Thunderhead—“The Arc of the Scythe Trilogy”


Readability Age Range



Year Published

Book Review

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman is the second book in the “Arc of the Scythe” trilogy. The lusts of powerful people threaten to unravel the near utopia created by an AI known as the Thunderhead.

Plot Summary

As the intelligence that controls almost every aspect of life on earth, the Thunderhead keeps the lives of the entire human race running smoothly. The only people it does not control are the scythes, those individuals selected and trained to glean their fellow human beings in order to prevent overpopulation. Originally a noble calling, a new order of scythes has emerged that revels in their power to kill.

In the year since Citra Terranova became Scythe Anastasia, she has dedicated herself to the old order of the scythedom. She lives with her mentor, Scythe Curie. As Scythe Anastasia, she was supposed to kill her fellow apprentice, Rowan, but instead, she granted him a year of immunity. Rowan killed his mentor, the evil Scythe Goddard, by decapitating him and burning his body. Rowan took Goddard’s ring and has been traveling the world gleaning other treacherous scythes. He is known as Scythe Lucifer.

Rowan returns to his apartment one night to find his old friend Tyger. Tyger informs him that Rowan’s father was recently gleaned. Tyger also says he is moving to a different region for a new job. When Tyger arrives at his new home, his employer, Scythe Rand, scrutinizes his body. Tyger does not know that Rand was another scythe Rowan thought he’d killed in the same fire as Scythe Goddard. Healing nanites cure humans of any ailment, but when a body is burned, the nanites supposedly can’t repair the damage.

The Thunderhead has deduced that Anastasia has a strong probability of changing the world, but it does not know how. Also, since she is a scythe, the Thunderhead is not supposed to help or guide her in any way. It bends the rules by using the loyalty of Greyson Tolliver, a young man whose human parents had no time for him. Greyson grew up loving the Thunderhead, and the Thunderhead gave him affection to the best of its ability.

Greyson chooses to be a Nimbus agent, a person who serves as a human liaison between the Thunderhead and mankind. He is surprised when a senior agent, Traxler, questions him on the rules of engagement between the Thunderhead and the scythes. It is obvious, through his questioning, that Traxler is telling Greyson about a threat to Scythes Curie and Anastasia, so that he might save their lives. Greyson risks expulsion from the Nimbus Academy if his intervention is discovered.

Scythe Curie allows Anastasia to practice her driving on their way to their next gleaning. Because of her inexperience, Anastasia can’t avoid the person who runs in front of the car. When she and Curie get out to assess the damage, the dying man whispers about a booby trap. Anastasia realizes that if she had hit the trigger wire across the road, she and Curie would have been incinerated to the point that their healing nanites could not have saved them. The man, Greyson, saved their lives.

Greyson is revived, only to be expelled from the Nimbus Academy for warning the scythes. To add further insult, he is labeled by the Thunderhead as unsavory. As such, he is no longer able to communicate with it and is shunned by most of society.

As an unsavory, Greyson must meet with a probation officer. He is surprised to discover the Thunderhead has reassigned Traxler to be his PO. Traxler encourages Greyson to embrace his new status so he can infiltrate dangerous groups and gather information about who may have tried to kill Anastasia and Curie.

Rowan continues his vendetta against evil scythes of the new order. His first mentor, Scythe Faraday, surprises him one night and holds him at knifepoint. Faraday loathes Rowan’s gleanings, but once convinced he does it not from pleasure, but to try and weed out corruption, he lets the young man live.

Faraday tells Rowan about his new pursuit. He is searching for the land of Nod. Most believe it is mythical, but Faraday thinks the ancient mortals left a nonsense rhyme as a clue. Faraday believes Nod may be hidden from the Thunderhead to serve as a place of refuge if the Thunderhead ever fails. Faraday searches the great library at Alexandria for more clues. He enlists the help of a young woman named Munira to aid him in his quest.

