An affecting futuristic tale that manages to feel both urgent and timeless.

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THE MAGPIE'S RETURN

A gifted girl finds her life thrown into chaos during a period of societal upheaval in this dystopian literary novel.

Math prodigy Kayla sticks out from the herd. The middle schooler takes high school calculus classes while generally trying to avoid being victimized by her peers. The rest of the country is not much friendlier than her middle school, particularly since the rise of Arthur McNally and his populist, anti-intellectual movement based on exclusionary Christian nationalism. After McNally wins the presidency and Russia and the nations of Asia destroy themselves in a nuclear war, America is forced to undergo “The Great Shut-In” until radiation levels return to normal. During the resulting social unrest, Kayla’s professor father becomes involved in the Movement, a nonviolent protest organization at odds with McNally’s government. Things come to a head when her father is pulled from their house by their neighbors and lynched in the street. Kayla’s mother and uncles are arrested, forcing the teen to go into hiding. After she is betrayed by a friend’s family, Kayla ends up in a school for girls who have lost their families during the government’s purges. Here, Kayla must learn how to keep herself from becoming a victim—and to plan her revenge on those who destroyed her family. Smith’s prose is lyrical and controlled, creating a dystopia that is realistic in its mundane brutality. Here, Kayla witnesses her father’s hanging: “Slater lifts his arm, and the shirtless man yanks the rope. Another man rushes forward and grips the rope, then another. My father rises, an imitation of fight. His hands claw the noose, the spastic kick of his feet, the rope’s wild sway.” The author masterfully depicts America’s crisis through the perspective of one girl even as he shifts the point of view through the novel—first person, second person, third—to highlight major reorientations in Kayla’s life. While there is no shortage of novels offering nightmarish visions of the near American future, this one manages to stand out both in its realism and its resistance to simple moralizations. It’s all the more frightening for it.

An affecting futuristic tale that manages to feel both urgent and timeless.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-947041-61-5

Page Count: 380

Publisher: Running Wild Press

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2020

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A thoughtful and thrilling story of life, death, and meaning.

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    Best Books Of 2016

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SCYTHE

From the Arc of a Scythe series , Vol. 1

Two teens train to be society-sanctioned killers in an otherwise immortal world.

On post-mortal Earth, humans live long (if not particularly passionate) lives without fear of disease, aging, or accidents. Operating independently of the governing AI (called the Thunderhead since it evolved from the cloud), scythes rely on 10 commandments, quotas, and their own moral codes to glean the population. After challenging Hon. Scythe Faraday, 16-year-olds Rowan Damisch and Citra Terranova reluctantly become his apprentices. Subjected to killcraft training, exposed to numerous executions, and discouraged from becoming allies or lovers, the two find themselves engaged in a fatal competition but equally determined to fight corruption and cruelty. The vivid and often violent action unfolds slowly, anchored in complex worldbuilding and propelled by political machinations and existential musings. Scythes’ journal entries accompany Rowan’s and Citra’s dual and dueling narratives, revealing both personal struggles and societal problems. The futuristic post–2042 MidMerican world is both dystopia and utopia, free of fear, unexpected death, and blatant racism—multiracial main characters discuss their diverse ethnic percentages rather than purity—but also lacking creativity, emotion, and purpose. Elegant and elegiac, brooding but imbued with gallows humor, Shusterman’s dark tale thrusts realistic, likable teens into a surreal situation and raises deep philosophic questions.

A thoughtful and thrilling story of life, death, and meaning. (Science fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Nov. 29, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4424-7242-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2016

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Fear the reaper(s)…but relish this intelligent and entertaining blend of dark humor and high death tolls.

THUNDERHEAD

From the Arc of a Scythe series , Vol. 2

Death proves impermanent in this sequel to Scythe (2016).

In a world run by the (almost) all-powerful and (almost) omniscient artificial intelligence Thunderhead, only the Honorable Scythes deal permanent death to near-immortal humans. Yet a growing contingent of scythes, feared and flattered by society and operating outside the Thunderhead’s control, are proving rather dishonorable. No longer apprentices, 18-year-olds Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch realize “the scythedom is…high school with murder” as they watch their fellow scythes jockey for power and prestige. Citra now gleans as Scythe Anastasia, questioning the status quo but also opposing the homicidally enthusiastic “new-order” scythes and their dangerous demagogue. Self-appointed as Scythe Lucifer, Rowan hunts other scythes whom he deems corrupt. Meanwhile, the existentially troubled Thunderhead questions its role as both creation and caretaker of humanity, sworn not to take life but fearing that its utopia will otherwise collapse into dystopia. Nationality and race are minimally mentioned—ethnic biases and genocide are considered very gauche—yet a population that defies death, aging, sickness, poverty, and war risks becoming bleakly homogenous, alleviated only by “unsavories” and scythes. This sequel digs deeper into Shusterman’s complex world and complicated characters, offering political maneuvering, fatal conspiracies, and impending catastrophe via a slowly unfurling plot and startling bursts of action.

Fear the reaper(s)…but relish this intelligent and entertaining blend of dark humor and high death tolls. (Science fiction. 14-adult)

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4424-7245-7

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Nov. 22, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

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