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?
Thunderhead 1 Lullaby Peach velvet with embroidered baby-blue trim. Honorable Scythe Brahms loved his robe. True, the velvet became uncomfortably hot in the summer months, but it was something he had grown accustomed to in his sixty-three years as a scythe.
He had recently turned the corner again, resetting his physical age back to a spry twenty-five—and now, in his third youth, he found his appetite for gleaning was stronger than ever.
His routine was always the same, though methods varied. He would choose his subject, restrain him or her, then play a lullaby—Brahms’s lullaby to be exact—the most famous piece of music composed by his Patron Historic. ?After all, if a scythe must choose a figure from history to name oneself after, shouldn’t that figure be integrated somehow into the scythe’s life? He would play the lullaby on whatever instrument was convenient, and if there was none available, he would simply hum it. And then he would end the subject’s life.
Politically, he leaned toward the teachings of the late Scythe Goddard, for he enjoyed gleaning immensely and saw no reason why that should be a problem for anyone. “In a perfect world, shouldn’t we all enjoy what we do?” Goddard wrote. It was a sentiment gaining traction in more and more regional scythedoms.
On this evening, Scythe Brahms had just accomplished a particularly entertaining gleaning in downtown Omaha, and was still whistling his signature tune as he sauntered down the street, wondering where he might find himself a late evening meal. But he stopped in midstanza, having a distinct feeling that he was being watched.
There were, of course, cameras on every light post in the city. The Thunderhead was ever vigilant—but for a scythe, its slumberless, unblinking eyes were of no concern. It was powerless to even comment on the comings and goings of scythes, much less act upon anything it saw. The Thunderhead was the ultimate voyeur of death.
This feeling, however, was more than the observational nature of the Thunderhead. Scythes were trained in perceptive skills. They were not prescient, but five highly developed senses could often have the semblance of a sixth. A scent, a sound, an errant shadow too minor to register consciously might be enough to make a well-trained scythe’s neck hairs bristle.
Scythe Brahms turned, sniffed, listened. He took in his surroundings. He was alone on a side street. Elsewhere, he could hear the sounds of street cafés and the ever-vibrant nightlife of the city, but the street he was on was lined with shops that were shuttered this time of night. Cleaners and clothiers. A hardware store and a day-care center. The lonely street belonged to him and the unseen interloper.
“Come out,” he said. “I know you’re there.”
He thought it might be a child, or perhaps an unsavory hoping to bargain for immunity—as if an unsavory might have anything with which to bargain. Maybe it was a Tonist. Tone cults despised scythes, and although Brahms had never heard of ?Tonists actually attacking a scythe, they had been known to torment.
“I won’t harm you,” Brahms said. “I’ve just completed a gleaning—I have no desire to increase my tally today.” Although, admittedly, he might change his mind if the interloper was either too offensive, or obsequious.
Still, no one stepped forward.
“Fine,” he said. “Be gone then, I have neither time nor patience for a game of hide-and-seek.”
Perhaps it was his imagination after all. Maybe his rejuvenated senses were now so acute that they were responding to stimuli that were much farther away than he assumed.
That’s when a figure launched from behind a parked car as if it had been spring-loaded. Brahms was knocked off balance—he would have been taken down entirely if he still had the slow reflexes of an older man and not his twenty-five-year-old self. He pushed the figure into a wall, and considered pulling out his blades to glean this reprobate, but Scythe Brahms had never been a brave man. So he ran.
He moved in and out of pools of light created by the street lamps; all the while cameras atop each pole swiveled to watch him.
When he turned to look, the figure was a good twenty yards behind him. Now Brahms could see he was dressed in a black robe. Was it a scythe’s robe? No, it couldn’t be. No scythe dressed in black—it was not allowed.
But there were rumors. . . .
That thought made him pick up the pace. He could feel adrenaline tingling in his fingers, and adding urgent velocity to his heart.
A scythe in black.
No, there had to be another explanation. He would report this to the Irregularity Committee, that’s what he would do. ?Yes, they might laugh at him and say he was scared off by a masquerading unsavory, but these things needed to be reported, even if they were embarrassing. It was his civic duty.
