Review of Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
by Aiden Thomas
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
This was one of those books where I was afraid it would not live up to the hype, because people I follow on Twitter have not been able to stop talking about it. Fortunately, Cemetery Boys lived up to the hype—perhaps even exceeded it in some ways—and I went from being apprehensive about possibly not liking such a popular book to being really happy I took this chance. It’s great as a trans story, great as a supernatural mystery, probably great as a romance too (not such a fan of that part, myself). I love how Aiden Thomas combines supernatural elements of Latinx beliefs with the hunt for a missing community member and the main character’s own struggles to belong.
Yadriel is seventeen years old, two years past when he should have celebrated his quinces and been inducted as a brujo, a male member of his community who can use magic to send spirits on to the afterlife. The issue? Yads is transgender. His late mother was very supportive of his transition and how that related to his future in the brujx community. His father and the other leaders of the community? They are supportive in some ways—doing their best to call him by his proper name, for instance—yet they do not embrace him as a brujo. This stings, of course, and the novel opens with Yadriel and his best friend, Maritska, sneaking into the church at their community’s cemetery to perform Yadriel’s quinces ceremony themselves. In a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” Yadriel acquires the power that is his male birthright, and immediately ends up entangled with the spirit of a boy his age who died that night. As the community reels from one of their own dying under mysterious, unexplained circumstances, Yads must help Julian find out how he died so he can get closure.
I love the setup in this novel. For the first few pages, I admit I was a little lost, but you quickly adapt to Thomas’ style of narration and lose yourself in the action. I love that Thomas sets up the death/disappearance of Miguel and then immediately sidetracks us into the main plot—Yadriel and Julian—while making it clear that there must be some kind of connection happening. Indeed, one of my criticisms of this book would simply be that the mystery is fairly obvious: it was easy for me to connect the dots, to deduce who was behind everything and what they were up to, right up until the climax. Neverthless, Thomas executes it so artfully that I don’t mind I saw it all coming. The foreshadowing, the fulfilment … mmm, yeah, it’s all there.
There are some excellent themes about family here, both blood and found. Yads and Maritska’s bond is great. Similarly, Thomas portrays the realities of many poor youth (particularly Latinx) in places like southern California—Julian and his friends are not exactly running in a gang, but many of them have precarious home lives that cause them to be on the streets more than is safe for them. Julian sums this up perhaps most poignantly when he confesses to Yads that he never expected to live very long—perhaps only to thirty. His is a life already circumscribed in potential not by dint of anything he has done, or who he is, but rather because of how the system works.
Thomas explores similar issues of race and racism throughout the novel. Community members have difficulty filing a police report, for the police would prefer to interrogate them about their immigration status rather than provide them an interpreter. Similarly, neither Julian’s friends nor his brother Rio consider filing a missing persons report for Julian, because the police will probably consider him a runaway and therefore not worth their time. This exact issue comes up in Hood Feminism, which I just finished! All in all, Thomas deftly highlights the cracks in our society in a way that young Latinx readers will recognize while people like me, who don’t experience such issues, will hopefully learn and become more aware as a result.
I also really like how Thomas (who is trans) characterizes Yadriel and portrays his transition. For example, we never learn Yadriel’s deadname. At one point, a character slips up and uses it, but the narrator simply says that she uses Yadriel’s deadname without sharing it with us. Similarly, although the book contains misgendering and transphobia, it does so in a way that is compassionate to the reader’s experience.
I like how, at one point, Julian challenges Yadriel, asking why it’s so important that Yads prove to his father and the other brujos that Yads is real brujo. This sparks a powerful discussion that forces Yadriel to consider his motivations—is proving himself something he’s doing for his family, or for himself? As Julian points out, statistically speaking Yadriel cannot be the first trans brujx.
And—this is why I’ve flagged this review as containing spoilers—I have to say that when the moment comes and Yadriel’s father realizes that Yadriel can perform the brujo magic, it’s anticlimactic. I think this is what Julian was trying to get at when he challenges Yads: sure, Lady Death has acknowledged your true gender, and that’s cool, but isn’t it messed up some of your family members need that acknowledgement? Shouldn’t they have taken you at your word anyway? So the sanguine ending in which Yads is suddenly taken in as a true son and true brujo by his father because he proved useful, heroic, etc., isn’t super satisfying to me.
That being said, I don’t think I would have liked the alternative (Yads going his own separate way because his family doesn’t support him), and I understand what Thomas was going for with such an emotional moment of climax and acceptance. I just wish that trans characters didn’t have to prove their usefulness for reluctant family members to see them as the people they are.
That’s my major criticism of Cemetery Boys. Everything else, I loved. The dialogue. The wit. The slightly predictable mystery. The portrayal of gender and sexuality. This is a novel that has been honed to a razor’s edge of competent, compelling characterization and prose.