What do you get when you mix endearing characters, genuine family dynamics, brujería-inspired magic, and queerness in a myriad of forms?
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is an #ownvoices YA Paranormal novel set in East Los Angeles about a boy fighting to be accepted as he is in a world steeped in tradition that has yet to make room for him.
Avi Roque, the narrator of the audiobook, truly brings the all-Latinx cast of Cemetery Boys to life, giving each character their own voice, and infusing enough emotion into their words that they’re impossible to contain within the paper of this book. Thomas deftly navigates varying levels of socioeconomic privilege through their diverse group of characters while bringing levity to even the most heartrending of situations.
As interesting as the world and magic system are, the characters and the relationships between them are what Cemetery Boys is all about. They’re believable and lovable and complex, and will hook the reader till the very end.
Yadriel is a brujo. His family just doesn’t know it yet.
Yadriel (Yads) is descended from a long line of Brujx—people who heal (Bruja) and guide spirits to the afterlife (Brujo). All he wants is to be accepted by his family, but it’s a daily struggle to get them to embrace him as both a Brujo and a boy. After years of being denied the ceremony to give him his powers, he decides to go through with it himself, leading him down a new path.
Throughout the novel, there’s an emphasis on Yadriel’s struggle in dealing with transphobia and people not taking the time to understand him, which is contextualized through his powers as a Brujo. His pain rings clear through the page; Yadriel is such a strong, self-aware character, and seeing the world through his perspective is a gift. He goes through so much in this book, and seeing him grow and change along with the people around him reveals depths of both our world and his that have yet to be touched by the majority of more publicized books in the genre.
Julian is dead. He just doesn’t know it yet.
Julian Diaz bursts onto the page in a surly huff but quickly reveals himself to be a multifaceted and easy to love protagonist. Even as a ghost he’s vibrant and loud and energetic, and a perfect complement to Yad’s quiet, bashful nature. His love for his friends and family is ever-present and all-encompassing, and I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to love him. This character is at once entertaining and painfully real, with his own losses and struggles to contend with alongside Yadriel in their journey to solve the mystery of Miguel’s disappearance.
The relationship between Yadriel and Julian builds to the most structurally angsty slow burn romance to have ever been attempted (except for, possibly, the titans of angsty slow-burn Kaz and Inej, though even that is doubtful). That is if knowing each other for about three days counts as slow burn. Cemetery Boys is so well done that despite taking place over a few days, we’re given enough time with the characters that the “insta-love” feels like anything but. It’s impossible not to smile when they’re on the page together, whether they’re deftly navigating serious subjects or bantering. Their relationship is, dare I say, perfect for a coming of age novel.
We love a good friendship! And while the romance and family dynamics take center stage in this book, Yads and Jules have plenty of other people at their backs. Maritza, Yadriel’s cousin, is with them for the majority of the book, and the chemistry between the three of them is so natural it’s impossible not to get drawn into their antics. She’s Yads’ biggest support and thus a queen among mortals. Yadriel seems to feel some resentment towards her for choosing to deviate from what’s expected by their families, while he has no choice, but the love between them means he’d never let that get in the way of what they mean to each other. Julian’s friends don’t get much page-time, but from what we can see, they’re a fiercely loyal family of their own making. Cemetery Boys should have a warning label on it for people who don’t like dealing with their feelings (*ahem* Julian) because this book will drag them out of you and force you to reckon with them.
Yadriel’s multigenerational family is a massive part of this story, both due to their role in his path to claiming his powers as a Brujo and becoming comfortable with himself. From the beginning, readers understand that just being around his family takes an emotional toll on Yads as at every turn they invalidate his identity. These relationships, especially between Yadriel and his dad, are skillfully portrayed as at once fraught and full of love, and certainly, mirror some people’s coming out experience.
The worldbuilding in Cemetery Boys, while slightly overshadowed by the characters themselves, is somehow at once spooky and exuberant. Built around El Día de Muertos and the Brujx traditions, this is to be expected, but it’s a valuable aspect of the story nonetheless, especially where such traditions tie into Yadriel’s sense of self.
The mystery plot was the only aspect of the book I didn’t have much interest in. Sure, I cared about the characters enough to want them to end up in a good place by the end, but it was too predictable to be engaging. That might be due to all the foreshadowing that was done early on, which was way too heavy, but nonetheless, the plot seems more like a vehicle for character development and world-building more than anything. That being said, I didn’t mind it much, and folks who like character-driven stories likely won’t either.
Misconceptions and discrimination, both aimed at Yads and not, are dealt with head-on and unflinchingly throughout. He has people to back him up and is slowly (but surely) learning to stand up for himself throughout the story. This is a really important distinction. It’s definitely difficult when he gets deadnamed or is invalidated, so that might be triggering for some folks, but when it happens, it doesn’t feel exploitative, which is refreshing and isn’t surprising considering this is an ownvoices novel. The only criticism I’d have here is the enforcement of gender roles that isn’t really dealt with at all. I’d love to see some kind of focus on that in a sequel.
Cemetery Boys is a fantasy read that meets and surpasses the hype. With serious subjects balanced (but not obscured) by humor, Cemetery Boys will have readers smiling and laughing and sobbing till the end, then begging to be hit in the face with a sequel (which better be happening) all over again.
In summation: Dear Netflix, if you don’t adapt this into a fifty season TV show ASAP, I’m suing.