The Toll

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments of this series. You can read my reviews of these novels here:

Scythe | Thunderhead

The Toll was written by Neal Shusterman and first published in 2019. It forms the final part of the Arc of a Scythe Trilogy, now set in a grim world where life and death are controlled by one power-hungry psychopath. The novel follows on directly from where Scythe (2016) and Thunderhead (2018) left off, so I would recommend reading these novels in sequence to fully appreciate what is going on.

In the wake of the great tragedy of Endura, the world has rapidly changed for the worst. Thunderhead has gone silent, declaring everyone except for Greyson Tolliver as unsavoury. Any supporter of Scythe Curie has either gone to ground or been culled. Citra is missing and presumed dead. Scythe Goddard has declared himself as the first Overscythe and taken to revising the governing rules of the Scythes, removing gleaning quotas and permitting Scythes to act on their personal prejudices towards certain races or religious groups.

The only hope for the world lies with Faraday and Munira, who have headed deep into Thunderhead’s blind spot to find the legendary fail-safe – something with the power to put an end to the Scythes. However, when they find themselves marooned on the island with no way of activating the fail-safe, it seems that any chance of stopping Goddard is lost. Fortunately, Thunderhead has not given up on them. Within weeks, boats of workers also start to dock on the remote atoll. They have been instructed to build something huge – something that could save the human race. Trouble is, no one knows what it is.

On the other side of the world, several other groups work tirelessly to stop Goddard. A salvage crew rescue Citra from the ruins of Endura and use her as a mouthpiece to reveal Goddard’s crimes, and Greyson re-imagines himself as the Toll – the chosen prophet who can unite the Tonists against their enemies. Yet will they be enough to stop Goddard when 80% of Scythes in America support his regime?

While I have been curious about how this series will end of a while, the thing that has put me off reviewing The Toll up until now was its sheer length. The Toll was over 100 pages longer than Thunderhead, which deeply concerned me as I thought that Thunderhead was way longer than it needed to be. Unfortunately, my concerns turned out to be justified. While The Toll did bring this series to a semi-satisfying conclusion, I did feel that at least 200 pages could have been trimmed from in to better streamline the tale.

The Toll is a deeply ambitious novel with an even wider scope than Thunderhead. It tells a world-spanning story over three distinct time periods, slowly revealing how the world has changed since the destruction of Endura. As the story was not told chronologically these time shifts could be a little disorientating, as the first half of the story frequently flashed back and forth to show what Greyson had been doing during the time that Citra was deadish.

The third person narrative this time flits between several different characters. The most predominant ones are Citra, Rowan, Greyson, Munira, Ayn and newcomer Jeri, but it also periodically flits to other minor characters. Personally, I found this to be a problem. Scythe flowed nicely as the narrative was split between Citra and Rowan. The multiple narrators were necessary to show what was going on across the globe, but there were so many of them that these frequent jumps bogged down the story.

Despite being the major protagonists of the series thus far, Citra and Rowan don’t actually appear until a quarter of the way through the story and never truly take the limelight. While Citra does have some importance (though her investigation into Goddard’s past largely takes place off-page), Rowan virtually sits out the second half of the story and does not really do much until the climax. Greyson, on the other hand, is the primary protagonist of a majority of the novel. While his importance grew over the course of Thunderhead, he still is unfortunately bland compared to the Scythes. His attempts to influence the Tonists does not make for the most thrilling of reading and often felt a little repetitive as he visited different groups of people and preached his message.

That’s not to say that the whole story was bad. There are parts of The Toll that made me desperate to find out what would happen next. Every scene that focused on Goddard was fraught, as the Overscythe perpetually seemed to be teetering on the edge of insanity. My curiosity about what the Scythe fail-safe would be was the thing that truly kept me reading, and Shusterman did a fantastic job of keeping me guessing about its nature until the climax.

As the book entered its final act, I was pleased to find that its final twist was mostly satisfying. However, I do feel that it had the potential to divide fans. While I did like the subtle form that the fail-safe took, the fruit of Thunderhead’s grand machinations felt like a bit of a cop-out. Throughout the novel, Thunderhead started to make me think of Deep Thought – the computer from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and I’m not sure if that is necessarily a good comparison to be able to make in a serious dystopian novel.

In terms of character, The Toll was also a bit varied. A large portion of the novel was spent with Greyson and his sect of Tonists, but I felt that more balance should have been made between this and the other major characters. Citra and Rowan, in particular, were underused in this novel. Citra never even met Goddard face-to-face, and she did not reunite with Rowan until the climax. Personally, I felt that this was a real shame. Her relationship with both of these characters was clearly defined in Scythe and really deserved further consolidation at this final hour.

Goddard was also a bit problematic. While I did like reading his gradual descent into madness, it’s unclear how he came to be in such a dangerous position. Given the way that the Scythedom and State were previously divided, it seemed unrealistic for him to be able to consolidate so much power across the globe. In a world with no leaders, it seemed a bit strange how he had so much unchecked power to influence the world order, or why no one threatened him when he clearly goes off the deep-end. Even with a majority of America on his side, the novel still implies that half of the Scythedom did not support him.

I also felt that Jericho should have been introduced a lot earlier in this series. I was not really even aware that gender issues were still a thing within this universe until The Toll, given their almost Utopian society and level of medical technology. Jeri’s roll early in this story is so vitally important that I do feel they should have had a role to play in the previous two books. I’m not sure if I’d argue that they were added purely to be a token character, as a person of colour and the only non-binary character, but I do feel that their sudden addition to this already padded story certainly took focus away from the protagonists.

Anyhow, I think that this covers everything. While I loved Scythe, I was largely disappointed by The Toll. While it did have some nice moments, I felt that it was much longer than it needed to be. Perhaps if it had been a bit shorter, the plot would have felt more streamlined and less of a slog to get through.

The Toll can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook or Audio Book from Amazon.co.uk

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