Publisher: Simon & Schuster for Young Readers
Page Count: 630
Release Date: November 5th, 2019
Series: ARC OF A SCYTHE, Book 3
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars – Really Liked it!
Warning: Potential light spoilers ahead for SCYTHE and THUNDERHEAD.
A few hundred years from now, death by natural causes has been eliminated. To ensure population control, a select group of people are chosen to be Scythes, tasked with “gleaning” a certain number of people at random each year. But the island headquarters of the scythedom, Endura, has been destroyed in a terrorist attack, and in its wake, Scythe Goddard has seized power. Long a vocal proponent of abolishing guidelines that constrain who and how a scythe can glean, his ascension has caused a fracture in the global scythe leadership.
But even worse, the sinking of Endura caused the global AI, Thunderhead, to declare all of humanity “unsavory,” meaning he will no longer directly talk with anyone, crippling an entire population that had come to rely on his intervention in ordering their lives. But just because he no longer talks to them, doesn’t mean he won’t work to protect them. Thunderhead’s protocols prevent him from directly interfering in scythe business, so he can’t stop Goddard’s reign. There is, however, one person in the world that Thunderhead still talks to directly: Grayson Tolliver, a former Thunderhead agent who had previously done undercover work on behalf of the AI. It’s through Grayson that Thunderhead begins putting a plan in motion, a last ditched effort that could completely upend the world order.
With THE TOLL, Neal Shusterman concludes a fascinating trilogy in a riveting, global game of chess with humans as the pieces. The bulk of the narrative lies with Thunderhead and Grayson (and eventually Scythe Anastasia), but it is Thunderhead himself who is slowly working towards an endgame. In some ways, this has resulted in a slightly less personal tale; these are the final moves between Goddard and Thunderhead in a struggle to decide the direction humanity goes from here. The result is that the focus is largely on plot, and not on any personal growth of the characters. Thankfully you’ve had two books to get to know them already, so it doesn’t hurt the story overall. It does mean that a few people are short-changed within the narrative. Rowan, once a driving force in this series, is largely reduced to a plot device, affecting the story but without really having any agency. And the ending does have a vague sense of deus ex machina, but when the ending is something plotted by a supposedly infallible AI, was it really going to feel like anything else?
One of the best parts of THE TOLL is the clues and breadcrumbs that Shusterman plants and pays off by the end of the book – and not just clues from THE TOLL. There have been things mentioned at random in the earlier books that I’ve had my suspicions about, and Shusterman proves that, like the Thunderhead, he never mentions something without purpose. Shusterman also plays a little more with the order of events, jumping back and forth between things that happen in the immediate aftermath of Endura’s sinking, and moments that happen months later. It’s a skillful juggling act that makes a puzzle of the story instead of a confusing knot. On top of that, many chapters once again begin with journal entries or a conversation between two unknowns, and when the pieces click into place to reveal the context for those journal entries, I laughed out loud at the audacity of it.
Closing out a series that questions death, immortality, our own agency and our reliance on technology is no small feat. Doing so in a way that is thrilling and entertaining is another level entirely. THE TOLL is a race to understand the history of the scythedom, and decide if that truly is the best way to continue forward with humanity. What the tale occasionally lacks in character depth it makes up for with the global span of its plot, as several pieces hurtle towards the finale. It’s a satisfying conclusion that will have you thinking long after the last blade falls.