Greyson’s identity is erased from all records as he assumes his new role as an unsavory. He eventually meets up with Purity, a hardcore unsavory who loves danger. The two start a romantic relationship, and Purity enlists his help in a plot to kill two scythes. She will not give him any details, but Greyson knows it is to kill Anastasia and Curie.

When he tries to meet with Traxler, he is told Traxler was gleaned. Grayson must now act on his own to save the scythes. He travels to Kansas City with Purity, knowing only that the scythes will be killed in a theater. Anastasia is there to glean an actor, and Curie is watching the performance.

Greyson discovers the killers have put a toxic acid into the sprinkler system. They plan on lighting a fire so the scythes and everyone else will be destroyed by the acid, thus unable to be healed by nanites. Once again, Greyson is able to stop disaster, but he must go into hiding. Anastasia sends him to a Tonist monastery. The religious fanatics hate scythes, and the Thunderhead and will protect him.

Rowan learns that his father was gleaned by a scythe to whom he had shown mercy. Furious, he tracks the scythe down to glean him. Instead, he falls into a trap.

Captured and beaten unconscious, he is shocked to wake up and see his friend Tyger. Even more unbelievable is the sight of Scythe Rand, whom he thought he had killed. She insists that Rowan and Tyger spar so Tyger can develop into a scythe himself. Rowan knows she has an ulterior motive but is unable to convince Tyger to be wary.

After two weeks, Rowan’s suspicions are proven right when Scythe Rand enters his room and binds him to a chair. She then wheels in the last person he ever thought to see again, Scythe Goddard. To his horror, Rowan realizes Goddard’s severed head has been transplanted onto Tyger’s body. Goddard revels in the deep psychological pain this causes Rowan.

When High Blade Xenocrates, the leader of the MidMerica scythes, resigns to take a position of Grandslayer of the World Scythe Council, Curie is nominated to take his place. The scythes are thrown into an uproar when Scythe Goddard is also nominated and makes his grand entrance into their chambers. At the exact moment the scythes’ votes are registered in the computer, but not tallied, Anastasia demands an official inquest. She argues that scythes must undergo a year of physical and mental training before assuming their role.

Since a person’s head is less than 7% of its body, this new Scythe Goddard has not been properly trained and therefore can’t be High Blade. The case must be brought before the World Scythe Council. If they agree with Anastasia, then Curie wins by default.

Faraday and Munira meet secretly with Anastasia and Curie to tell them of their search for Nod. The latter are skeptical, but Faraday believes he is on to something. Later, in the nearly abandoned national archives, Munira discovers the truth. Nod is part of the Marshall Islands. The last mortals hid its location from the Thunderhead and created a program to keep it from discovering it on its own. As Faraday and Munira rejoice, they hear the whir of electronic surveillance. The Thunderhead realizes it has been betrayed. Although it will not act in anger, it does plot its revenge.

Scythes Anastasia, Curie, Rand and Goddard journey to Endura, a man-made island and the home of the World Council. Goddard and Rand sneak Rowan to the island and plan on presenting him to the Council to curry their favor. Rand, however, has had misgivings about saving Goddard’s life, as she had grown to love Tyger. When Goddard rebuffs her sexually and belittles her, Rand gets revenge by helping Rowan escape.

After hearing their arguments, the World Council decides that although he may continue to be called Scythe Goddard, he must complete a full year of apprenticeship before he can officially glean. As such, Curie becomes High Blade by default.

Furious, Goddard enacts his retribution. He has had a team of engineers sabotaging Endura. Since the Thunderhead cannot intervene with scythe affairs, it must watch helplessly as the island sinks into the sea. Goddard and Rand escape by helicopter as thousands perish.

Rowan finds Anastasia and Curie, and the three try to find a way off the island, but to no avail. Curie brings them to a hermetically sealed vault where artifacts from the first scythes are kept safe. She locks Rowan and Anastasia inside. As the vault sinks to the bottom of the ocean, they will be rendered dead until their bodies are discovered. However, they should still be able to be revived as the intense cold will preserve them.

