Review: Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

I’ve been looking forward to this sequel to Scythe for a while. It was one of the books I enjoyed most last year, and it’s hard for me to find a series that I’m stoked to continue with. (I seem to have much better luck with one-shots, whereas most trilogies for me go downhill.)

So how did I feel about this continuation? Well, let’s get to that.

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

This is a pretty good cover, as covers go. I am not yet profound on this subject. I think it evokes the two main characters and it’s got a smooth, futuristic look that kind of suits the world in this series.

Thunderhead

Thunderhead is the follow-up to Scythe, a utopian novel about a world in which humans have figured out the secret to (basic) immortality and have given over the stewardship of society to a benevolent, all-seeing AI called the Thunderhead. However, the one thing the AI doesn’t control is death, which is still necessary to curb population growth—and death is the function of specially trained humans called Scythes.

In Scythe, the two main characters (Rowan and Citra) are recruited by a wise and compassion Scythe to be his apprentices. They end up embroiled at the centre of a Scythe political conflict, between the old guard, who believe their work to be a regrettable act of compassion and mercy, and the new order, who say it should be no shame for Scythes to revel in the dealing of death.

Thunderhead continues that conflict, and there’s not a lot more I can say about it that isn’t spoiler-y, which is kind of the junk part of reviewing sequels. The Thunderhead, as you might imagine, is more important in this novel, and its given its own voice and cares and concerns accordingly, which is interesting and a part I generally liked.

As is Shusterman’s style (in the previous book and that I found in Unwind), this book spirals out from the main characters to include what’s going on with other characters, sometimes characters who seem very insignificant but who might later do something of importance. While I think this worked well in Scythe because all of the outside information we received was necessary (Rowan and Citra were, after all, new to this world and not privy to everything that was going on), in this book, there were times when I felt like there was a lack of focus, and to the book’s detriment. The time we spent getting to know The Thunderhead and one of his most devoted “friends,” so to speak, was worthwhile; the time we spent lurking around some other Scythe characters felt like it had less payoff, and I really wanted Rowan and Citra, at this point, to be more involved in and aware of events.

Rowan and Citra have the potential to be very strong characters, but that’s a potential they had in the first book that wasn’t entirely realized, and it felt not entirely realized here, either. In the first book, they’re people plucked out of mundane existences because they have some small spark that defines them, but it’s not clear exactly the people they’re going to be. By the end of the first book and the start of the second, their approaches to improving the state of Scythedom are clear, but their personalities still feel in some ways indeterminate. And since we travel around to others more in this book, we have a dwindling amount of time we get to spend seeing them interact with others and develop.

(Their relationship with one another also felt fairly shallow here; they didn’t get to spend much time together, but this book also didn’t do much to build on what it was they felt about one another in the wake of the events of the first book.)

However, the plot lurking in this one somewhat behind the scenes was interesting, so maybe this book is mostly suffering from a second book syndrome where the major conflict can’t come to fruition, but also the two main protagonists aren’t spending the book together. The tension between The Thunderhead and the Scythes, the one segment of humanity that it cannot interfere with, seemed like it’ll pay off in book three; it also seems that then, the Tonists will probably be more important, and the conflict that has been largely political and slow-moving in the first two books will come more so to a head.

Also, while this book felt a little slow at times, it does have a pretty splashy and cliffhanger-y ending that does make me want to see what happens next. So it is really likely that I continue with this series.

So that said, I generally enjoyed this book because, as it went on, I still really wanted to know what happened. But I also felt a twinge of repetition, because, having read Unwind, I feel like there are a lot of similar elements across these two series by the author; his style does seem to be to spiral out to more and more characters over time, include some destructive rebels, include some religious fanatics, young protagonists to shake things up, etc. But I don’t know. It would be odd to encounter books within almost the exact same genre by the same author without feeling some stylistic similarities, but I think what I’ve seen in second chances makes me believe that some authors really pivot a lot?

Tl;dr: I had some fun reading this because I wanted to know what happened in this world and situation, but I feel like I had a hard time getting very invested in the main characters, even though they have a lot of potential. (And it wasn’t for lack of pages to develop them; it’s not a short book.) Cool world, interesting plot threads and AI voice, but a bit of a set-up book other than the wild last bunch of chapters.

Overall:


What sequels are you looking forward to in 2018? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon.

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