Happy Saturday, witches! I'm coming at you a wee late this week because I've been busier than anticipated. And also because I went against my reading and photo schedule this month when I heard about Cemetery Boys and HAD to read it instead of what I planned.
Aiden Thomas’s debut novel follows Yadriel, a gay transgender boy in an East LA brujx community that worships Santa Muerta (Lady Death) and uses the power she bestows upon them to “heal those who suffer and guide those who are lost.”
Genre: YA Paranormal Queer Romance
Category: Emotional Read
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Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
When a brujx comes of age, they participate in a sacred ritual, pledging themselves to Lady Death and seeking her blessing. Yet when Yadriel comes out as transgender, his traditional Latinx family does not allow him to present himself as a boy—they assume it will not work and don’t let him try. So with the help of his rebellious best friend and cousin, Maritza, Yadriel performs the ceremony himself.
Moments after appealing to Santa Muerta and receiving her blessing, Yadriel discovers another cousin, Miguel, has died suddenly, mysteriously. Worse, no one can find his body or spirit to find out what happened. Yadriel sees it as an opportunity to help his family and himself, and goes on the search.
But when a summoning spell goes wrong, not only does Yadriel fail to contact Miguel, he’s now stuck with the spirit of a cute yet abrasive boy who is not ready to walk quietly into death.
“Yadriel groaned. Of course the first spirit he summoned wouldn’t just be released willingly. No, he had to get stuck with one who had an attitude problem.”
One of the best things about Cemetery Boys is that the characters feel very real, each with complexities and distinct voices. Yadriel is caring, considerate, empathic, and unsure of himself, though brave enough to stand up when pushed; Maritza is a sassy rebel with deep convictions; and Julian is the secretly soft bad boy prone to humorous malapropisms and outbursts. Even the supporting characters—the brujx community and Julian’s loved ones—fight for a place in your heart as you watch them try to do the best they can in every situation.
Thomas's portrayal of Yadriel’s family (and the families of Julian's friends) is important because we often see stories about queer kids going from wholeheartedly accepted to completely disowned by their families when they come out. Cemetery Boys touches on many parts of the spectrum and the myriad reactions queer folx experience. On top of that, Yadriel also lives in a multi-generational home that is trying to heal from existing traumas already—the death of Yads’ mother (his greatest source of support) and members being outcast.
Yadriel is exhausted by all of this. Juggling so many conflicting emotions as his family says they accept him, then make him feel otherwise by not allowing him to be presented as a brujo, letting his deadname slip, misgendering him, considering his homosexuality a sort of cancelation of / consolation for his being trans, ignoring or avoiding him out of fear of making a mistake, and making hurtful comments like when his abuelita told him he “would always be her little girl.”
Yads understandably has many reasons to feel angry, hurt, and exhausted. But what breaks my heart more is how guilty he feels for having those feelings. How do we hold love and resentment in the same space?
“Navigating pronouns was a minefield when language was based on gender.”
Luckily, Yadriel doesn’t have to worry about these things with Julian. Upon meeting, Julian assumes Yadriel’s identity, but it takes only one correction before he is one of the few people who accepts Yadriel and uses the correct pronouns effortlessly.
I’d like to preface this next bit with the fact that romance isn’t my favorite genre. I appreciate it in a story, though prefer plot-driven stories with romance as an added bonus. BUT Julian and Yadriel’s opposites-attract romance is so freaking adorable.
While Yadriel is an introvert more on the “do-gooder” side, Julian is a fiery ball of energy with zero impulse control. Though he is a spirit without a corporeal form, Julian is so ALIVE. He takes in everything around him and reflects it back with a hundred times more radiance, and by doing so teaches Yadriel how to live more and with confidence. He may be a Scorpio, but I’m willing to bet he has some strong Leo placements with how animated and enthusiastic he is, the depth of his love and loyalty, the way he lives with his heart wide open, and the ferocity with which he protects.
“Queer folks are like wolves,” Julian told him. “We travel in packs.”
Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Julian is everything Yadriel needs—fiercely loyal and protective, deeply caring of his loved ones, unabashedly himself, unafraid of getting into trouble. Watching the two open up and become protective of each other is sweet. The way Julian encourages Yadriel to be brave in multiple ways is precious.
“You don’t need anyone’s permission to be you, Yads.”
Honestly, I didn’t know how much I needed #yadrian in my life; they have so many cute scenes that it could be its own blog post, so here are some of my favorites:
Julian sneaking into Yadriel’s yearbook and replacing his deadname with his real name.
Yadriel making Julian his own ofrendas.
Julian helping Yads realize there is undoubtedly an entire lost history of LGBT+ members within his community, that he was never alone.
“Do it anyways.” –Julian & Yadriel
(the first time broke me; the second had me beaming like Julian)
Even the most minor characters—spirits around the cemetery and other brujx— feel real and add texture to the story. The little scenes and snippets of conversation while Yadriel is sneaking around add humor and depth to the story, with the multiple Latin backgrounds represented. It’s important to show the distinctions between subcultures and keep their unique qualities and traditions alive.
Cemetery Boys also reminds us the importance of oral history and storytelling, as well as keeping in touch with the traditions of our elders. It does so while encouraging us to remain open in our hearts and minds so we adapt while remaining connected to our roots.
“Growth isn’t a deviation from what we’ve done before, but a natural progression to honor all those who make this community strong.”
Because it takes place in the days leading up to Halloween and Dia de Muertos, it's also a great book to read around spookytime. My singular complaint is that I'd have enjoyed more gothic imagery and spookiness, but Thomas did a great job keeping it from being too dark for kids, especially with the heavy topics discussed.
Cemetery Boys is a rock-solid debut that is highly enjoyable and important in how it handles current social issues like gender equality and roles, community, racism, deportation, cultural appropriation, gossip and bullying, etc. Its discussions benefit readers of all ages, particularly young readers and those of the queer and Latinx communities who aren’t used to seeing themselves mirrored in fiction.