Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4.5)
Deemed a "Ghost-Story-Turned-Gay-Rom-Com" by the author themself, Aiden Thomas's Cemetery Boys is both clever and fresh. Not only the story of a trans boy or the story of a brujo hopeful, the main character's identities weave together until they are inextricable, elevating both YA and LGBTQ genres to something so much better than I knew to hope for.
Cemetery Boys is the story of Yadriel, a young trans boy who's determined to prove his true gender to his family of brujos and brujas. After being pushed aside (rather than be recognized as a brujo, not a bruja), Yadriel takes matters into his own hands, moving forward with the (male) brujo ceremony that will prove he's a boy.
But after Yadriel succeeds in claiming his magic, he accidentally summons the wrong dead boy. Stuck with a spirit who doesn't want to pass on and anxious to solve his cousin's disappearance and mark his place in his brujx family, Yadriel finds himself bound (and growing close) to Julian Diaz as they hunt for answers surrounding the deaths and disappearances of Yadriel's cousin and Julian himself.
It's cliche to start a review with "from the first page," but Thomas sincerely surprised me with where they started this novel. There's no floundering first pages, no info-dump beginnings, we simply jump into Yadriel's life already in progress, joining him the night he presses forward with his ceremony in secret, performing the rite that will solidify him as a brujo and bestow on him the magical abilities passed down for generations in his latinx family.
Thomas's Cemetery Boys is atmospheric; its world-building welcomes readers into a rich culture and beautiful setting where latinx culture is (literally) a thing of magic. Stationed in the middle of grungy but aesthetic Los Angeles, Yadriel's secret graveyard is filled with meandering spirits, boisterous family scenes, and winding paths through tombstones, and is offset by Julian's LA: the city smog gilded each night by the sunset, the clack of skateboards over cracks in the sidewalk, and the faint twinge of gasoline lingering in his clothes.
Connecting these two scenes is the overall pull of family. Julian's is fractured but found, written between the lines of Yadriel's more front-and-center family plot. Julian's friends and brother become one of the bright spots in his characterization and the novel as a whole. Julian himself... refreshing. Painted as a "bad boy" in the synopsis of the novel and the rumors in their high school, as his character unfurls, he becomes more nuanced and human, softer in a way that's personal and endearing and unabashed. He is the light in the middle of the graveyard, and, as Yadriel says, "too alive to be dead."
What most stood out and impressed me in this novel is how Thomas was able to intertwine Yadriel's identities in Cemetery Boys. He is both a boy and a brujo, yet he must prove both to his family. While they've already started to refer to him using his true name and as his true gender, they refuse to consider him a brujo, which, as Yadriel struggles with, invalidates whatever "progress" they've made accepting his gender.
Flitting between the ways in which his family both sees and refuses to see him, Yadriel is desperate to prove himself. It's complicated and difficult, and Yadriel's invalidation often plays out in family scenes where it hurts him the most and where he is most desperate to be accepted. But his quest to be accepted plays out in the plot of becoming a brujo, of connecting with the magic given to boys that runs in the blood of his family. In search of one identity, he's tries to validate the other. The nuances are brilliant, as is the concept.
The downsides of this novel are minor, worth less than half a star in my opinion. The only real disappointment was the info-dump of information about the family's legends near the center of the novel. Up until this point, I was pulled in deep enough by the characters and the world-building that I was just enjoying the ride and hadn't started to piece together the pieces of the mystery playing out on the pages. However, giving such an in-depth explanation of family lore in one go was like pointing a giant, neon arrow to that part of the novel. Everything came together in that moment, and from then I felt a little like I was reading to see if I was correct (which I was).
Another minor disappointment was Maritza (Yadriel's cousin/sidekick/best friend). While she was funny, personable, and offered a lot of comedic relief, her character existed only to help Yadriel. While that's a function of YA novels (where not every character can have their own side plot), I found that she often popped up or disappeared at the exact right moments, making her an awfully convenient character and also left me wondering how long it took her to get from one place to another. And at one point, her strange (but brushed over) reaction to something menial gave away the rest of the plot I hadn't figure out, soon after I pieced everything else together.
Lastly, Yadriel and Julian's interactions are mostly brilliant in how understated they are. But Julian is intentionally portrayed as "not that bright" as he uses the wrong words and mixes up familiar phrases throughout the whole novel. While this could've been portrayed as an inside joke or to make him more endearing in some ways, I was often thrown by how often Yadriel corrects how Julian speaks or what he says. I felt it was a bit unnecessary and insulted Julian's gentle-and-unabashed-in-spite-of-his-reputation charm.
Overall, Cemetery Boys is a culmination of latinx culture, witchy vibes, spooky aesthetics, and gay romance; boys brought together in spite of extraordinary circumstances, helping each other grow into the parts of themselves that are hard to face. When I finished reading, I couldn't shake the imagery from my mind or the characters from my thoughts. Aiden Thomas's Cemetery Boys is really something new and clever in the world of YA, and I wish there was more to read of Julian and Yadriel.