Action packed, thrilling, and surprisingly soul stirring — The Toll by Neal Shusterman is a gripping conclusion to the Arc of Scythe trilogy.
In the world of Arc of Scythe, death has been conquered. Humanity lives in a post-mortal utopic world where old age, disease and sickness are a thing of the past. Rule and order is split between two entities. One is the Thunderhead, a godlike omnipresent worldwide AI, and the other is the Scythedom, an organization of trained killers who choose people to be “gleaned” or killed. Although death is obsolete, a certain number of people still need to be killed to control the world population. While the Scythedom and the Thunderhead work parallel to one another, they are prohibited from ever interfering in one another’s matters.
In the first book, Scythe, we are introduced to Citra and Rowan, two teenagers who are chosen to become scythes. They are coming of age in a time where Scythe Goddard, an extremist, is on the rise. Goddard hides his greed in between charming smiles, but danger lurks and the Thunderhead knows it. This key point carries onto Thunderhead, the second novel, where we meet Greyson Tolliver, a teenager who becomes the Thunderhead’s soft spot and the key to the conclusion of the series.
Threads from the previous two books are expanded and woven into an intricate narrative that explores the philosophical and moral implications of living forever. One of the things that this series does so well, is take real life societal problems and look at them through very carefully built analogies. In The Toll, The Thunderhead and Greyson’s relationship is akin to Moses and God, while the schism within the Scythedom is reminiscent to America’s current political situation. Shusterman expertly touches on the push and pull of the two opposing sides for a satisfying finish. However, to do this, Citra and Rowan’s dynamic takes a back seat until the last act of the book. I did not mind this personally, but fans of the pairing might be surprised to see Greyson and the Thunderheads’s emotional codependency take the story front and center.
Talking about the Thunderhead– The Toll gives us more insight into the inner workings of the AI itself. It’s a refreshing take on artificial intelligence in sci-fi, where traditionally, AI has been seen as the big bad and ultimate villain. It’s exciting to read a story that pushes through generic conventions to create its own genre bending path. The possibilities are endless and each page is just another clue in the plot’s puzzle.
The fight sequences in The Toll are jaw dropping — one gleaning scene in particular had me as the reader shocked and excited to find out what would happen next. Shusterman writes very cinematically and the description of such scenes are vivid and well paced.
The stakes are higher than ever in The Toll and Shusterman brings everything to a deafening crescendo that sweeps the reader off of their feet and into a fulfilling post reading daze. If you’re looking for a political and biblical inspired science fiction series to read — don’t miss out on this one!