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Book Review

Scythe by Neal Schusterman has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first book in the “Arc of a Scythe” series.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

In the year 2042, the technological cloud evolved into an entity called “the Thunderhead,” a sentient conglomeration of all the information ever put into computers. Over the years and with the help of the Thunderhead’s abilities, humankind eliminated disease, war, famine and even death. Nanites can heal any damage to human bodies, even aging.

The only way a person can die now is by being gleaned. A selected group of men and women, known as scythes, are allowed kill individuals in order to keep the planet from overpopulation. The Thunderhead does not interfere with their work, nor are they allowed to access its data in order to manipulate who gets gleaned.

Each scythe takes the name of a historical figure. They are supposed to live outside of normal human interaction in order to remain anonymous and relatively free of biases that could influence the people they choose to kill.

Citra, a teenager, is shocked when Scythe Faraday arrives unannounced to her family’s apartment and invites himself to dinner. She and her family are terrified at the thought that one of them might be gleaned. Only Citra has the courage to demand Faraday does it or leave once dinner has been eaten. Faraday admits he is not there to glean any of them, but their neighbor. He allows Citra’s mother to kiss his ring as payment for the dinner he consumed, giving her immunity from gleaning for one year.

Rowan, another teenager, follows Faraday through the halls of his school when the scythe appears there one morning. Faraday explains that he is there to glean Kohl, the star quarterback. Kohl is terrified, and although he barely knows Rowan, he asks him to stay by his side as Faraday administers the electric shock that kills him. Faraday warns Rowan that although his actions were merciful and showed courage, others will not view it that way. Sure enough, Rowan becomes a pariah as other students spread rumors that he asked the scythe to kill Kohl, or killed Kohl himself.

Several months later, Scythe Faraday requests both Citra and Rowan be his apprentices for the next year. In the end, only one will receive a scythe ring, the sign of their authority and the way in which they grant immunity. The other will be allowed to return to his or her life. Although neither wants to be a scythe, they eventually enter into the apprenticeship with Faraday.

The training is difficult, both mentally and physically. They must learn how to use various weapons, poisons — and even their hands — to kill people. They are taught the history and moral code of the Scythedom. Faraday also instructs them on his own rules of decency, which includes attending the funerals of those he gleans, to show his respect to their family.

Three times a year, scythes gather together for a Conclave, in which they test apprentices and discipline scythes that have broken the rules. At the Vernal Conclave, Rowan and Citra see the political rift that is opening between old-school scythes like Faraday and his friend Curie, and those of the modern world, like Scythe Goddard. Goddard and his followers do not glean individually. Although nothing has been officially documented, they prefer to glean groups, and their killings are terrifying and often painful. Goddard is charismatic, however, and easily deflects all accusations.

In their first tests as apprentices, Scythe Curie questions both Citra and Rowan. When it’s obvious they have formed a friendship, one of Goddard’s followers asks that Faraday not be allowed to have two apprentices, as they appear to be helping each other. She suggests that in order to make sure Citra and Rowan both try their best to become scythes, whoever wins should have to glean the other as their first act as a scythe.

Faraday vehemently objects but is overruled by the scythe’s High Blade, Xenocrates. Scythe Faraday, in an effort to save his apprentices from this decision, commits suicide by jumping in front of a subway train. Usually, when a scythe dies, their apprentice is set free. However, High Blade Xenocrates gives his permission for Citra to be Scythe Curie’s apprentice, while Rowan will apprentice under Scythe Goddard. Looming over Citra’s and Rowan’s training is the reality that the one chosen to be scythe will have to kill the other.

Like Faraday, Scythe Curie believes in the old rules of the Scythedom, and trains Citra in the same manner. Citra doubts that Faraday committed suicide and wonders if the Thunderhead has video evidence of the scene. She investigates in secret, as she knows Scythe Curie would not approve.

Rowan learns a completely different view of Scythedom from Goddard, one of violence, power and entitlement. In order to survive, Rowan develops physically and mentally into a fine-tuned killer, but he knows Goddard’s vision of the scythe is wrong. Of the three scythes that live and work with Goddard, only one, a young man named Volta, seems to have the same misgivings as Rowan.

