Adam Silvera’s third novel is his most brazenly titled, and reveals his truest interest as an author: They Both Die at the End. Is it supposed to be a comfort that we know that the outcome of They Both Die at the End, or does it simply mean that accepting the inevitable means we will never connect with the story he’s telling?
In the same universe as More Happy Than Not, Silvera’s first novel, there exists Death-Cast, a company that calls you on the day of your death and notifies you that you have fewer than 24 hours to live. Shut-in closet case Mateo Torrez gets the call and realises that he has no one to share his last day with, and so he uses the Last Friend app to meet Rufus Emeterio, who got the call directly after beating up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. Running on zero sleep, the two make the most of their time together until death claims them.
They Both Die at the End is a novel that provides its author with an excuse to kill off its characters without ever taking into consideration the ethical or philosophical ramifications of the world that it presents. If Silvera has a preoccupation with torturing his ensembles — and somehow manages not to attract the same criticisms as practically any other author who kills off queer characters — at least he’s somewhat honest about it.
Seeing as the end is in the title, there is slightly more leeway for spoilers than in a standard review. Primed for the end, it is arbitrary and anti-climactic when it comes. While we are informed immediately that death is inevitable — as in the case of a sitting US President who went into hiding on his death day and was killed by a member of his secret service — the way that the characters die is embedded in the text in a way that each of them could have avoided. Silvera essentially wrote himself into a corner in a way that would never have allowed his ending to be properly satisfactory, and his more literal readers — and let’s face it, a lot of readers take things at face value — will be upset that not everything is completely spelled out for them.
More than this, though, Silvera has this bizarre knack for presenting dystopian stories which no one within seems to realise are dystopian. A dystopia that doesn’t overtly round up its children for an annual bloodbath or send its fertile women into sexual slavery is still a dystopia; that these characters can accept a memory erasing business, an involuntary death notification service and the fact that Harry Potter is called “Scorpius Hawthorne” with mild pushback only against the first instance proves that Silvera’s characters are living in a nightmare.
You could say “if that’s the way this world works, that’s just the way it is”, but that is explicitly a cop out in a world that deals so often in exploring the nature of fate, determinism, destiny, and free will. Not once is death presented as a Final Destination type deal where, if you cheat it, it will come for you. If there’s a literal spectre pulling the strings, that’s one thing. If your actions don’t matter because your future has been written by an app, what’s the point? There’s a carpe diem cliché lurching somewhere in the heart of They Both Die at the End, but if the world is as cruel as the one that Rufus and Mateo inhabit, the day has already been seized from them.
Silvera’s reality is as ruthlessly capitalistic as our own but, because there’s an entire industry built to bilk the dying out of their money, it’s infinitely more morbid. That Silvera wrote about the final day of two boys with nothing to lose suggests that, even if only subconsciously, he could recognise that his idea was too big and troublesome to contain within this relatively slim volume.
As a friendship that may blossom into a romance between a perennially unlucky shy kid and a traumatised foster kid whose life has already been ruined by Death-Cast, They Both Die at the End has more to recommend itself than it does in the field of speculative fiction. Silvera’s writing shifts between their first person narratives, and he is skilful enough to differentiate between their voices, although Rufus largely does that by using the modifier “mad” to describe everything. This being a Silvera novel, they’ve both suffered terrible tragedies in their lives even before their literal dying day. Rufus is written farther along the grief spiral than someone only six months past his inciting incident, and Mateo is entirely too sanguine about his lousy life to date, but they fit well together. If YA is often about growing and changing — almost always better than a book where the support cast has to learn to accept the warts of an insufferable protagonist — They Both Die at the End captures that. Most of what they do exists in a bubble created entirely by the industrial death complex, so there’s always that pull at the core of the novel, but at least Silvera has forged a genuine bond between them.
It would be hard for Silvera to write a more poorly conceived torture chamber than he presented in More Happy Than Not, so those days are behind us. They Both Die at the End is immediately hamstrung by its core concept, but the journey the characters take before their deaths is slightly worth taking. Rufus and Mateo get an excuse for the “insta-love” that is decried in other YA fiction because they have no choice but to get on each other’s wavelength or part ways, and the bond that they form in their short time together is legitimately sweet. If Silvera steps away from speculative fiction that is entirely inconsiderate of its own ramifications and moves into more grounded love stories about flawed but human characters, he can make a more distinct name for himself in the growing field of LGBT YA. Young Adult readers may have a taste for dead teens, but there is so much more out there for them. The age of John Green is over; Adam Silvera should make room for himself.