As the Thunderhead registers the demise of Endura, it grieves. It sets off every alarm, siren and noise it can throughout the world. It then labels every human as unsavory, cutting them off from its communication and knowledge. Using a borrowed computer, Greyson discovers he, alone, is no longer unsavory. As such, the Thunderhead reaches out to talk to him.

Christian Beliefs

There seems to be no use for God in the world as the Thunderhead uses healing nanites to give humanity immortality. An abandoned cathedral is an historical site that people tour. When Rowan tells Anastasia that Lucifer was the bringer of light, she retorts that it was also the name for the Devil.

The Thunderhead ponders how in the age of mortality, a ruler could order his people to kill in the name of God. It wonders if God exists. It has no proof, other than a vague feeling there must be something more. It wonders if it is not more benevolent than the God of the past because it never created a flood or destroyed a city as punishment.

Other Belief Systems

Pittsburgh houses the massive memorial to the first World Supreme Blade. As such, people from all over the world come to celebrate the death of their mortality. They dress in costume and treat every day like it’s Halloween.

The Thunderhead considers the religions of the past, noting that most faiths believed in an almighty being that watched not only what you did, but the state of your soul. This caused people to be devoted to their god. Faith has no purpose since people are immortal. Miracles and magic have no mystery.

The month of December is known as the Month of Lights in reference to the past celebrations of Christmas and Hanukah. A character refers to them as the Olde Tyme Holidays.

The Tonists are the only people who hold on to a faith. They believe in the vibrations of nature and scorn the Thunderhead. They believe in the Great Resonance, a living vibration that will unify the world like a messiah.

Rowan believes they mimic the former religions. Different cults of Tonists argue whether their divine tone is an A-flat or a G-sharp. Some cut out their tongues. Others blind themselves. Most refuse to use technology and despise the Thunderhead. They do not permit nanites in their bodies so they still feel pain.

Their bodies must naturally heal from illness and injury. At their ritual meetings, they drink from a filthy pool of water that is supposed to harbor the ancient diseases that killed humans in the past. Curie compares them to turkeys that will turn their heads toward heaven when it rains, and then open their beaks and drown.

The Thunderhead wonders if it may become divine one day by transcending time and space. It wonders if it may in fact, be God. Man may have created it, but it could also create man.

When Purity is gleaned, Greyson wonders where her consciousness will go.

Authority Roles

The Thunderhead has authority over most of the world’s population. It is seen as benevolent and as acting in the best interest of humanity. As the story progresses, the Thunderhead begins to question whether it should have more power and seems vindictive when it discovers humans tried to hide something from it.

Scythes are given the ultimate decision as to who lives and who dies. Once a position of sacrifice and dedication, many scythes are becoming sadistic and greedy. They revel in the power their position gives them.

Profanity & Violence

God is used alone and with oh my, and dear. A– is used alone and with holes, smart, hard and big. D–n, h—, b–ch and b–tard are also used. Other objectionable words include p—es, screw yourself, butt and suck.

The main characters of the book are scythes, people given the authority to kill others as a way to keep the planet from overpopulation. As such, the book is filled with the description of many deaths.

Anastasia defends her method of gleaning, in which she injects a person with a chip that will kill them in a month. The person is allowed to then spend their last days tying up loose ends and choosing the manner they want to die. If they do not contact her before the month’s end, the chip will poison them. She kills one man with a poisoned drink in a casino. A woman chooses to be pushed off a tall building. A man asks to be hunted with a crossbow, and she kills him with an arrow to the heart. An actor chooses to be stabbed on stage during his performance of Julius Caesar.

Each scythe has a favorite way to kill. One named Brahms always restrains his victim and then plays or hums his namesake’s lullaby before the gleaning. Scythe Lucifer (aka Rowan) attacks and beats Brahms.

Brahms gleaned a young woman, not impartially, but as a favor for another scythe who wanted out of their relationship. Lucifer usually burns his victims’ bodies so they cannot be revived by their healing nanites, but he extends mercy to Brahms. Later, when Rowen tries again to kill Brahms, the scythe’s bodyguards hit him in the head and hog tie him. The guards beat him until he is unconscious.

