Returning to the world first introduced in his 2017 YA novel They Both Die At The End, Adam Silvera’s The First To Die At The End is a prequel that shares a lot with the book that came before. Both stories feature the fictional app Death-Cast, which can predict the day a person is going to die. Both stories follow two gay teenage boys thrown together at a critical turning point. Yet perhaps what the two books share the most is their belief in the healing power of love, their unending sense of hope, and the sheer vibrancy of life that jumps off the pages – an irony that’s not lost, given these stories centre so heavily on death.
Taking place years before Rufus and Mateo’s story in TBDATE, the book begins the night before Death-Cast goes live. As people across America await the launch with a mix of excitement, trepidation, caution and scepticism, two boys have joined the crowds in Times Square to watch what will become a significant moment in history. New Yorker Orion Pagan has always feared his heart condition would end his life. He’s not a stranger to death but that doesn’t mean he wants to die. Valentino Prince has just moved to New York with big dreams and a promising future. He only registered for Death-Cast after his twin sister nearly died in a car accident. He certainly isn’t entertaining the idea that his life will end any time soon.
Orion and Valentino meet by chance and form an immediately connection. But Death-Cast has other ideas and as the first End Day calls go out, they realise their time together is limited. One boy is scheduled to die in the next twenty-four hours, and the other is determined to make the final day count. And so, in a similar vein to how Rufus and Mateo’s story played out, two boys who were strangers before Death-Cast uprooted their worlds, get to spend a life-altering day together – one that neither will ever forget.
Death-Cast will make sure I’m never denied a goodbye again. Well, the chance to say my goodbyes. I know I don’t have all the time in the world, I feel it in my heart. I got to go live my firsts – maybe even lasts – while I can.”
The first thing you need to know when you start reading this book is that it’ll break your heart. A box of tissues to hand is essential, as is the knowledge that the story deals with some weighty issues beyond just death. It explores sexuality, homophobia, domestic abuse, grief and trauma, showing these themes through its two central characters’ eyes, as well as the perspectives of a number of peripheral characters too. It’s this ability to look at events from different angles that gives the story such a transitory feel. As with real life, characters brush past one another, touching each other’s worlds in big and small ways – sometimes without even knowing it. And there’s something so heartening about the idea that a person can change someone’s life with just the tiniest of actions.
And that’s what TFTDATE is really all about: the impact people have on each other and how life can change in a fleeting moment, so it should be lived and celebrated to the fullest. The story is tinged with a bitter sweetness that lingers on every page. To get to any kind of happy ending with this book, there first has to be a tragedy. That won’t stop readers from rushing through the pages hoping something miraculous might happen to save both teenagers’ lives. But if you’ve read the book that started the Death-Cast journey, you’ll know that Silvera doesn’t sugar-coat death or offer up a last minute miracle. That’s not how life works, and it’s not how this story works either.
The city of New York is once again the perfect backdrop for such a story. It’s a place that’s so diverse and brimming with life, but it also poses a host of potential threats to the book’s central duo. It would be so much easier for Orion and Valentino to wrap themselves up in bubble wrap in the confines of their bedrooms but they want to explore the city together whilst they still can. Through them, readers get to experience these little slices of New York – the beauty, the chaos, and the unpredictable nature of so many people existing so closely together.
Taking place seven years before the original novel, this works perfectly as a standalone, but there’s an extra level of enjoyment to this book that only readers who are familiar with They Both Die At The End will appreciate. Such as the references to characters we already know and love. The story checks in with Rufus and Mateo as children, as well as a teenage Dalma (the creator of the Last Friends app that brings the two together). Seeing how their lives collided so early on gives greater meaning to both books.
If They Both Die At The End broke your heart and put it back together again, be prepared for this novel to do the same all over again. It’s a tender, sad, hopeful and youthful story that deserves as much love as its predecessor.
The First To Die At The End is published by Simon & Schuster Children’s on 4 October 2022