What happens when humans are in charge of dealing out death? The Arc of a Scythe series by Neal Shusterman takes on this question. In a world where humanity has conquered death and is ruled by a collective consciousness called the Thunderhead (think of our modern internet “Cloud” on steroids), utopia still has not been reached. It has been deemed necessary that people still die, keeping to the natural order of things. And so a Scythedom was formed, a collection of humans chosen to be the grim reapers of mankind. The second installment of the series, Thunderhead, digs deeper into questions surrounding Scythes, namely, the biggie: Are they playing God?
As a nearly all-seeing, all-knowing artificial intelligence, the Thunderhead, is far more godlike, but is not allowed to deal out death or bring about life. There is a separation between Thunderhead and Scythedom in this futuristic America, much like separation fo church and state in what the series refers to as the “Age of Mortality.” Despite that separation, the Thunderhead finds a way around its own rules to alter the course of human history.
Thunderhead is one of those books you know is going to be great and it’s going to end on a cliffhanger and so you don’t want to finish it until the next book in the series is out. I was on a deadline to finish reading Thunderhead before returning it to the library, and I did return it a day late, but left the last third to read when book three is out. Thankfully, Shusterman will likely have the next book out in short order, not like, ahem, me.
The Arc of a Scythe series isn’t so much a plot-driven story as it is a philosophical debate. What is mortality, really? What would life be like if we never died? What would bring us to a state in which we allocated our fellow humans to periodically execute certain numbers of mankind? Is our technology merely an advanced way of building our own god? The rules and organization of Shusterman’s world are built and defined well. It has some similarities to The Hunger Games series, but, thankfully, leaves out most of the angst and hints at a more satisfying ending.
Arc of a Scythe seems at first a simpler tale than other teen series, but it has layers and layers of ideas, themes and concepts all building on each other and as a reader, you just know there’s going to be some big reveal (or maybe just hope there will be) like in The Giver, that just turns everything on its head. I really like the highlighting of autonomous or charter regions in Thunderhead, as it reminds me of my time in China and their similar setup. The idea of a sort of “planned community” type of freedom intrigues me. So many good stories are based off of this idea, The Truman Show, The 13th Floor, The Giver, and so on, and it’s a relatable concept for today as we have so much “freedom” and simultaneously so many, many laws to follow.
I can’t wait to read book three of this series and also to finish Thunderhead, and I really hope the series will be more than a trilogy, but Shusterman’s writing and world are great, so I think I’ll be happy with it either way. And I have to also add, his book covers are outstanding.