book review: thunderhead

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman
Simon & Schuster, 504 pp.
Published January 9, 2018

Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2)
Summary (via Goodreads): Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on the morality of the Scythedom, putting them at odds, in the second novel of the chilling New York Times bestselling series from Neal Shusterman, author of the Unwind dystology.

Rowan has gone rogue, and has taken it upon himself to put the Scythedom through a trial by fire. Literally. In the year since Winter Conclave, he has gone off-grid, and has been striking out against corrupt scythes—not only in MidMerica, but across the entire continent. He is a dark folk hero now—“Scythe Lucifer”—a vigilante taking down corrupt scythes in flames.

Citra, now a junior scythe under Scythe Curie, sees the corruption and wants to help change it from the inside out, but is thwarted at every turn, and threatened by the “new order” scythes. Realizing she cannot do this alone—or even with the help of Scythe Curie and Faraday, she does the unthinkable, and risks being “deadish” so she can communicate with the Thunderhead—the only being on earth wise enough to solve the dire problems of a perfect world. But will it help solve those problems, or simply watch as perfection goes into decline?

My thoughts: Last year, I finished Scythe feeling somewhat underwhelmed. While Shusterman's world-building drew me in and kept me engrossed, several of his key characters and general plot points were lacking. Since the series was originally billed as a duology, though, I found enough to enjoy in the first entry to justify picking up the sequel. Unfortunately much of what I didn't like in Scythe seemed to compound itself in Thunderhead; in addition I had some personal issues with his expanded world, which I'll detail at the very end of my review.

My favorite portions of Thunderhead, by far, were the glimpses into the consciousness of the eponymous artificial intelligence program. Shusterman captures an elaborate piece of programming on the verge of true sentience and independence, while simultaneously introducing a subtle commentary on whether there is such a thing as "benevolent" dictatorship. As much as I struggled with the rest of the novel, these interludes never failed to engage. Were the entire novel written from the Thunderhead' point of view, I doubtless would have devoured it happily.

Also improved were the characters of Rowan and Citra. Removed from the Hunger Games-esque 'only one may live' trope, they both find room to flourish. Their actions highlight the differences in approach, and subsequent results, when attempting to change a corrupt system from within or through more anarchic methods. In a welcome imbalance, Citra has much more influence over that change than Rowan, who spends much of the story reacting to circumstances rather than engineering them. Separating them for much of Thunderhead also rendered the romance awkwardly shoehorned into Scythe largely moot. While avid shippers might despair, I enjoyed not having to muddle through another unnecessary relationship.

What failed to improve for me was the overall plotting in Thunderhead. Several new concepts and places are introduced which become crucial to the story, yet despite their importance in this new world order, they never merited a mention during the extensive training detailed in the first book. This expansion comes across less as world-building and more like ret-conning, a cheat instead of growth. Then there are two twists so outlandish I laughed out loud when I read them. Well-developed characters and engaging prose are great assets to every story, but their power diminishes when the reader doesn't buy into the narrative path those tools trace.

Now onto the topic of my personal and, perhaps, not widely applicable complaint: Shusterman introduced the concept of Charter Regions, areas of the world whose administration in some way differs from the status quo. One of these regions is Texas, my home state. His characterization of (fictional) Texas and its inhabitants fails to rise above an off-putting mosaic of stereotypes. As one character reflects: "He'd once known a kid who had moved from Texas. He wore big boots and a big hat, and a belt buckle that could stop a mortar shell." Later on a child speaks in the distinct dialect of the region: "'My uncle's the Honorable Sath [Scythe] Howard Hughes,' he announced. 'So we got immunity! He's here givin' a symphonium on how to properly glean with a bowie naff [knife].'" It's a series of choices I struggled not to take personally, but I nearly quit reading Thunderhead because of them. Seeing your home turned into the butt of a joke is no fun, and that unquestionably colored my already unfavorable opinion.

Without the "Texas problem" I would still struggle to rate Thunderhead at an average three stars. Improvements in writing and character development don't adequately make up for an unengaging, and at times unbelievable, plot. It's clear to me now that this series and I simply don't get along, so I doubt I'll be following it through to the conclusion.


No comments:

Post a Comment