Monday, March 30, 2020

The Toll

The Toll, Neal Shusterman

We were all waiting for eager expectation for this third and final instalment of the Scythe series (having also appreciated Shusterman's other writing in Unwind and Dry) While still a good solid story with many interesting developments and premises, overall Husband probably summed it up well with his statement, “one book too many in the series”.

There’s not a lot of point detailing the story here, for you need to have read the first two and there is no need to have spoilers. Many of the same characters are still here, in fact there are so many concurrent storylines going on (some crossing over timing) that there are a fair amount of people and events to keep track of.

Rather than a review of the story then, I’ll offer two observations.

Firstly, it is indeed possible to trace societal change in teen fiction. My guess is 20-30 years ago all teen books started to have characters with a variety of cultural backgrounds. Then maybe 10-20 years ago there were always characters with a variety of sexual preferences and expression. Today, you cannot read a teen fiction book without having characters with variable gender expression. So, entirely predictably here there is Jericho who is gender variable, according to the weather: female when sunny and male when cloudy. It’s fits into the world he has created, but in the beginning I almost wondered if he was having a bit of a dig while also being culturally relevant. Yet considering the ongoing comments related to this character, I think Shusterman was very clearly making a statement about stopping fussing about gender specificity. I am starting to wonder if all young adult authors have content requirements from publishers they must meet to get published.

Secondly, while there were some elements of religious following in the first two books, in The Toll it has developed into various forms of fanaticism. At points snippets from the Toll’s holy books are included, with commentary and analysis of the text alongside it. For those with no religious background (especially teenagers) I suspect most of this will go completely over their heads. For those, like me, who spend their life in biblical commentaries, there is something arrogant and insidious here about the subtext that no commentary ever correctly interpreted a religious text. So, again, Shusterman as an author is presumably being critical about Christianity and other religions in the way he has done this.

I note these things, but not because I have a major problem with them, but they alert us again to the current climate we live in: tolerate everything, except organised religion.

Which just goes to say, keep enjoying well written books and encourage your teens to do so as well. Shusterman’s books certainly are well written, creative and very interesting. But also help them to analyse the world view of the author and the world view the book is presenting, for nothing we ever read is value neutral, so at least take the time to consider the various messages being communicated.

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