aspect of your world has to be perfect and harmonious. Anyone can do a dystopia (although, not everyone can do it well); you create conflict in your world and you have part of your plot already laid in.
A utopia, on the other hand, means controlling many variables that are outright opposed to one another. Thomas Moore had devised a brainwashing education for the children to make sure they would all stay in line as adults. Do you see where I’m going with this? And even if you would manage to build a society that is perfect, in effect you erase your possibility for a plot. Neal Shusterman does a nice job of creating a society that wants for nothing, but that has also lost its ambition to achieve. It is only a small part of the overall story, which is why he can pull it off without getting into too much trouble. After all, a perfect society does not necessarily have to be a happy society. Although, that kinda still is what a utopia comes down to. See the problem?
My biggest peeve with Scythe is where Shusterman creates his conflict: in a Scythe that loves killing. It is a very predictable move, and I have severe issues with how Scythe Goddard is portrayed. He is the archetypical deluded madman with lofty, morally wrong ideas. He is so stereotypical that I was surprised a seasoned writer like Neal Shusterman could write like that. Why is Scythe Goddard not a man who comes with actual, plausible ideas? It is very much possible for the wrong idea to be portrayed in such a manner that everyone will believe they have a point.
Just look at history – the most dangerous of men have always been those who can sway you to a cause just by making you believe they are actually right, not seeing how far you’ve gone off the path. But, no such effort is made here: Scythe Goddard is evil and it is clear to everyone. Only madmen and bloodthirsty lackies follow him with pride. His diary entries are meant to underscore this too. We are never meant to believe him, and I find that an unforgivable lack in Scythe. All I wished for was for him to be a three-dimensional character that poses an actual threat. Give me a reason why people follow him instead of “well, they’re just evil too.” This is YA, not a children’s book.
What happens with Scythe Goddard happens with the rest of the book as well. It is predictable in the extreme. Although some parts are very promising, they are never expanded upon with a conclusion as interesting as its suggestion. I liked the Scythe assembly meetings, but it was just a bland summation of what was going on, instead of delving deeply into the politics and making them conflicted. When Rowan and Citra are divvied up between Scythe Curie and Scythe Goddard, Rowan is never tempted. I like what he eventually becomes, but I’m really sad that this is also where the book ends. Just when it got a bit more interesting.
Citra’s character development is non-existent as well. She applies herself well and continues to apply herself well, being taught first by Scythe Faraday and then by Scythe Curie. She has no interesting ideas of her own, and comes to quickly agree with everything these two (veeeery archetypically good) Scythes are showing her about the world. She immediately finds herself understanding and being interested in what the Scythes think is good for her. WIth Faraday it takes her but a few weeks to appreciate pre-immortality art, even though it is made clear that it’s very hard to understand for those post-death. She also takes to Scythe Curie’s way of helping a family by asking them to join her for a meal, even though it is not in her nature to ever think of such things. That’s Rowan’s thing. And she doesn’t form opinions of her own how best to handle the enormous task ahead of her. She just follows directions like a meek sheep. And that for a supposedly recalcitrant girl.
What bothered me most, I think, is how good ideas and suggestions kept popping up. I would think, “Oh, that is interesting”, and then it would veer towards the predictable again, being handled without any conflict. For instance, while Scythe Faraday’s solution to the problems at hand was a good find, and it had much more possible outcomes than any other part of the book, it was never further explored. He just showed up again at the appropriate time. No question of his morality, leaving two kids at the mercy of the Scythes. No explanation to why something so incredibly drastic was found necessary at this time, the first time in hundreds of years. No glimpse into his soul as to why he feels how he feels. From a writer who shows a really good perspective through his reflective oneliners, I can’t wrap my mind around why everything else was so bland.
Because that is what it comes down to. Although it was well written, the plot and world both had promising outlines – it just outright boring. Citra and Rowan are one-dimensional characters, Scythe Goddard is a stereotype just as much as the good Scythe Faraday (and even Curie) is. Every time something interesting seemed poised to happen, it was fixed by going down the obvious route and treating it with another predictable stereotype. I expected so much more from someone like Neal Shusterman that I will not quickly read another of his books. I am giving it its three stars based solely on the really nice writing style and the potential.