92 pages 3 hours read

Neal Shusterman


Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Neal Shusterman’s 2016 science fantasy novel, Scythe, tells an unsettling story of two teenagers in the near dystopian future who live in a world where death has literally been defeated. Weighty existential and philosophical questions abound in this first entry of the Arc of the Scythe Series, which has been highly praised for its insight and compulsive readability. The second book, Thunderhead, was released in 2018.

In the year 2042, the world’s artificial intelligences become sentient and form an omniscient network known as the Thunderhead. Because the Thunderhead has access to all that can be known, it quickly learns how to keep humans alive forever. The Thunderhead is put in charge of the government, and rules benevolently and objectively. However, the problem of overpopulation and finite resources persists, so population growth is maintained by a group of people known as Scythes. Scythes are required to “glean” a certain quota of people in order to balance the ratio of space and resources to people.

Early in the novel, teenagers Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch are chosen as apprentice scythes to a man known as Scythe Faraday. They leave their families to live with Faraday in a modest home while he trains them in the duties of the scythe. After one year of training, he will choose to ordain one of them to the job, while the other returns to normal life. They begin a strict regimen of training with weapons, poisons, martial arts, history, chemistry, and one of them always accompanies Faraday on his “gleanings.”

At one of three yearly scythe meetings called a Conclave, other scythes raise objections with Faraday choosing two apprentices, which has never been done. One of his enemies—a cruel man named Scythe Goddard who enjoys killing and views scythes as superior to other humans—proposes that the two apprentices compete over the year of their training. The one who is ordained will be required to glean, or kill, the other as their first official act as a scythe. The motion passes, enraging Faraday and frightening Citra and Rowan.

Shortly after, guards visit the home and tell Citra and Rowan that Faraday has killed himself, which is called “self-gleaning.” Citra is sent to apprentice under Scythe Curie, a famous woman who assassinated the president and his cabinet shortly after the creation of the Thunderhead. Rowan is sent to apprentice under Scythe Goddard, who quickly begins turning him into an efficient killer. Curie is interested in Citra’s education. Goddard is interested only in seeing if he can twist the empathetic Rowan into a man who enjoys killing as much as he does.

Citra is eventually framed by enemies of Faraday and blamed for his death. With Curie’s help, she must go into hiding. She finds Faraday, still alive, and learns that Curie is the only other person who knows that he faked his self-gleaning. She briefly resumes her time as his apprentice before being cleared of wrongdoing and returning to the final Conclave.

Goddard forces Rowan to participate in increasingly elaborate mass gleanings, daring the Scythedom administrators or the Thunderhead to stop him. After gleaning everyone in a monastery, he orders Rowan to glean the final survivor. Instead, Rowan kills Goddard and his two junior scythes, then lets the building burn to the ground.

At the final Conclave, each candidate is forced to kill one of their family members. They will be reanimated, but they have to perform the gleaning to show that they are committed and can live with the sorrow of their office. Citra stabs her brother and Rowan shoots his mother. Then, Citra is awarded the Scythehood and is required to glean Rowan. Instead, she punches him in the face with her scythe ring. When his DNA comes into contact with it, he is granted one year of immunity, which was Citra’s plan. He fights his way out of the building and escapes with Faraday in a waiting car. As the book ends, Citra hears rumors that there is a non-scythe vigilante out there, burning corrupted and evil scythes. She wonders if it is Rowan.