At the Autumn Conclave, Citra tells Rowan about her investigation into Faraday’s death. She believes he was pushed, and the witnesses who claimed he jumped were offered immunity by the scythe who committed the murder. They both know the scythe who had the most to gain from his death was Goddard, but as they can’t prove anything, they must keep their suspicions to themselves.

As a test of their skills, they are forced to use martial arts to battle each other. Citra knows that Rowan is trying to throw the fight, but refuses to let him. In desperation, Rowan breaks her neck. He does it so that she will not hesitate the next time and win the Scythedom. As the winner, she will have to kill him.

Thinking Rowan has embraced his love of violence, Goddard throws an elaborate party in his honor. Rowan is surprised to see High Blade Xenocrates in attendance. Rowan suspects Goddard is blackmailing the High Blade in order to keep Goddard from being censured by the Scythedom.

Rowan’s friend Volta reveals that Esme, a young girl living in their mansion, is Xenocrates’ illegitimate daughter. Not only would he lose his position should the truth come out, but Goddard has threatened to glean her if the High Blade does not support him.

Once Citra is returned to life, she is arrested for the murder of Faraday. As evidence, a page from Faraday’s journal is brought to light in which he admits to being afraid of a female apprentice. Xenocrates tries to force her to sign a confession, but Citra commits suicide. While she is dead, she is considered a private citizen and not a scythe’s apprentice, thereby putting her under the jurisdiction of the Thunderhead, not the Scythedom.

While she is unconscious and being healed by the nanites, the Thunderhead speaks to her, warning that she will play an important role in the future of the scythes. It also tells her the name of the person who killed Faraday: Gerald Van Der Gans. Scythe Curie manages to help Citra escape from the healing center before she can be arrested again.

Curie explains that in the past, she [Curie] had been Faraday’s apprentice. The journal entry was about her, because he feared her behavior until she admitted she was in love with him. The two broke Scythe law and had an intimate relationship. They were censured, forced to die seven deaths, and then to live without contact for 70 years. As scythe authorities near their hideout, Curie gives Citra a piece of paper with a name and address, and she tells her to flee.

As Citra escapes, she sees the name on the paper is Van Der Gans and believes Curie is sending her to kill Faraday’s murderer. She is shocked when she finds the man and discovers he is Faraday. He faked his death to free her and Rowan, and did not know they were made to continue their scythe apprenticeships. Scythe Curie returns to her home and admits Faraday’s journal page was about her and thereby clears Citra for his murder.

Goddard is furious by this turn of events and leads a deadly rampage against an odd, but harmless, religious cult. Goddard orders his followers to kill every single member, including the children. After his friend Volta gleans himself in despair over his actions, Rowan searches for Goddard. Goddard orders Rowan to kill the last remaining victim. Instead, Rowan runs Goddard through with a sword and takes his scythe ring, effectively making him mortal again. Rowan then cuts off the scythe’s head. He also kills Goddard’s remaining followers and sets the grounds on fire, insuring that even the nanites cannot reanimate the corpses.

Then Rowan denies any part in the scythes’ deaths to High Blade Xenocrates. He brings Esme into the room and intimates he knows her relationship to the High Blade. Xenocrates offers to drop the investigation into Goddard’s death, and Rowan asks him to take Esme home to her mother.

No longer a fugitive, Citra returns to attend the Winter Conclave, but Faraday remains in hiding. On the second day of the Conclave, Citra and Rowan take the stage and wait to see which one will be chosen to be a scythe. Rowan knows if he is chosen, he will kill any scythe that tries to force him to glean Citra.

Citra has her own plan, which she enacts when she is chosen to be a scythe. She puts on her scythe’s ring and then punches Rowan in the mouth for “killing” her in their previous fight. When she then draws her weapon to glean him, her ring, along with all the scythes’ rings, lights up, showing he has immunity.

