Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman fantasy book reveiwsThunderhead by Neal Shusterman speculative fiction book reviewsThunderhead by Neal Shusterman

Neal Shusterman follows up Scythe, which introduced readers to a mostly-perfect futuristic world in which death isn’t permanent (until it very much is) with Thunderhead (2018), the second installment in his ARC OF A SCYTHE trilogy. Regrettably, I won’t be able to discuss anything about Thunderhead without spoiling some of Scythe’s details, so consider yourself warned and/or prepared.

Rowan Damisch and Citra Terranova are no more — at least, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Rowan has taken his fight against the corruption within the Scythedom to a regional scale, gleaning Scythes while wearing a customarily-avoided black robe and calling himself Scythe Lucifer (with more than a hint of dark humor). Citra, now officially Scythe Anastasia, is still semi-apprenticed under Scythe Curie and has chosen a turquoise robe for herself in addition to a very unconventional, yet ultimately compassionate, method of gleaning her subjects. Rowan’s actions, naturally, make his life much more dangerous, but it’s when Citra and Scythe Curie are targeted for death that it becomes obvious that the dissenters within the Scythedom weren’t stopped by the deaths of Scythe Goddard and his sycophants.

Meanwhile, a young man named Greyson Tolliver, whose only genuine personal connection is with the Thunderhead, is charged with a most unusual task: instead of achieving his life’s goal of working as a Nimbus Agent in service to the Thunderhead, he must become Unsavory, part of the criminal element in society which has the option to engage in socially-acceptable troublemaking. The problem, as far as Greyson is concerned, is that Unsavories cannot communicate with nor have access to the Thunderhead, and what he’s asked to do as an Unsavory only gets stranger and stranger as time goes on. The cult of Tonists, who reject the near-perfection of modern life and await the Great Resonance, become further involved in important events. The Thunderhead itself provides journal entries and observations throughout Thunderhead, revealing (perhaps unconsciously) its insecurities and flaws, along with its growing problem of how to keep humanity safe despite its inherently self-destructive nature. Obviously, drastic measures are required, though just how far the Thunderhead is willing to go is unsettling.

The biggest flaw within Thunderhead, to my mind, is that almost all of Rowan’s storyline mirrors his experiences within Scythe, down to his imprisonment and forced participation in the Big Bad’s nefarious schemes. Very little is seen of Rowan’s activities as Scythe Lucifer, and as a result, his ominous reputation hardly seems justified; instead he spends most of his time being beaten, or confined to his quarters, or being lectured by adults who want to use him for their own purposes. It would have been far more effective as a plot device if that hadn’t been almost exactly what he went through in Book One, especially since Rowan provides the angry, realistic voice of a young person whose life has changed irrevocably due to circumstances beyond his control.

…Tyger Salazar had been his best friend — but such designations meant little after one has spent a year learning how to kill. Rowan imagined it must be what mortal-age soldiers felt when they returned from war. Old friendships seemed trapped behind a clouded curtain of experiences that old friends didn’t share.

Citra, on the other hand, really grows as a character, coming into her own as a Scythe and actively seeking out information about who’s behind the attempts on her life. Her interactions with other Scythes, whether they’re older and more established in their reputations or the younger Scythes who look to her for guidance and validation, add intrigue and complexity. And with growing revelations about the structure and original purpose of Thunderhead, weighed against Citra’s increasing knowledge about the structure of the Scythedom and the ways in which the Thunderhead and Scythedom were meant to work separately and in tandem for the betterment of humanity, the overall effect is a welcome expansion of how this world has deviated from its intended course, and directly impacts the startling conclusion of Thunderhead.

It’s obvious throughout the novel that Shusterman was influenced by the currently-changing political climate, and he uses this medium, particularly via the Thunderhead’s musings, to show examples of different viewpoints. The more moderate characters, who strongly object to tyranny and authoritarianism, are the most sympathetic; the Thunderhead begins as a rather sympathetic character in that vein, but its musings on human history and its objectives slowly turn sour:

While freedom gives rise to growth and enlightenment, permission allows evil to flourish in a light of day that would otherwise destroy it … An arrogant head of state gives permission to all nature of hate as long as it feeds his ambition.

And when a character proclaims that he’s going to make the Scythedom (and the world) great again, well, let’s just say that character isn’t on the right side of anything, including history.

I enjoyed a lot of Thunderhead, despite Rowan spinning his wheels for much of the narrative, and I thought Shusterman’s commentaries on politics and an individual’s responsibilities to society were spot-on. Some truly intriguing hints about what direction this series will take are provided at the close, and I look forward to seeing how it all comes together in the final book, currently titled The Toll and scheduled for release in 2019.

Published in January 2018. Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on the morality of the Scythedom, putting them at odds, in the chilling sequel to the Printz Honor Book Scythe from New York Times bestseller Neal Shusterman, author of the Unwind dystology. The Thunderhead cannot interfere in the affairs of the Scythedom. All it can do is observe—it does not like what it sees. A year has passed since Rowan had gone off grid. Since then, he has become an urban legend, a vigilante snuffing out corrupt scythes in a trial by fire. His story is told in whispers across the continent. As Scythe Anastasia, Citra gleans with compassion and openly challenges the ideals of the “new order.” But when her life is threatened and her methods questioned, it becomes clear that not everyone is open to the change. Will the Thunderhead intervene? Or will it simply watch as this perfect world begins to unravel?


  • Jana Nyman

    JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.