Sometimes the world really does save the best for last. Because people? Scythe is amazing. I keep thinking about it. I unabashedly loved reading it in that can’t put it down way, but I also absolutely love it as a contender. It jumped the queue right into my top 5, and as the second to last 2016 YA book I read, that means it jumped a whole lotta books.
Basically, Shusterman took his commercial chops and mashed that with the thoughtful, nuanced writing he displayed so wonderfully with Challenger Deep, and the result is a near perfect combo.
Scythe, Neal Shusterman
Simon & Schuster, October 2016
Reviewed from final e-book
With 5 stars, Scythe is in some pretty elevated company, side by side with Pyrite winner The Passion of Dolssa and only three other YA titles: The Sun is Also a Star; March Book 3; and Still Life With Tornado. Even if we count crossover The Girl Who Drank the Moon, it’s still a tiny handful of books in this echelon of critical reception; The Lie Tree is the only book with more than 5 stars.
(Of course, stars don’t predict the Printz, but many stars does often correlate with Printz recognition.)
So let’s talk turkey. What does Scythe have that makes it more than just the best dystopic of the year?
Well, let’s start with the setting. Because the first thing that struck me as setting this one apart is that the post-mortality world is about as close to a utopia as I’ve come across, making this feel truly distinct from the subgenre it sort of belongs to. Shusterman drops more and more details as the novel goes on, adding texture to his world. Every question that came into my head was answered, about as seamlessly as possible; the Scythe journals are a tool that aids this process, sure, but a tools that serves so many purposes, all quite well, and never reads like exposition for exposition’s sake. This future feels entirely plausible, including hanging on to all sorts of things from the past because filling eternity is not exactly easy; school and jobs provide some structure for all the time.
Next up, voice. I know some have said the prose here is utilitarian, but I think it’s much more than that. Often, we gravitate towards flashy prose, lyrical prose, poetic prose, when we talk about potential award winners. This is quiet, unassuming prose. It gets the job done and never ever calls attention to itself — which is a sign of immense skill. Only once did I notice the prose, because it was so good at what it does that the rest of the time I was able to just lose myself in the story. And then there’s the Scythe’s first person thoughts in their journals. A rotating cast of first-person narratives, and every single one is clearly identifiable as an individual voice. The command of language on display is impressive, all the more so for its subtlety.
Those shifts in voice speak to how well Shusterman has defined his characters. Citra and Rowan start out somewhat bland, which given the attention paid to the ennui of immortality makes total sense; they are a little dull as is almost everyone in this existence. As Citra and Rowan begin to understand death and therefore the point of life they become more complex and interesting themselves. Faraday, Curie, and Goddard, on the other hand, are intensely interesting from their first entries — their different ways of engaging with their world and their workis practically a philosophical treatise, and in the delineation between Faraday and Curie you can really see how Shusterman uses small details to develop distinct characters; they are in some ways very similar, and yet in other ways intensely different.
Which brings us to theme. This book made me think. It’s a text deeply concerned with the idea of meaning, and the musing on how meaning can be found continues to play in my mind weeks after reading this. Ideas about immortality and mortality, about the importance of living in the moment and the difficulty of doing so when the moments are unnumbered and unmoored: all of this is present, and delivered in a way that begs the reader to engage with these ideas. It’s heady stuff, but it doesn’t play as heady because it’s so of a piece with the plot, which has a sort of forward momentum that builds and builds to a cathartic conclusion. (I know this is first in a series, but it leaves things open rather than dangling, and would work perfectly well without a sequel or companion.)
It’s all just so good!
Now, there are flaws — there are always flaws. The only one that really deserves being held up in this conversation is the question (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) of whether Faraday would really hide himself away. I loved it as a reader, because I was so happy to see him again, but I have questions about whether this is consistent with the rest of the characterization we’ve seen. I’m willing to forgive this, and it seems like all those reviewers were too, but will the RealCommittee consider that a deal breaker? Maybe, especially since this is speculative fiction, but like I said, I’m still putting this in my top 5, and my fingers are crossed for some love come next Monday.