A block farther and his assailant had given up the chase. He was nowhere to be seen. Scythe Brahms slowed his pace. He was nearing a more active part of the city now. The beat of dance music and the garble of conversation careened down the street toward him, giving him a sense of security. He let his guard down. Which was a mistake.
The dark figure broadsided him from a narrow alley and delivered a knuckle punch to his windpipe. As Brahms gasped for air, his attacker kicked his legs out from under him in a Bokator kick—that brutal martial art in which scythes were trained. Brahms landed on a crate of rotting cabbage left by the side of a market. It burst, spewing forth a thick methane reek. His breath could only come in short gasps, and he could feel warmth spreading throughout his body as his pain nanites released opiates.
No! Not yet! I must not be numbed. I need my full faculties to fight this miscreant.
But pain nanites were simple missionaries of relief, hearing only the scream of angry nerve endings. ?They ignored his wishes and deadened his pain.
Brahms tried to rise, but slipped as the putrid vegetation crushed beneath him, becoming a slick, unpleasant stew. The figure in black was on top of him now, pinning him to the ground. Brahms tried to reach into his robe for his weapons, but could not. So instead he reached up, and pulled back his attacker’s black hood, revealing him to be a young man—barely a man—a boy. His eyes were intense, and intent on—to use a mortal-age word—murder.
“Scythe Johannes Brahms, you are accused of abusing your position and multiple crimes against humanity.”
“How dare you!” Brahms gasped. “Who are you to accuse me?” He struggled, trying to rally his strength, but it was no use. The painkillers that were in his system were dulling his responses. His muscles were weak and useless to him now.
“I think you know who I am,” the young man said. “Let me hear you say it.”
“I will not!” Brahms said, determined not to give him the satisfaction. But the boy in black jammed a knee so powerfully into Brahms’s chest that he thought his heart would stop. More pain nanites. More opiates. Brahms’s head was swimming. He had no choice but to comply.
“Lucifer,” he gasped. “Scythe Lucifer.”
Brahms felt his spirit crumble—as if saying it aloud gave resonance to the rumor.
Satisfied, the self-proclaimed young scythe eased the pressure.
“You are no scythe,” Brahms dared to say. “You are nothing but a failed apprentice, and you will not get away with this.”
The young man had no response to that. Instead, he said, “Tonight, you gleaned a young woman by blade.”
“That is my business, not yours!”
“You gleaned her as a favor for a friend who wanted out of a relationship with her.”
“This is outrageous! You have no proof of that!”
“I’ve been watching you, Johannes,” Rowan said. “As well as your friend—who seemed awfully relieved when that poor woman was gleaned.”
Suddenly, there was a knife at Brahms’s neck. His own knife. This beast of a boy was threatening him with his own knife.
“Do you admit it?” he asked Brahms.
All that he said was true, but Brahms would rather be rendered deadish than admit it to the likes of a failed apprentice. Even one with a knife at his throat.
“Go on, slit my throat,” Brahms dared. “It will add one more inexcusable crime to your record. And when I am revived, I will stand as witness against you—and make no mistake, you will be brought to justice!”
“By whom? By the Thunderhead? I’ve taken down corrupt scythes from one coast to the other over the past year, and the Thunderhead hasn’t sent so much as a single peace officer to stop me. Why do you think that is?”
Brahms was speechless. He had assumed if he stalled long enough, and kept this so-called Scythe Lucifer occupied, the Thunderhead would dispatch a full squad to apprehend him. That’s what the Thunderhead did when common citizens threatened violence. Brahms was surprised it had even gone this far. Such bad behavior among the general population was supposed to be a thing of the past. Why was this being allowed?
“If I take your life now,” the false scythe said, “you would not be brought back to life. I burn those I remove from service, leaving nothing but unrevivable ash.”
“I don’t believe you! You wouldn’t dare!”
But Brahms did believe him. Since last January, nearly a dozen scythes across three Merican regions had been consumed by flames under questionable circumstances. Their deaths were all ruled accidental, but clearly they were not. And because they were burned, their deaths were permanent.
Now Brahms knew that the whispered tales of Scythe Lucifer—the outrageous acts of Rowan Damisch, the fallen apprentice—were all true. Brahms closed his eyes and took in a final breath, trying not to gag on the rancid stench of putrid cabbage.
