60 pages 2 hours read

Neal Shusterman


Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Thunderhead is a 2018 science fiction novel by bestselling American author Neal Shusterman. It is the second book in the Arc of a Scythe trilogy and the sequel to Scythe, which introduces a world of human immortality and population control via highly-controlled death under the watchful gaze of a benevolent artificial intelligence, the Thunderhead. Thunderhead continues the story of Rowan Damisch and Citra Terranova one year after the events in Scythe, and introduces Greyson Tolliver and his unique relationship with the godlike presence of the Thunderhead. As humanity and the worldwide scythedom are threatened again by the evil Scythe Goddard, Citra, Rowan, and Greyson struggle to prevent the downfall of civilization. Shusterman combines irony, humor, and high stakes in this story about love, death, grief, compassion, longing, ambition, and pride.

The Arc of a Scythe trilogy has won numerous awards, including the ALA Michael L. Printz Award and the Alexandria Award. Thunderhead was the winner of the Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year Award as well as the ALA/YALSA Teens’ Top Ten List for 2019. This guide references the eBook of the Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division.

Plot Summary

Ten months after the events of Scythe, Rowan Damisch is on the run and hiding from the scythedom, the organization responsible for “gleaning” human lives to maintain population control and the meaning of life. Still haunted by his apprenticeship with the evil Scythe Goddard, Rowan takes it upon himself to kill scythes who abuse their power and give the scythedom a bad name. Meanwhile, Citra Terranova—“Scythe Anastasia”—has been living as a junior scythe, gleaning with compassion and making a name for herself. Citra and Rowan meet in secret and worry about the future of the scythedom. Dangerous ideas are spreading among the scythes, and although Rowan killed Goddard almost a year ago, there are those who still support Goddard’s radical ideas about finding joy in the act of ending human life.

In a series of interludes, the Thunderhead—the sentient artificial intelligence that maintains all life on earth—reflects on the goodness of its nature and how much it loves mankind. The Thunderhead ponders the limitations of its seemingly limitless power, and it worries about the inevitability of humanity’s downfall. Humans have stopped dying, but the population is growing too fast for the scythes to control. The Thunderhead is forbidden from involving itself in scythe matters, because the taking of human life is a distinctly human privilege. However, the Thunderhead senses corruption brewing in the scythedom that could endanger humanity, and it enacts a subtle plan to stop this corruption from spreading.

To sidestep its own rules against interfering directly with the scythedom, the Thunderhead uses Greyson Tolliver, an unremarkable boy with a deep sense of loyalty to the Thunderhead. When the Thunderhead hints that Greyson should warn Scythes Curie and Anastasia about an attack on their lives, Greyson does and is punished with the label of “unsavory”: a status reserved for the troublemakers of society. Greyson goes deep undercover to learn more about the people who tried to attack Scythes Anastasia and Curie, and he realizes a scythe is orchestrating attacks against its own people. Greyson thwarts another attack and is forced to seek refuge with Tonists: a religious group who shun the scythes, embrace natural death, and do not care about Greyson’s unsavory status. Greyson feels a deep sense of loss because he can no longer communicate with the Thunderhead thanks to his unsavory status. Greyson believes the Thunderhead used and then abandoned him, and is overwhelmed with despair.

Meanwhile, Rowan is captured by Scythe Rand, who he believed was dead along with Goddard. Rand kidnaps Rowan’s best friend Tyger and uses his body to bring back Scythe Goddard. With his new body, Goddard makes a dramatic entrance at Winter Conclave and announces his intent to run for the title of High Blade of MidMerica. Scythe Curie is also nominated for the position. Scythe Curie believes in compassion and humility in gleaning while Goddard embraces brutality and pride. The two candidates face off, but Citra points out that Goddard’s new body was never technically ordained as a scythe. An inquest begins and Scythes Curie, Anastasia, and Goddard must report to the island of Endura to meet with the World Scythe Council. Goddard smuggles Rowan to Endura with the intent of turning him over to the World Council, hoping to impress them with his capture of a murderous criminal.

On Endura, Goddard is shocked when the World Scythe Council agrees with Citra: Scythe Curie is deemed the winner of the election for High Blade of MidMerica, and Goddard swiftly enacts his plan for revenge. Goddard manages to hack into the control systems keeping Endura afloat, and he causes the island to sink into the sea. Everyone on Endura is devoured by marine animals, but at the last moment, Scythe Curie locks Rowan and Citra in an airtight vessel that will keep them safe when the island sinks. They will die, but if their bodies are ever found, they will be preserved enough to be revived. As Endura sinks, the Thunderhead issues a terrible cry around the world, and everyone on Earth is marked unsavory except for Greyson.