Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Maturity Level: 4
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When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.
However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie off some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.
Holy Smokes! What a cool book! In 2021 that doesn’t seem like quite the right word, but that’s really the best descriptor for this book. The plot, the characters, the aesthetic, the magic, they were all so cool.
Cemetery Boys has the most unique plot and worldbuilding I’ve read in a YA fantasy in a long time. YA urban fantasy is rare enough, but Thomas created a world based on Latinx magic that is one of a kind. Brujas have powerful healing magic, and brujos have the power to usher lost spirits to the afterlife. They are all watched over by their patron saint (patron diety?) Santa Muerte, or Lady Death. Naturally they live in a cemetery and wear daggers and rosaries filled with animal blood. Because obviously. I’m not sure how much of the brujx mythos was obscure Latinx legends and how much was pure imagination, but it WORKED.
I loved Yadriel and Julian. I think I mentioned once that I have a preferred character type? Yadriel is it. Small, unsure of himself, a little nerdy, but super determined and plucky. Julian is the complete opposite. He’s loud, energetic, rarely stops to think, and with a fiery temper. But in a super lovable way? You can’t help caring for Julian, wanting to take care of him and protect him.
And their romance, ADORABLE. This wasn’t a swoony romance with lots of kissing since, you know, Julian is a ghost. Things are more crush-y, especially at first. But then later, as the boys get to know each other, their feelings and relationship grow more intense. It was a literal joy to read.
The plot is well-crafted, if a little predictable. I found it perplexing that Yadriel insisted on going to school in the middle of all this, but at the same time it was kind of refreshing to read about how a kid’s life doesn’t just get put on hold just because weird supernatural fantasy crap is happening to them. It was an enjoyable ride, and by the end I was flipping pages like a fiend.
Infused into everything is Latinx culture and the sights and sounds of LA. Thomas’s LA is so different from the LA I get to see as a visitor, and I was enchanted to see the neighborhood view. Dia de los muertos plays a particularly strong role in Yadriel’s culture, partly because he is brujx, and partly because it’s only a few days away. Lots of sugar skulls and marigolds.
But what I think Thomas really deserves ALL the credit for was the ease with which they balanced plot, character development, and social themes. Yadriel is an own-voices trans character, so trans and LGBT issues were obviously at the forefront of this book. But at no point did that slow down the plot. It’s woven seamlessly in, always there, but as part of the dialogue and plot, not just the author TELLING you about it. Other social themes such as teen runaways, racism, deportation, and gangs make an appearance, but Thomas is willing to just put them in there and let them be, instead of letting them takeover the book. At no point do the plot or character development suffer because of these themes, as so often happens.
And, Thomas does all of this without making the book too long or requiring a trilogy. Let me say that louder for the folks at the back: THIS IS A STANDALONE YA FANTASY. !!!!!
Truly, this is the best YA fantasy I’ve read in years. I almost never say this, but it fully and completely lived up to the hype. Highly recommend for YA readers of all stripes.