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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Scythe

scythe-9781442472426_hrSometimes 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.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Allison M. says:

    You hit on everything I would say about this book if I were reviewing it. I loved, loved it but my one major question is the one you raised above about Faraday. To me it did NOT seem in character for him to disappear like that. As a reader for pleasure I could get past it but it did keep me from listing this as my #1 pick for Pyrite Honor. However, I am still hopeful that maybe this will be further examined in the sequel? Gah! Hence the difficulty of evaluating series titles!

  2. Just finished Scythe. I have mixed feelings about Shusterman’s books, most of which I have read. He is a great storyteller. The provocative themes of his books are usually accompanied with a fair amount of violence – and not the cartoonish mayhem which can be overlooked and dismissed. (More power to him?).

    But this book takes it up a notch. Scythe’s focus is society-sanctioned death – or more precisely, random killing mandated by society. It’s presented as the obvious utilitarian approach to a world with unlimited population growth, resulting from an artificial intelligence (?) that adjusts the environment to meet everyone’s physical and social needs. That’s the definition of a utopia, correct? Or is it?

    The narrative focuses on the killers, who approach their duties in a variety of interesting ways, and I presume that is why the book has been picked up by Hollywood.

    But is creating a super-violent setting the only way to entice readers to think about what constitutes a “good life” and what is one’s responsibility to one’s fellow man (which are some of the themes that occurred to me)? Certainly this is a book teens will read!

    One of my choices for the Printz is The Female of the Species – extremely violent as well – but it is the morality and emotional impact of the protagonist’s violent actions that are the focus of the book.

    I will be very interested to see the committee’s decisions on Monday!

    PS. Faraday is presented as a rule-breaker from the beginning, so I was not surprised by the turn of events. (Also, Shusterman has a heart when it comes to important characters!)

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Thanks for the reminder that he plays by his own rules; he’s such an old school, genuinely good man and Scythe that I overlooked that he’d broken rules before.
      The use of death as a stand-in for power (especially as Scythes are the only ones outside the Thunderhead’s control) is quite powerful to the reader, so while I don’t think it was the only way to entice readers to think about these questions, I do think it’s an effective way. And agreed, this is totally compelling and easy to talk up to teens, without sacrificing depth!

  3. Let’s see if I can write up my comment this morning without it getting eaten… (I was working on it yesterday morning when I accidentally hit refresh and lost it.)

    I also loved Scythe, largely for the reasons you elaborated. I didn’t find the writing utlitiarian; I found it straightforward, smart, and often funny. It’s self-aware at just the right level (“All they can do is wag the ‘naughty’ finger at me” (350) “‘Very bad!’ he said, wagging a finger. ‘Very, very bad.'” (356)) and the literary allusions are nifty Easter eggs for readers who catch them but don’t leave the reader who doesn’t confused. (I caught Scythe Twain’s joke about attending his own funeral (419), and I’m going to count Scythe Curie’s childhood name of “Susan” as a Discworld reference (236). Susan being Death’s granddaughter.) The scythe names themselves have things to say about contemporary culture, values, and celebrity. While also being funny (Scythe Colbert, anyone?). I just love love love the balance of smart and funny.

    When I was reading, Scythe Faraday’s hiding didn’t bug me. I think I’d need to re-read with that criticism in mind to get a really good handle on it, but I think I agree with Mary; I can see Faraday deciding that the system has become corrupt to a point where the only ethical choice is to opt out of the system. And hiding is his only way to do that, aside from actually self-gleaning. And self-gleaning doesn’t leave him the opportunity to continue to help these two kids he’s very conscious of having taken responsibility for. Of course, my thoughts on this might be shaped by his trajectory over the next books–if Scythe Curie gleans him because, having retired, he’s lost his will to live (I forget how she actually puts it and don’t have the book with me), that could cast some light both on his choices and their ramifications.

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