We all know I love a book that does exactly what it says on the tin, and what you see is what you get in They Both Die At The End. This queer young adult novel – Silvera’s third – was first published back in 2017, but it’s had a recent resurgence in the best-seller list thanks to a spike in popularity on #BookTok.

They Both Die At The End - Adam Silvera - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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So, there are two main characters (the titular ones, who die at the end), both young men in their late teens. Mateo is a nervous wreck of a human, Rufus is a tough guy with a lot of baggage. They don’t know each other from bars of soap, but they’re about to spend their last day alive together.

In the world of They Both Die At The End, everyone gets a phone call on the day that they’ll die, letting them know it’s about to happen and, y’know, good luck. It’s a system called ‘Death-Cast’, and that’s pretty much all that Silvera tells us about it. Apparently, the prequel novel (The First To Die At The End, published in 2022) gives a bit more background as to how the system came into effect, but that didn’t really help me much going into this one. The only insight we get into Death-Cast and how it works is a couple of short chapters about phone operators who work there. I can see why Silvera wrote it that way, but I found it distracting in terms of the reading experience; I like to get the practicalities out of the way so I can focus on the story, but they were left dangling and distracting me all the way through.

But I digress! Mateo and Rufus each get this call, and they’re understandably bummed. Death-Cast only tells you that you will die, not how or why or anything useful. Mateo feels incredibly isolated by the news – his father is in a coma, his best friend is struggling to raise a young child on her own, and he feels as though he has no one with whom he can spend his last day. Rufus was in the middle of beating a guy up when the call came, and as he was gathering his family for last goodbyes, the cops showed up to arrest him. He had to do a runner to avoid spending his last day in jail, so he’s all on his lonesome, too.

In desperation, they both turn to an app called Last Friend, designed to pair people up for their last days. After a bit of back and forth, they meet and set about living as much life as they can with the time they have left.

They Both Die At The End is easy to read in terms of prose style, but it’s still a huge bummer. The title isn’t ironic, and it’s no bait-and-switch. Mateo and Rufus both die, so the growth they experience and the joy they find on their last day is all bittersweet, for them and for the reader. Silvera is very clever in that way, subverting our narrative expectations.

It’s also wonderful to see queer characters of colour represented so positively in young adult fiction, especially in the current climate of book banning. It’s never been more important for kids to have access to all kinds of characters in the books that they read, especially in the notoriously white and heteronormative worlds of speculative fiction. So, hats off to Silvera for that!

Still, I couldn’t help wanting more from They Both Die At The End: more detail in the world-building, more hope for the characters (I know, they’re destined to die and that’s The Point, but still!), and more depth to it all than just a doomed love affair between two young guys who are doing their best. I can see why it did big numbers on #BookTok, but it left me feeling a bit bereft.

My favourite Amazon reviews of They Both Die At The End:

  • “‘m sorry, but what’s the point of this book beside to leave readers with a feeling of complete and utter hopelessness, and a belief that we will all in fact die miserable and alone? My depressed mind was already convinced of this fact, but hey, thanks for validating it.” – Katie Irwin
  • “It’s a good thing these two are dying because their useless and meaningless lives contribute nothing to the world or people around them. The worst part of it is is that they are FICTIONAL. They’re not even REAL and you couldn’t even make them interesting or worth caring about.” – Brandon B
  • “It is not readily apparent, but this book has strong homosexual themes.” – David Aloha
  • “So many 5 star reviews – there must be an awful lot of young, gay/bi-curious American readers… “They both die at the end” – I just wished it happened 350 pages earlier.” – Mike707