Just as when a person kisses a scythe’s ring, her ring registered the DNA from Rowan’s bloody lip and gave it to him. Citra points to the tray of knives still on the stage with them and tells him there is a car waiting at the east exit. As the furious scythes try to capture and imprison him, Rowan uses the knives to escape. He gets into the waiting car and is shocked to find Scythe Faraday driving it.

The novel ends with a page from Citra’s journal as the newly renamed Scythe Anastasia. She tells of a rumor that there is someone seeking out corrupt scythes and killing them with fire. Although not an ordained scythe, the public is calling him Scythe Lucifer. She intimates that this Lucifer is Rowan, and hopes he would see her as a good scythe.

Christian Beliefs

When Citra expresses her surprise at the uneventfulness of a person’s death, Faraday asks if she expected a choir of angels to sing. In his journal, Faraday refers to the past, when people used to pray to a God that was harsh and rendered terrifying judgements. Then they prayed to a God who was loving and forgiving. Curie writes in her journal that religions became irrelevant when mankind became their own savior.

Goddard refers to himself and the scythes that follow him as the angels of death. They take a helicopter to a gleaning so they can appear to swoop down from heaven. Rowan thinks of them as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. It is unclear, when no one appears to have read the Bible, how they know of these references.

There is a reference to a winter holiday known as the Month of Lights that commemorated some ancient miracles that no one can remember. People exchange gifts with friends and family.

Other Belief Systems

The Thunderhead is described in godlike terms. Since it knows everything, it is allowed to run everything, thereby creating a utopia on earth. But it is not allowed to determine when someone should be gleaned, as people decided that requires a conscience, and it is unclear whether the Thunderhead has one.

Faraday prays to the void, hoping there is something out there that can guide him and give him peace about the job he has been chosen to do. He believes only the gift of empathy will keep humanity human. If they lose the ability to feel the pain of loss, there will be no god that can help them.

Scythe Curie wonders if there is an eternal world after this life and what fate awaits someone who takes other peoples’ lives. A woman she is gleaning wonders what happens after death, and Curie cannot answer her.

Goddard writes in his diary that he doesn’t miss communicating with the Thunderhead and feels the lack of communication is a blessing. He, Goddard, is the highest power he knows, and he enjoys his position. He calls his junior scythes his disciples. At one of his mass gleanings he tells the victims that he is their completion and their deliverance. He is their gateway to the mysteries of the afterlife.

Some people are part of the Tonist Cult. They dress in sackcloth and worship the vibrations created by sound. Curie thinks they do so to try to make the passing of time more meaningful. A cultist tells Citra that they worship the Great Vibration, which will set them free from stagnation.

Throughout the novel, when people “die,” they do not go to an afterlife. They appear to be in a kind of suspended animation with no thoughts or memories. The Thunderhead, however, is able to access a small piece of Citra’s consciousness and speak to her.

Authority Roles

Citra’s parents are kind. When Scythe Faraday offers her mother immunity for the dinner she served, she asks him to give it to her children instead, but he refuses. Although they do not admit it, Citra knows her parents want her to become a scythe, as it means neither she, nor her brother, can be gleaned, because a scythe’s family is granted immunity while the scythe is alive.

Rowan’s family is large and uninvolved in his life. He calls himself “lettuce,” a garnish that no one really needs in a sandwich. Scythes Faraday and Curie are honorable people, albeit killers. They are humane and respectful to the dead and their families. Scythe Goddard is a narcissistic serial killer who wants to train others to indulge their darkest desires.


God is used with the word my. H--- is used alone and with hole. A-- is used alone and with smart and candy. B--tard and d---n are also used. Other objectionable words are jeez, crapand p---.

In this world, death is not terminal unless a scythe gleans you. Many people indulge in reckless pursuits, just to feel the thrill. One of Rowan’s friends likes to “splat.” He jumps from high buildings to kill himself because it’s mandatory that his parents pay for him to be revived. He is excited when his latest splat took him four days to recover and that he cracked the marble sidewalk he fell on.