And then Rowan said, “You won’t be dying today, Scythe Brahms. Not even temporarily.” He removed the blade from Brahms’s neck. “I’m giving you one chance. If you act with the nobility befitting a scythe, and glean with honor, you won’t see me again. But if you continue to serve your own corrupt appetites, then you will be left as ash.”
And then he was gone, almost as if he had vanished—and in his place was a horrified young couple looking down upon Brahms.
“Is that a scythe?”
“Quick, help me get him up!”
They lifted Brahms from the rot. His peach velvet robe was stained green and brown, as if covered in mucus. It was humiliating. He considered gleaning the couple—for no one should see a scythe so indisposed and live—but instead held out his hand and allowed them to kiss his ring, thereby granting both of them a year of immunity from gleaning. He told them it was a reward for their kindness, but really it was just to make them go away and abandon any questions they might have had.
After they left, he brushed himself off and resolved to say nothing to the Irregularity Committee about this, because it would leave him open to far too much ridicule and derision. He had suffered enough indignation already.
Scythe Lucifer indeed! Few things were more miserable in this world than a failed scythe’s apprentice, and never had there been one as ignoble as Rowan Damisch.
Yet he knew that the boy’s threat was not an idle one.
Perhaps, thought Scythe Brahms, a lower profile was in order. A return to the lackluster gleanings he had been trained to perform in his youth. A refocusing on the basics that would make “Honorable Scythe” more than just a title, but a defining trait.
Stained, bruised, and bitter, Scythe Brahms returned to his home to reconsider his place in the perfect world in which he lived.
Join our mailing list!
Plus, receive recommendations for your next Book Club read.
A Reading Group Guide to
Thunderhead: Book #2 of Arc of a Scythe
By Neal Shusterman
About the Book
Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on how to deal with the corruption of the scythedom in the chilling sequel to the Printz Honor Book Scythe from New York Times bestseller Neal Shusterman. The Thunderhead cannot interfere in the affairs of the scythedom. All it can do is observe—and it does not like what it sees. A year has passed since Rowan went 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?
The following questions may be utilized throughout the study of Thunderhead as targeted questions for discussion and reflection, or, alternatively, they can be used as reflective writing prompts.
1. In the novel’s prologue, the Thunderhead explains that it is the “child who has become the parent” and that it “serves humankind.” How does the personification of the Thunderhead also stand as a greater metaphor? What is your reaction to these statements? Is there anything about them that you find disconcerting?
2. The Thunderhead is described as the “ultimate voyeur of death.” In what ways is that an accurate assessment? Can you think of an example in which it’s no longer comfortable in that role?
3. Scythe Brahms is accused of abusing his position and committing crimes against humanity. Why does Rowan as Scythe Lucifer feel it is his duty and right to seek justice against Brahms for his actions? Why do you believe he ultimately lets Brahms live?
4. How does knowing that some scythes extremely enjoy their gleanings add to your view of the scythedom? In what ways is that in stark contrast to the work done by Scythe Curie and Scythe Faraday?
5. While examining his reflection after his encounter with Brahms, Rowan asks himself, “Who am I?” Why do you think Rowan asks himself this? Do you believe his role as a fallen apprentice helps to shape his choices? Consider his training time with Scythe Faraday and Scythe Goddard. What did each of these mentors ultimately teach him?
6. The Thunderhead acknowledges that “under no circumstances may I take action against the scythedom . . . the scythedom rules itself, for better or worse.” While the Thunderhead recognizes its inability to intervene, how does it attempt to do so anyway?
7. In your opinion, why does Rowan choose to adorn himself in robes of black? In what ways is this decision intentional? What does his color choice symbolize, and why has the color never been utilized by the scythedom in the past?
8. Rowan as Scythe Lucifer states, “I burn those I remove from service, leaving nothing but unrevivable ash.” What makes this decision particularly noteworthy? Do you think this decision is an appropriate one?
9. Scythe Xenocrates calls the Thunderhead a “glorified computer program.” Why does he seem so frustrated with the Thunderhead? Why do you believe the Thunderhead chooses not to act against Rowan?
