Thunderhead, the second book in Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, is a gripping, exciting novel that sets the stage for major conflict in book 3, which I can’t wait to start. Book one introduced the reader to Shusterman’s futuristic world in which all evils seem to have been eradicated: illness, disease, war, crime, even death have been brought under control. In this world, people who meet unfortunate accidents or try to kill themselves can be revived. One is only truly dead when a scythe gleans them. Scythes are an elite corps of individuals specially chosen and trained to permanently eliminate people as a way to keep the earth’s population manageable. Scythes are feared and revered, and in book one, two teenagers — Cittra Terranova and Rowan Damisch — have been chosen to apprentice to Scythe Faraday, a man respected amongst his peers who is “old school” in his approach to his vocation. He trains his apprentices to glean responsibly and since they are reluctant to become scythes, he knows they will have the proper disposition to do the job. There is, however, a growing faction of “new school” scythes who take entirely too much enjoyment from killing; they delight in finding new ways to kill and in killing large numbers of people at a time. At the end of book 1, Cittra and Rowan, who have come to like and maybe even love each other, find themselves pitted against one another, pawns in this larger game amongst power hungry scythes. Cittra, now apprenticed to the Granddame of Death Scythe Curie, has become Scythe Anastasia while Rowan, apprenticed to Scythe Goddard — a ruthless, power hungry mass murderer — is a wanted man and on the run.
One of the important characters in Thunderhead is the Thunderhead itself. The Thunderhead is a god-like entity. It has no physical body but is the repository of all information, all knowledge and has control over all systems on earth. If someone is killed accidentally, it sends a revival team. It has “eyes and ears” everywhere, including in people’s homes, although they do have the option to turn off the Thunderhead’s access there if they choose. The Thunderhead provides much narration in this story. Its purpose is to take care of humanity and prevent it from succumbing to the worst of its impulses. People can directly access the Thunderhead and speak to it, receiving information and support from it. There are a couple of notable exceptions to this rule, however. “Unsavories,” that is, people who consistently break the rules and intentionally cause trouble, are cut off from direct communication with the Thunderhead. It can still see and hear them, but it no longer directly communicates with them. The other exception is the Scythes. There is a law that separates the Thunderhead and the Scythes. They never communicate with each other and the Thunderhead does not enter their homes or interfere with their work nor do scythes access the Thunderhead’s systems. The arrangement has worked well, but the Thunderhead can tell that something is brewing amongst the scythes, something dangerous for everyone, and the Thunderhead knows that Cittra/Anastasia is somehow key to saving everyone.
In book 2, Rowan, despite not officially being a scythe, has gone rogue, wearing a scythe’s garb and the ring of his former master Goddard. His goal is to bring justice to the new order scythes who glean with abandon and to protect Anastasia, who has become a focal point for both sides in the growing rift amongst scythes. Rowan has been gleaning bad scythes, killing them in such a way that they cannot be revived. The Scythedom makes the arrest of “Lucifer,” Rowan’s chosen new name, a priority until a plot to murder Anastasia and Curie is uncovered. The Thunderhead is also aware of this plot and is trying to protect Anastasia and figure out who is behind it. Since the Thunderhead cannot communicate directly with Anastasia or Rowan, it makes use of an undercover agent — a young man named Greyson Tolliver, who is a fascinating addition to the cast of characters in this series. Greyson has spent much of his life rather isolated, his parents being mostly absentee and uninterested in their children’s lives. The Thunderhead has been a constant, reliable and comforting presence in Greyson’s life and Greyson wants nothing more than to serve the Thunderhead. The nature of his service, however, requires Greyson to become an “unsavory,” meaning that he will no longer have the comfort of contact with the Thunderhead, and he will have to start acting the part of “unsavory,” something that he initially balks at doing but begins to see the importance of later.
As I was reading this story, I was struck by the very biblical tones of the story and how well the author uses biblical imagery in the novel. Scythes seem divided between the “good” and the “fallen angels”; unsavories have sinned and fallen from grace and communion with “God”; Greyson, a young man of faith, is suffering a dark night of the soul, a crisis of faith; and the end of this novel involves an event that is just obviously biblical, in my opinion, and sets up another potentially biblical event for book 3. That event was horrifying to read but also incredibly exciting. This series has really strong writing and character development and I’m looking forward to reading how everything turns out.