What a title.
They Both Die at the End is a young adult novel from Adam Silvera (who makes sure to let people know he is “tall for no reason” in all of his bios, so I’ll include it here as well). Adam Silvera has also written other teenage successes like History is All You Left Me, Infinity Son, and More Happy Than Not, but I think this is his most successful book, though I’m prepared to be wrong about that.
Honestly, this was one of the most intriguing titles and concepts I have picked up in a long time. Other people might know about this book, but I had not heard of it before I stumbled upon it in a Barnes and Noble. As I’m sure you’ll understand, that title called to me.
Could this book really spoil itself so heavily in the title? There’s no way they both actually die at the end, right?
Those questions paired with the actual concept of the plot made me incredibly excited to read this book.
Honestly, the plot wasn’t the point of this book, the characters were, but every book must have a plot, right?
They Both Die at the End focuses on two teenage boys, Rufus and Mateo, who received phone calls from DeathCast letting them know that they will die by the end of the day. Through another app, called Last Friend, they meet and decide to spend their final day together. For Mateo that means finally learning to live. For Rufus, that means overcoming the tragic death of his family and learning to move on from his tight-knit group of friends from his foster home.
As you can tell, the plot of this book is very centered on the relationships of the two kids. There isn’t a “bad guy” per se, unless you can count death itself as the bad guy. Silvera does attempt to set up an antagonist: another teenager who is now dating Rufus’ ex and someone Rufus assaults at the start of the novel. But the attempt to set him up as an antagonist was a weak one – I never cared about that storyline.
Other than Silvera’s somewhat misguided attempts to put some sort of conflict and plot into this book, it really didn’t suffer from its lack of plot. This story was always about Mateo and Rufus finding each other and overcoming their own personal obstacles. That was the point. So, although it didn’t have a strong plot, it didn’t need one.
With so much riding on the success of these characters, they better be great. After all, the story was the characters. If they are weak, the book is weak. If they are strong, the book is great. That’s a scary place for an author to put themselves and I greatly respect Silvera’s nerve to try it.
At the end of the day, I did really enjoy these characters. Were they the best I’ve ever read? No. Did I still like and root for them anyway? Sure.
I was invested in the primary characters. I think they were deep and distinct. I enjoyed seeing them struggle with themselves and struggle against the relationships that defined them. I think their introduction to each other was great and I loved seeing them bounce off each other, help each other and improve each other.
But the last third or fourth of the book kind of lost me.
I did not enjoy the love plot. Don’t get me wrong, I liked seeing the LGBTQ representation in a popular YA novel, but I didn’t like that they fell in love at the end.
For one thing, it felt pretty exploitative in some strange way. These two kids are struggling through something incredibly traumatic: their own deaths as teenagers. Think of the mental state they are in. You think that can start a true, flourishing relationship in the midst of that?
Also, I loved the friendship. I think they worked amazingly well as friends and I loved watching that grow. When it changed into a relationship, they didn’t mesh as well. Something about that plotline, which we all knew was coming, didn’t work with me.
Silvera also tries to introduce other characters throughout the story. We switch perspectives and follow other people around – some of them are dying and some are not. But I didn’t see the point of any of these characters. Sure, it added a little bit, but mostly it was a distraction. I could have done without those sections.
This is simultaneously the best and worst part of this book.
It’s the best because this concept is fantastic. A world where the people are alerted that they are going to die, but given no other information? A world that has built, essentially, an entire economy around these dying people? A world where some mysterious organization seems to hold the lives of citizens in the balance? Brilliant.
It’s the worst part of They Both Die at the End because Adam Silvera does close to nothing with this amazing world he created.
Who runs Deathcast and how do they know people are going to die? Literally no one knows. If you’re hoping the book will tell you, or even hint at it, you’re out of luck. I doubt Silvera even knows. Because that wasn’t the point of the story, and I get that, but it’s such an interesting concept, couldn’t we have had hints? Couldn’t we get a little taste of how this started, where it came from, who/what could be behind it? No. We get nothing. Basically, Silvera’s only attempt at expounding on Deathcast was some character assuring the reader that no one knows how it works. Which…cool. But that’s a massive bummer.
It was cool seeing the capitalist machine in place in this world, how businesses immediately started trying to turn a profit off of people’s deaths. But that’s barely discussed. Also, there was an interesting phenomenon of Deathcast causing people’s deaths. If people didn’t receive the call, they wouldn’t have done a certain thing and that certain thing was what ended up killing them. So, in a way, was Deathcast killing people? That’s never discussed.
The entire world looks beautiful, it is fascinating and novel. But it’s a puppet world held up with strings and scotch tape. If one of the characters started to press on a wall in the wrong way, the entire thing would crumple. So no character ever got close. No one questioned anything. No one searched for answers. I suspect that’s because Silvera had known and didn’t care to, because that wasn’t the story he wanted to tell.
I think this bugged me so much because I am so in love with this concept. I adore it. But Silvera wasted it on a story that isn’t about it. Deathcast and the entire Death day experience was a small part of the setting. I wanted an entire novel about Deathcast and how it worked.
I loved so much about this book. But ultimately, it felt like wasted potential. Also, I didn’t love the last fourth of the book. Up until a certain point, I really enjoyed it and I was invested, but somewhere along the way, They Both Die at the End lost me.
I have to give this one a 3.25 out of 5. Not a bad score for a not bad book that could have been so much better.