Book Review: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Do you ever finish a book and then just take a moment to bask in the glow of how fantastic it was? There is a feeling of wholesome contentment just from the completeness of it all. There will always be little things about any book that we wish there were more or less of, but in the moments after finishing Cemetery Boys my only thoughts were “wow, that was awesome!”
Moving beyond my initial take, maybe it’s the fact that I’m reading this in October and that we are very close to Halloween and Día de los Muertos, but I resonated with the vibes of this book while reading in a way that was quite visceral. All the same, while there is something to be said for how reading a book in the season in which it is set can make the book that much more impactful, I believe Cemetery Boys would be just as poignant read in any season.
The primary issue that our protagonist, Yadriel, is wrestling with throughout the novel is his struggle to be accepted by his community as a brujo—to be accepted as a man, and to be treated as such. His most supportive family member—his mother—is dead, and the rest of his family is on a sliding scale of tolerance, his gender constantly delegitimized by comments big and small, though they for the most part address him with the correct name and pronouns.
This issue stems from the core theme of the book—the idea of family. Without ever saying it out loud Cemetery Boys asks both “How far would you go to protect your family?” and “What would it take for you to leave your family?” For our secondary protagonist, Julian, family means his brother and his friends, and he refuses to leave the world of the living for the realm of the dead without assuring himself of their safety. For Yadriel, his family is his biological family and the extended community of brujx within which he was raised.
Speaking of brujx, this must be some of the most interesting worldbuilding I have seen in a while. The brujx are a community of Latinx magic-users who have the power to communicate and interact with spirits, and worship Santa Muerte, who many generations ago gave the brujx their abilities. Brujas, women, are able to heal using animal blood, and brujos, men, are able to sever the connections that spirits have formed between themselves and their tether, which keeps them on earth, and release them into the afterlife. I am fascinated by this because Yadriel is proven to be a brujo because he can do brujo magic and failed at bruja magic, thereby showing that the magic itself validates Yadriel’s gender because the brujx magic gendered him correctly. This is very affirming from a binary trans perspective, and so I normally would be here for it…. Except for the fact that the text completely avoids the question of what kind of magic a nonbinary brujx would have. Both? Neither? Julian even asks this question, and he never gets an answer. I am driven to distraction. Aiden Thomas, if you read this review tell me on Twitter, I am @talia_franks and I really want to know.
Speaking of Julian, one of my favorite parts of the book is the dynamic between Julian and Yadriel, and how they both resonate and conflict with one another. A fantastic aspect of Julian’s character is the way in which he contradicts Yadriel’s expectations. Julian is unapologetically himself. He adapts quickly to the news he is dead, moving along from it as accepted fact. Julian also has no adverse reaction to Yadriel being trans, immediately using the correct pronouns for him, and in fact is more affirming to Yadriel than anyone else has been.
Cemetery Boys takes an incredibly artful and nuanced look at not only gender and sexuality, but also seamlessly weaves into its narrative the ways and which class and nationality operate in one’s everyday life, and how those intersect with one another. This book truly shines in the small details, and is a shining example of what happens when we let authors tell stories sourced from their own communities and I for one am so glad that the world has this queer trans Latinx YA novel, which I could never write, but I did thoroughly enjoy.
Spooky season is almost over but read this book anyway! And buy it if you can afford to do so because supporting authors is always important, especially those who come from marginalized and minoritized communities.