Constant Killing, Machiavellian Schemes, and Political Intrigue: Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

Constant Killing, Machiavellian Schemes, and Political Intrigue: Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

Scythe Neal Shusterman-small Thunderhead Neal Shusterman-small

Neal Shusterman’s dystopia Thunderhead has rocked the New York Times bestseller list for YA Hardcover for the past two months as of this writing. The sequel to Scythe, a Printz Honor book, it’s just as dark, intense, and daring as the original.

The world of Scythe and Thunderhead is perfect. An incomprehensibly complex, sentient, and nearly all-knowing AI named the Thunderhead runs everything without the slightest hitch. No one needs to work unless they want to, and humans are immortal. If you grow older than you’d like, you can “turn the corner” and become whatever age you choose. If you fall from a high place and splat, a revival center will bring you back. Don’t worry about poison. Don’t worry about car crashes. As long as your flesh isn’t consumed, you’ve only been rendered deadish. Give it a day or two, and you’ll be back among the living.

Unless, of course, a Scythe chooses to glean you.

Scythes, charged with keeping the immortal human population under control, are made up of humanity’s best and brightest. Apprentices endure a year of testing and training, only to be winnowed down to a sole candidate. Newly ordained scythes pick a name from a famous historic figure, don robes in their chosen color, and wear a ring that, when kissed, grants a year of immunity from gleaning. For the rest of their lives, they’re expected to reap five souls each week. Traditionally, scythes have hated this task, but a “new order” is on the rise. These scythes take sadistic delight in gleaning whole crowds with no respect for the individuals whose lives they’ve ended.

In Thunderhead, Scythe Anastasia creates enemies among the new order by giving her marks a month’s notice before gleaning them according to the method of their choice. Due to the Separation of Scythe and State, the Thunderhead is forbidden from interfering with or even relating to the scythedom in any way. So when the new order scythes target her for assassination, the AI is supposed to do nothing but watch. Instead, it steers promising teenager Greyson Tolliver away from a respectable career as one of its officers and throws him into the sordid life of an undercover agent.

Now going by the name Slayd Bridger, Greyson masquerades as a degenerate. Being officially marked as an “unsavory,” however, means he can no longer communicate with the Thunderhead directly. The only person who knows what Slayd really does for the Thunderhead is his designated parole officer, Agent Traxler.

Armed with details about an imminent attack on Scythe Anastasia, Slayd rushes to the parole office to report. Only then does he discover that Traxler has been gleaned. His new parole officer has no idea that Greyson Tolliver ever existed. She believes Slayd to be the violent criminal his fictitious record makes him out to be. After all, Traxler had changed Greyson’s digital life story to reflect the tall tales Slayd had concocted to gain other unsavories’ trust.

Prepare yourself for constant killing, Machiavellian schemes, and political intrigue. Thunderhead starts at a run, does nothing but accelerate, and ends in a cinematic, eye-popping climax. Considered together, Scythe and Thunderhead provide the perfect orchestration that only the most masterful of writers can offer. Happily, we can hope for even more to come, since lists a third book in the series, The Toll, tentatively scheduled for release in 2019.

Since I started reviewing YA sci fi and fantasy for Black Gate nearly a year ago, I’ve focused on books with crossover appeal to adults. Most of the kids have already figured out they need to read Scythe and Thunderhead. It’s my job to tell you grown-ups that you do, too. Go. Grab these books. They’re winners!

Scythe (initially published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on Nov. 22, 2016,) is available in hardcover ($19.99), trade paperback ($11.99), and digital ($8.99) editions. The same publisher launched Thunderhead on Jan. 9, 2018, also available in hardcover ($18.99) and digital ($10.99) editions. Read an excerpt from Thunderhead at Entertainment Weekly.

Elizabeth Galewski is the author of The Wish-Granting Jewel, a fantasy novel, and Butterfly Valley, a tale of travel and transformation based on true events. To learn more, please visit her official author’s website at

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So, whaddya think, Elizabeth: is the YA stuff out there a better bet for a good read over some of the more ‘adult’ stuff (or should I say ‘non-YA’)? You certainly seem quite taken with YA publications, and I’d be curious to know how many Black Gate readers prefer, say, a book geared for a younger audience over a book intended for adult consumption. I read all the Harry Potter books, out loud, to my daughters, and my wife and I purchased and enjoyed them with our girls. I gave Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea” books to my daughters, and shared C. S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ books with them, too. I usually save my $$$ for books intended for an older readership, but some of the so-called YA novels I’ve read have been a substantial cut above the more mature work (and I use that word ‘mature’ with some reservations). Since even YA work shows up in the Hugo nominations, without being shunted off to a separate category, it would seem SF and Fantasy readers don’t truly discriminate, and accept both on a more-or-less equal footing. I guess I could ask this: if YA fantasy and sf were all you could ever have, would that be acceptable?


I seem to have left out “the Harry Potter films” when I said my wife and I purchased them. My wife didn’t read the books — but she DID read the Hunger Games trilogy — and loved it!

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