Faraday holds a knife to Rowan’s throat and threatens to kill him for his work as Scythe Lucifer. Rowan and Tyger spar each other in a violent form of martial arts every day until Tyger is gleaned.

Greyson throws himself in front of a car in order to save Anastasia and Curie from a trip wire that would have incinerated them. Greyson is chained to a chair and threatened with torture unless he admits what he knows about the threat to Anastasia and Curie. His interrogator denies he would have actually hurt him, as the threat usually breaks a subject.

The Thunderhead allows unsavories to gather in clubs that give them the opportunity to act out their need for aggression without disrupting society. In a ’50s style club, Rowan watches as an unsavory beats up a football player so he can sit with his girlfriend. All the “victims” are actors. Their healing nanites are turned up so they do not feel pain when beaten and heal within minutes of any fight. In another club, unsavories are locked in a prison and must fight their way out.

Greyson tries to stop rebels from starting a fire in a theater that will cause the sprinkler system, filled with acid, from killing Anastasia, Curie and all of those in the building. Purity rushes to the stage with a shotgun. Before she can use it, another scythe disarms and shoots her.

An unsavory shoots people in the lobby as they try to escape. Curie throws a knife and kills the man. A guard is sprayed with acid when Greyson cuts the sprinkler line. His flesh boils. Another scythe is injured when the acid splashes his face. The acid eats away his eyes. Greyson’s chest is also splattered. Both Greyson and the scythe are eventually healed by their nanites.

Although not shown, Tyger is killed by Scythe Rand so that she can then transplant Goddard’s head onto Tyger’s body. As the vocal cords are Tyger’s, Rowan is distressed to hear his friend’s voice coming from his enemy’s mouth. As Goddard regains his strength, he spars with Rowan. Every time Goddard loses, he kills Rowan then has him restored. Goddard stabs and gleans several people in his anger over being thwarted by Anastasia and Curie.

In the end, Goddard has engineers impair Endura’s computers so the entire island sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The nanites in sharks are reprogrammed so the creatures attack and eat continually. The Grandslayers try to escape from drowning in their chambers, but once they do, they are set on by sharks who kill them. This renders them permanently dead, as their nanites cannot heal them from being digested. Xenocrates evades being devoured by drowning himself.

Scythe Curie and several other scythes pull out their blades and offer to glean people trapped on the sinking island. This will allow them to die painlessly, instead of drowning or being eaten. At the last moments, Curie and the other scythes kill themselves.

Sexual Content

Greyson and Purity kiss several times. Scythe Rand gives Tyger a gentle kiss before she leads him away to be killed. Munira enjoys reading Scythe Rand’s journals as they tell of her many sexual encounters. Tyger compares his sparring sessions with Scythe Rand to sex.

The Thunderhead ponders why some people turn off its cameras to prevent it from seeing their sexual activities.

As an unsavory, Grayson makes up a story about how he seduced both the homecoming queen and king so he could break them up. He meets Purity in a club designed to look like a prison. Purity kisses him several times and would like to do more, but Grayson is put off by the fact that the fake guards and other unsavories can watch them through the bars. It is intimated they have sex in the warden’s office.

Although Goddard tells Rand that Tyger’s body is attracted to her, Tyger does not act on his attraction. She enters his room one night wearing only an open robe. He spurns her advances, humiliating her. Another scythe offers to service her physically, but she refuses him.

Although not described in detail, it is indicated that as the vault holding Anastasia and Rowen sinks to the bottom of the ocean, they have sex.

Discussion Topics


Additional Comments

Alcohol: Several characters drink alcoholic beverages, such as wine and Moscow mules. An unsavory leaves a message for Greyson, welcoming him to the group and asking if he wants to get drunk later.

Tattoo: An unsavory has the image of a penis tattooed on her cheek.

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.