The Toll

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genres: Science-fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Dec. 2019)
Series: Arc of a Scythe #3

Oh boy, this book. Holly Black’s Cruel Prince trilogy and Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Sycthe trilogy both concluded around the same time and I read them one after the other. I had mixed feelings about all the previous books in both series. I liked them, but didn’t love them. While Holly Black’s conclusion totally shocked me in the best possible way, Neal Shusterman’s conclusion had the opposite effect.

I would actually give the edge to Shusterman’s first book over Black’s because while I also find his writing style kind of boring, his plot had a lot of depth and the first book made me think a lot about humanity, death, technology, and AI. While I’m fuzzy on the details of Thunderhead now (except for that crazy cliffhanger ending), it also raised a lot of interesting social commentary about different ways of thinking and how prejudice and power can corrupt and turn people against one another.

I thought Shusterman lost all of this in The Toll. This book was super long and inspired no critical thought from me. I don’t really understand why the Thunderhead decided to mark everyone as unsavoury and keep it that way and I felt like Shusterman totally abandoned his themes about AI and how involved they are in our life. The Thunderhead starts to become a sentient being, but I feel like it’s not really discussed in the book the impact that would have if our robots suddenly started feeling and how unlikely it is that society could recover from all-knowing robots suddenly having the ability to feel.

I felt like the plot totally went off the rails, with Shusterman trying to make this more of a blockbuster action story rather than the thoughtful, scary dystopian world he created in the first book. I also recently finished reading the Golden Compass series and I had similar thoughts about Philip Pullman’s final book in that both authors completely lost the subtlety of the first two books, which made for a much less interesting or impactful read. I felt like this book was self indulgent. The plot didn’t feel at all clever because nothing ever seemed to link together. While all our main characters do eventually end up in the same place, I felt like I was reading separate and unrelated storylines the entire book. Plus like, what was actually the point of it all?

SPOILERS AHEAD
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Honestly, the ending was just a huge disappointment for me. I feel like Shusterman avoided actually dealing with the monster he created in Goddard and I felt like it was cheap to just get rid of him with a random “fail safe” that basically just killed off all the scythes. Shusterman just used space travel to avoid the whole trauma of how you deal with death in a society that can no longer die. It was disappointing. I wanted a different kind of showdown between the new order scythes and the old order that better represented how the general population would feel about the whole thing. The general population would still hugely outnumber scythes and I would have like to see more of a revolution from them. The Thunderhead marked everyone unsavoury – I feel like they would be pissed off and revolt. Plus the whole idea of new vs. the old and different trains of thought leading to extremism is so relevant to our society today, I would really have liked to see these themes developed in a way that was more relatable than space travel.

Anyways, this was never my favourite series, but I’m impressed that I actually saw it through when I’ve since given up on better fantasy series. Overall, a very disappointing ending and I’m relieved to just be done with it.

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