Review: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

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Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.

When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his 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 up 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. 

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

              I knew from the very first few pages of Cemetery Boys that I was going to love it so dearly.

              Aiden Thomas lured me into their imaginative and vibrant narrative with an enchanting mix of mystery and magic, then hooked me on their winning characters. The sense of fall was immediate then, the swiftness and depth of it. I wanted to hold time like a breath in my chest, and never stop reading. When I turned the last page, I felt like something inside of me has cracked open, like a room with the windows all thrown wide open, eager to let in the gleaming sunlight, the fresh air, and the spring-morning warmth. That heady feeling of weightlessness, as though something heavy had been perched on my shoulders but had finally flown away.

              Early in Thomas’s cracking debut, Yadriel—a 16-year-old gay Latinx trans boy—successfully performs the ritual his family denied him in front of Lady Death, thus unlocking his magical powers as a brujo. Soon after, Yadriel discovers that his cousin has suddenly and inexplicably died, but his spirit is nowhere to be found. The mystery calls to Yadriel like a kernel of a secret, and determined, he sets out to root it out. If Yadriel can find his cousin’s body and release his spirit to the afterlife, he can finally prove to his family that he is a true brujo—and a boy.

              Yadriel’s plan definitely did not include falling for one Julian Diaz—the spirit of a handsome dead boy Yadriel accidentally summons. But now it is just the two of them—tangled up together like coat hangers—and a mystery hanging heavy in the air around them like a ghost.

The only thing more stupid than going around his family’s back, summoning spirits, and trying to solve multiple murders would be falling for a dead boy. Especially if it was Julian Diaz. 

              It is this mystery that forms the plot of Cemetery Boys, and everything soon becomes edged with the sense of hurtling toward an inevitable crash. The writing is incredibly engaging, and the dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever read—compelling, effortlessly swift, and full of nuance and humor. But it’s the voices that Aiden Thomas gives their characters that will follow you off the page.

              The author sees the characters—really sees them—and wants them to see themselves. In his hands, their stories transcend what is expected of them. But it’s more than just an exercise in subverting expectations. There’s so much tenderness infused into the novel, fizzing so joyously through its veins. All of the characters are rendered with care, every single one of them meticulously polished in all their conflicted, multifaceted glory.

              Yadriel’s voice is as unique as it is compelling, and I warmed with the simple joy of stumbling across someone whose desires and fears are shaped so closely to my own.

              Yadriel wanted to be accepted by his family and community with all the fierce longing of a thwarted child. And even when it burned in him that his family refused to acknowledge him as a brujo and as a boy, even when he had to endure conversations as painful as picking one’s way through a patch of nettles, and even when he tired of always being the one to swallow his hurt and extend people the benefit of the doubt—it was still more endurable than the inconsolable grief of losing it all.

              I think oftentimes in queer YA books the queer protagonist is either wholeheartedly embraced by their family, or shunned by them completely. But few novels venture into the vast area in between where it feels like the people around you are embracing you with an arm, but pushing you back with the other, and show how painful and taxing it is to navigate that. Yadriel did not know how to fit love and resentment into the same cupboard. He loved his family and community and wanted to belong with them, but their failure to embrace him the way he deserved to be embraced struck him with a pang of deep resentment, and the two emotions fought for the same space inside his chest. The nagging familiarity of it still snags at me. My family and community are everything to me. It is not something to painlessly give up with a laugh, and a roll of the shoulders, or easily pare away like it’s dead foliage. And it felt less lonely to read a book in which the protagonist is sitting right here with me, his feelings shadowing my own thoughts.

             In one of the novel’s most heartwarming scenes, Julian tells Yadriel, “You don’t need anyone’s permission to be you, Yads,”  and something inside Yadriel (and me) lights up like a torch. Wanting acceptance and waiting for permission can feel like flip sides of the same coin sometimes, flashing end over end, wild and jarring and dizzying. Where does one end and the other begins? When does the plea you form in your head for love and acceptance grow teeth that sink into your flesh and bloom fear in your chest, stiffening all that you are into a terrible, echoing silence? How long are you willing to allow it?

“Why do you have to prove anything to anyone?”

              Speaking of Julian, the loveable ghost of my heart.

             Julian Diaz might be a spirit—hazy and incorporeal enough to pass your hand right through him—but who he is was so solid and real that the rest of the world seemed dull by comparison. He is the boy who’s like cheer in a bottle, his face lit with an undimmable glow of its own making. The boy born with his heart on the outside of his body, who loves so deeply, and so achingly, and is loyal in the reckless manner of those who would hurtle themselves headlong into peril for those they loved—and not once count the cost.

              But the rumors hanging heavy around Julian spoke of brawls and drug deals, of a runaway mother and a dead father. The rumors decided who Julian was—the brooding, bad boy with a tortured past and an infamous present—and the words held all the finality of a thrust blade.

              The novel, however, handles that trope by walking right up to it and smacking it upside the head. Cemetery Boys shows us Julian with his defenses lowered, and there is an untried, fragile feeling to the unfurling of his character. Instead of a troublemaker and a “bad boy”, we simply see… a kid. A kid who is bright and loud and feels most at home where there is jolly chaos to be sowed. A kid with kindness and empathy that run deep in his nature as the current of a rushing stream. A kid who makes endearingly bad jokes, and hilariously mixes up his idioms, and has so much warmth and energy thrumming through him it’s as though he is twice as alive as the next person.

              The names people assigned Julian, wishing to see in him only what they wanted to see, hit me with a startling, painful familiarity. As a kid, I grew up being told that I was too loud, too inattentive, too annoying. Too much. As an adult, I learned the name for that was ADHD. But as a kid, with little language to shape around your feelings, you accept what everyone else tells you. The words splinter in your mind with a haze of pain around them, and you start to believe—in Julian’s agonizing words—that there must be something in you, rotting away, bound to catch up to you one day. Because sometimes, even shallow wounds fester. And I wish so fervently that adults were kinder to children and teenagers. There’s something so tenuous and vulnerable on the line at the beginning of one’s life, something that could be so easily broken if you’re not careful—and it’s as tenderly explored in this novel as everything else.

              As for the romance blossoming slowly between Julian and Yadriel—it’s like a bloom of light and warmth inside the novel, and the memory of their moments together still make me want to whoop for joy.

              I really loved this book. Cemetery Boys is one of those stories that feel so impossibly familiar, a thing already part of yourself. I will carry it with me forever, and I hope many readers find their way to it, for it belongs on all shelves.

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