At the Autumnal Conclave, Citra and Rowan must demonstrate their skills at martial arts and fight each other. When Rowan realizes Citra will not let him throw the fight to let her win, he breaks her neck and kills her. She later throws herself from a skyscraper to evade arrest by the High Blade. At the Winter Conclave, the final test to become a scythe is to kill someone close to you.

Citra must kill her little brother, but as she does not yet have a scythe ring, he will be sent to a healing center and healed by the nanites in his body. Although at first she refuses, she eventually stabs him with a knife. Citra is chosen to be a scythe and must glean Rowan. Instead, she punches him in the mouth, thereby getting his DNA on her ring, which gives him immunity for a year. Rowan fights his way out of the Conclave, rather than being jailed for a year.

Faraday and Curie are humane in their gleanings. Faraday tells how he once challenged a fencer to a duel. The fencer stabbed him through the neck once and through the femoral artery the second time. When Faraday finally stabbed him through the heart, during their final duel, the man thanked him for letting him die fighting.

Another man fights his impending death by punching Faraday in the jaw. The scythe then stabs him in the throat. By law, the man’s family should be gleaned as punishment for his disobedience, but after intimating that he would kill his wife and children, Faraday grants them immunity.

Faraday has a cooling chip placed in his scythe ring. When Citra secretly takes it from his nightstand and puts it on her finger, it causes frostbite and pain. Once she tears the ring off, her nanites begin to heal her injuries.

Goddard is introduced to the reader as an unnamed scythe who brings his followers onto an airplane in order to glean all the passengers and crewmembers. He opens his robe to reveal a variety of weapons and says he will kill each of them as the mood strikes him. It is obvious he and his fellow scythes see gleaning more as a sport than a noble responsibility. He tells the victims that he is their completion as he kills them. A businessman chooses to impale himself on Goddard’s knife rather than let the scythe stab him.

Goddard slaughters everyone in the food court of a mall. The scene is told through young Esme’s perspective, as she crawls on all fours under tables as people are stabbed, shot and burned around her. She eventually finds a place to hide until Goddard finds her. He tells her to come with him. One of his followers brings Esme the pizza slice she had abandoned as the slaughter started. And, even as they walk among the dead, it appears as if Esme is going to eat it.

When Goddard takes Rowan as his apprentice, he turns off the boy’s nanites. Then he lets his three followers beat him to a pulp. Without the nanites, Rowan feels the pain of the beating as well as the slow pain of healing. Goddard’s training includes having Rowan use real weapons to kill real people. The people are then sent to healing centers to be reanimated. Rowan is a witness to several horrific gleanings, in which Goddard and his followers stab, shoot and use a flame-thrower to annihilate their victims.

Most disturbing is the rapturous glee Goddard and his followers express as they kill people. As retribution for Citra being set free, Goddard goes on a horrific rampage at a Tonist Temple. After Volta kills a roomful of children, he gleans himself with a knife. Rowan decapitates Goddard, uses a flame-thrower on another scythe and beats the last one with the large tuning fork the cult worships. He then uses the flame-thrower to intentionally burn Goddard’s body and start a fire that engulfs the temple and hides the evidence of his murders.

After Rowan escapes the Winter Conclave, he becomes Scythe Lucifer, a rogue vigilante that kills scythes who espouse Goddard’s beliefs rather than the more honorable rules of the past.


Citra surprises Rowan by kissing him. It is not a passionate kiss, more like an experiment. Although they have romantic feelings for each other, they never kiss again.

One of Goddard’s female disciples keeps joking about the many lewd things she wants to do with Rowan when he is of age.

Citra remembers buying a dress for a homecoming dance because she thought a boy was going to ask her. She was surprised when he asked another boy instead.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Many of Goddard’s parties include alcoholic drinks. He gives Rowan a glass of champagne even though he is not legally supposed to drink.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

16 and up


Neal Shusterman






Record Label



Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers


On Video

Year Published



Printz Honor Book, 2017; ALA/YALSA Teens' Top Ten List, 2017; and many others


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