10. How do Citra’s and Rowan’s work as scythes shape them as individuals? Do you feel they’ve changed from who they were as apprentices? How has their work impacted their relationship? In what ways do Citra and Rowan act differently when they are functioning as Scythe Anastasia and Scythe Lucifer?
11. In this futuristic world, how is gleaning not seen as killing? Why does this society believe it’s not socially or morally correct to call it such? Do you agree with this? How does the scythe’s role fit into that complex system?
12. The Thunderhead offers, “I am always correct. This is not a boast, it is simply my nature.” How does this awareness serve to help and also hinder the Thunderhead? In what ways does the Thunderhead recognize that though it has been created by humans, it is not human?
13. From all that you’ve observed in Scythe and Thunderhead, what are the biggest challenges to serving as a scythe? Can you think of any benefits the position offers a scythe?
14. When questioned on her decision to allow those she gleans to choose when and how they die, Scythe Anastasia offers, “‘If a subject is allowed to choose, don’t you think that subject is going to choose the method that is the least offensive to them? Who are we to call their choice barbaric?’” Do you agree with her sentiment?
15. Mr. Hogan tells Scythe Anastasia, “‘I want to thank you, Your Honor, for allowing me these past few weeks to prepare. It has meant the world to me.’” Unlike most other scythes, how is she so able to understand what goes into the act of dying?
16. Consider the role of the Nimbus agents as the bureaucracy of the Authority Interface for the Thunderhead. Do you believe these agents are necessary?
17. While describing Citra, the Thunderhead states, “I have always had a preoccupation with those who have a high probability of changing the world. I can never predict how they might accomplish the change, only that they are likely to . . . What she will do is unclear, and the outcome hazy, but whatever it is, she will do it. Humanity may very well rise or fall by her decisions, by her achievements, by her mistakes.” In your opinion, why do you believe the Thunderhead has such a strong opinion of Citra? Why does the Thunderhead feel frustrated that it can’t interfere or guide her? Why do you think the author had the Thunderhead tell us this?
18. The Thunderhead acknowledges that it could have created a physical presence for itself in the form of a robotic body. In what ways would this have changed humankind’s perception of the Thunderhead’s role in relationship to humanity? Do you think the Thunderhead made the right decision?
19. Why do you think Scythe Anastasia has such a burning desire to learn to drive, one that she didn’t have when she was simply Citra? What can be inferred by this need?
20. Citra tells Rowan, “‘I think you’re important, too, Rowan. In fact, I’m sure of it. So whatever you do, don’t let them catch you . . .’” Why does Citra recognize that she and Rowan are both equally essential? Predict what role you think they’ll play in the Thunderhead’s ultimate mission.
21. In your opinion, what does it mean to be unsavory? Given what you learn in Thunderhead, are there any benefits to this distinction?
22. In your opinion, why do you believe the Thunderhead ultimately selects Greyson for his mission? In what ways is he a fitting candidate? Are there any qualities about him that you find troublesome? Predict what role he will play in the overall story arc.
23. Consider the final actions of Scythe Curie. Do you feel her choice to glean those around her before invoking the seventh commandment and gleaning herself is appropriate? Why did she make these decisions?
24. Discuss the significance of the Great Resonance. Why do the Tonists understand what has happened? What does the shifting of the unsavory category mean when humankind is marked as such and seen as complicit in its actions?
25. Given the exhilarating ending of Thunderhead, share your predictions for the next installment of this thrilling series.
1. Rowan’s decision to extend what he believes is fitting justice by personally punishing dishonorable scythes is one that results in much pushback within the scythedom and possibly beyond. Why is his choice to participate in vigilante behavior so divisive? In your opinion, is this an appropriate type of justice? Prepare a short speech that supports your position, and share it with others.
2. Citra’s choice to allow those she gleans to choose how and when they die is both unconventional and controversial within the scythedom; yet Citra, as Scythe Anastasia, is committed to this practice because it offers victims a degree of free will and control. Write an email to Scythe Anastasia sharing your thoughts about the importance of free will. Do you believe that having a degree of autonomy, free will, and control in terms of ending life is particularly important? Be sure to make a case for your opinion.
3. Vigilante justice is regularly popular in film, TV, and books. Compare Rowan’s behavior to a vigilante character from a graphic novel, comic, movie, TV show, or game. Explore ways in which these characters are similar and how they are different. Do you find different genres or formats more receptive to the idea of a vigilante?
