The Toll by Neal Shusterman
Arc of a Scythe #3
Personally, I feel like Neal Shusterman really created a masterpiece with The Toll. I really enjoyed Scythe and its follow up, Thunderhead, but The Toll was the grand finale that tied up all of the loose ends and ultimately brought the series to its full and glorious completion.
The Divided Controversy
There appear to be two distinctly separate camps when it comes to readers of this book. There are those who loved Scythe and Thunderhead who happened to be very bored and underwhelmed by The Toll, and this camp seems to actually hold the majority. On the other hand, there are readers who believe The Toll completely stands apart from the first two books in the series and truly deserves more credit than people are giving it. I happen to be a member of this second camp, as this book “resonated” with me pretty deeply.
Honestly, I can see the point of view of the first group of readers, because this book was pretty giant compared to the rest. It felt like a pretty big undertaking, especially given the fact that it started out really slow. There is a ton of backstory to get caught up on to bring us up to speed with the current state of affairs since the last book, and there are many new characters (as well as some minor characters in the previous books) whose stories come into focus during this final book. It took a lot to flesh out all of the story and character development, but given how things came together in the end, I think it was ultimately worth the initial build up (and time it took for me to really get into the book). This book was like climbing a mountain, and one which people have told you really sucks, but you want to at least find out for yourself. Once reaching the peak, you realize that you are very glad you made the journey and that in the end, it was all worthwhile
What I loved most about The Toll was the extreme focus on The Thunderhead’s artificial intelligence, even more so than in the previous book, but at the same time we don’t lose sight of the scythes, as they both share the spotlight, along with the Tonists, as these three factions collide into what can only be described as an all-out battle to clear a destined path for the future of the human race.
My favorite aspect of The Toll was the focus on allegory and symbolism — two aspects which were also present in the previous two books, but were brought into major focus in this final book. It is easy to see that The Tonists are a representation of modern religion, with an apparent allegorical focus Christianity and Islam.
We can see this from the first creation of Scythe Lucifer that there were Christian allegories at play, and toward the end of the book, there is a literal nod to this. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all-out Luciferianism is at play here, but it does indeed make the valid point that stories have been twisted over the years in relation to certain mythological figures being misinterpreted and slightly twisted until they turn into completely evil beings (such as Satan, which has nothing to do with Lucifer in a literal sense, but has been twisted into such over history). You can argue this point all you want, but the esteemed religious historian, Elaine Pagels, lays this point out very clearly in her book The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics. We can see this theme grow more roots in the series as future historians look back at the time of the modern Scythedom and consider them demons and postulate that they ate flesh or sucked the souls from their victims, all while we are witnessing the actual events as they took place in real time, where we realize the ridiculousness of their naivety and see how important details can get lost in the sands of time, much like playing a game of “telephone” over the span of centuries.
Not to try and spoil any more, but The Toll himself is just an ordinary guy who listens to a speaker in his ear, which to the reader, conjures the image of faith-healing mega-church ministers and televangelists such as the infamous Peter Popoff, who gained notoriety as a fraud from the discovery that his wife was feeding him personal information of congregation individuals from backstage through a hidden earpiece.
In this same vein, the Tonists at first didn’t believe that Greyson had direct contact with The Thunderhead until they were addressed personally with information about themselves fed to Greyson through his earpiece. And let’s not let it go unnoticed that the Tonists wouldn’t even recognize The Thunderhead as part of their godhead until “The Great Resonance” when it went silent, all except to Greyson, at which point they created their own Holy Trinity — The Tone (“The Great Resonance”, which was actually a shrill cry from the Thunderhead when it lost faith in humanity), The Toll (Greyson, the only remaining individual not marked “unsavory”, to which The Thunderhead still speaks), and The Thunder (The Thunderhead itself). We almost seem to see an exponentially-quickened evolution of a single religion over the span of just a few years, assimilating things from the outside to suit its inner needs. As we can see toward the end of the book, with their unshakeable faith, the Tonists will interpret anything that fits their viewpoint as a sign from God, and will incorporate it into their belief system and doctrine.
The Tonists ultimately take this religious assimilation to a new level in their search for The Great Fork, which is their primary religious symbol and is an obvious reference to The Holy Cross. Finding something resembling it in the end (along with observing numerous “signs” that seem to support their religious doctrine), it seems that their ultimate holy grail quest was complete, just not in the way they had expected. Was it destiny, coincidence, or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Such are the questions when it comes to these type of things.
Taking the Islamic point of view, the Tonists also quickly devolved into radical sects by completely misinterpreting the words and teachings of the religious figure they are following. The same can be said for Christians (especially during the time of The Crusades), but from a modern perspective, the Tonists look more like modern Muslims devolving into multiple jihadic subgroups, or “Sibilant Sects”. The irony here is everyone is working with the same omniscient presence, yet they have drastically different customs, interpretations, and beliefs regarding what it is and what it wants from them, when in reality, it mainly just wants them to chill out and be kind to one another, which resonates pretty heavily, if you ask me.
An even more mysterious undercurrent is the fact that the Scythes are completely cut-off from direct interaction with The Thunderhead, although they have complete access to all of its information by hacking into the backbrain. They work directly in tandem with it, but serve a different purpose, which is supposed to be for the good of humanity. It isn’t until the end that we see something happen that changes everything. This can possibly serve as an allegory to benevolent secret societies and mystery traditions, the way they previously operated, and how that is beginning to change within the context of the modern era. I won’t go into more detail on this, because it would be stretching a bit to try and put into words, and would need much more investigation from the reader, but the parallels are there, nonetheless, and if you follow the symbolic threads throughout this book, you can gain some really deep insight on different factions within our own world and our entire social construct as a whole.
I find myself drawn to books about AI, and whether or not it is just the world’s current fascination with it at the moment, or whether it is just my personal fascination with it, I’m not sure, but this series, and particularly this book specifically, captures the theme extremely well. I am always infatuated by books that verge on the realm of possibility — things that could actually happen in the real world, not pure fantasy — and I feel like Arc of a Scythe fits solidly in that category, right along with other series such as This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada. This is actually a world that I can picture human beings living in sometime in the future. It’s entirely realistic, and if you have knowledge of the current state of machine learning and artificial intelligence, you can easily see how a future like the one portrayed in this series could eventually come to pass.
I believe this whole series to be a work of art, which is definitely worth the read. I gave both Scythe and Thunderhead four stars, but The Toll absolutely stands apart from the other two. I know the build-up was worth it in the end, but I personally believe this book falls just short of a five star read. It was a tough one to conquer with a busy schedule, so it took me a good month at least to make it all the way through, although the last half of the book took probably less than a week after things started getting really interesting and the pieces all started falling into place. While overall, I am personally giving this book four stars, I am actually going to give it five stars on Goodreads, simply to raise its score to try and help show the world that The Toll deserves a higher score than the previous 2 books in the series. If I could give half-stars, this book would be a solid 4.5, but I’m going to stick with 4 for my own personal rating.