4. The Thunderhead states, “To deny humanity the lesson of consequences would be a mistake. And I do not make mistakes.” Do you agree with this sentiment? In your opinion, why is living with the consequences of choices critical for individuals as well as society as a whole? In a journal entry, reflect on a personal moment in your past when the consequences of your choices proved to be an important lesson to you.
5. Consider the shift in philosophy from our world today, where the use of a digital network cloud and artificial intelligence tends to be feared, to a future where a Thunderhead provides a “perfect world.” Do you believe utopias are possible? Here in the United States, a number of utopian communities have been established over time. Select a community or society and research them, making sure to explore the principles that guided the community as well as the popular assumptions about those core beliefs. Share why you believe this community was ultimately unable to sustain itself.
6. The Thunderhead states, “There is a fine line between freedom and permission. The former is necessary. The latter is dangerous—perhaps the most dangerous thing the species that created me has ever faced.” Do you agree? Has history proven this to be true? Consider how the danger of permission from an authority figure is relevant to our current world. Using the examples expressed by the Thunderhead, prepare a personal statement that offers your position on this topic, being sure to offer specific supporting examples.
7. Throughout Thunderhead, Shusterman infuses his story with rich and figurative language. Embark on a literary scavenger hunt throughout the book to locate your favorite examples of these phrases or quotes. Create a sharable quote card image to be published on a social media site of your choice, remembering to credit the book and any images appropriately.
8. The Thunderhead states, “Society had a need to be bad. Not everyone, of course . . . Even if there was no injustice in the world left to defy, they had an innate need to defy something. Anything.” Consider the Thunderhead’s position. Based on what you know about your current world and this future one, do you agree? Compose a response to the Thunderhead where you share your position.
9. For Citra and Rowan, becoming scythes has had a profound impact on their lives and their relationships with others. As they both learn more about the role and responsibilities of being a scythe, they become increasingly empowered to take control of their lives and choices. After taking a moment to reflect on your most personal challenges, draft a journal or diary entry focusing on the ways you’ve already worked to overcome obstacles and listing the strategies you plan to use to deal with those you are still facing.
10. The gleaning journal of H. S. Curie shares that “People used to die naturally. Old age used to be a terminal affliction, not a temporary state. There was pain, misery, and despair.” How does this future world without diseases, aging, transportation crashes, and “danger lurking in every unseen, unplanned corner” compare to the world you know? After completing your reading of Scythe and Thunderhead, write an essay that analyzes the differences and the consequences between these two worlds.
11. The novel introduces us to a number of secondary characters who face their own hardships or need the opportunity for self-awareness. Select a secondary character in Thunderhead and Scythe, and write a letter of advice to him or her. You can choose to be serious or funny, but make sure your advice fits the character’s needs.
This guide was created by Dr. Rose Brock, an assistant professor in the Library Science Department in the College of Education at Sam Houston State University. Dr. Brock holds a Ph.D. in Library Science, specializing in children’s and young adult literature.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Neal Shusterman is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty award-winning books for children, teens, and adults, including The Unwind Dystology, The Skinjacker trilogy, Downsiders, and ChallengerDeep, which won the National Book Award. Scythe, the first book in his newest series Arc of a Scythe, is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. He also writes screenplays for motion pictures and television shows. The father of four children, Neal lives in California. Visit him at Storyman.com and Facebook.com/NealShusterman.
"Relish this intelligent and entertaining blend of dark humor and high death tolls."
– Kirkus, STARRED REVIEW
"The stakes rise rapidly, and the plot races at a breathless pace."
– Shelf Awareness, STARRED REVIEW
"Interweaving heady questions of morality, responsibility, loyalty, and power, Shusterman builds to a devastatingly intense conclusion that sends the characters and larger world into terrifying new territory."
– Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW
"Shusterman wields his magic once again in this continuation... even better than the first book."
– School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
"Shusterman widens the already impressive scope of his neat-future utopia while also keeping a deft finger on the pulse of our own turbulent times. Exceptionally clear-eyed and brutal in its execution."
Get our latest book recommendations, author news, and sweepstakes right to your inbox.