Monday 1 August 2022

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Review: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas held up by a white hand in front of rainbow shelves.

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Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Published: 4th August | Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books | Source: Bought
Aiden Thomas’ Website

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.
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I've been intrigued by Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas for years. It sounded right up my street, and a few friends had raved about it. But it was only available to buy from America, which made it expensive. So I was super excited to hear that Thomas' books were being published in the UK this year by Macmillan Children's Books, and was stoked to buy a copy of Cemetery Boys early at YALC. It was definitely worth the wait, it's such a fantastic story!

Yadriel is from a Latinx brujx community; people who were blessed with powers by Lady Death generations ago. The bruja have healing powers and are connected to the living, and the brujos have power over the dead; they can summon spirits and help them pass on. When someone turns 15, they have their quinces, a ceremony where they dedicate themselves to Lady Death. Yadriel is 16, and has yet to have his quinces. Because Yadriel is trans, and his family and community are having difficulty understanding. He's definitely not a bruja, as he's not a woman, but could he actually be a brujo? Yadriel's father, the the brujx leader, isn't sure. A few days before Día de Muertos, Yadriel decides to perform his quinces in secret with his cousin Maritza, and prove to his family and his community that he can be a brujo. The ceremony works, but immediately after, it becomes apparent that his cousin Miguel has died. Yadriel is desperate to help the other brujos search for him, to find out what's wrong, but is refused by his dad. So, again, he decides to summon Miguel's spirit in secret, to find out what happened, and prove his worth. But instead of Miguel's spirit, he accidentally summons the spirit of Julian, a trouble maker from school. Julian was murdered earlier in the evening, but has no idea what exactly happened. Yadriel tries to help him pass on, but Julian refuses to go, desperate to find out if his friends, who were with him when he died, are ok. Yadriel reluctantly agrees to help, on the proviso that once Julian knows, Yadriel will pass him on. But the longer he spends with Julian, and the longer it takes for the brujos to find Miguel's body, the more complicated things get. And it's not too long before Yadriel questions whether he actually wants Julian to go.

I loved this Cemetery Boys! After Julian has been summoned, not a huge amount happens for quite a while, but it didn't bother me, because I loved these characters and this world so much! There's something about Thomas' writing that really draws you in, and I was quite happy watching Julian and Yadriel together, driving each other round the bend. It's a slow burn story, with the cutest slow burn romance. Julian is like an excitable puppy, and I just adored him! He's labelled a bad boy, but only because he's been judged so by people who don't know him. He's reckless and impulsive, and he can have a temper and be quite stubborn, but he's fiercely loyal to his friends, and can be quite sensitive. I was strongly reminded of the movie Ghost as Julian tries to learn how to be a ghost, and it was just so funny! He hides in a sarcophagus at one point, and his reaction when he finally comes out is hilarious! He's just brilliant, and I loved the romance between him and Yadriel. Julian isn't at all who Yadriel thought he would be, and he can't help but be drawn to him and his infectious joy. He misgenders Yadriel once, but once he knows he's completely onboard, supportive, and actually really quite insightful about Yadriel's situation, even to the point of reading deeper into what Yadriel is going through than Yadriel will admit to himself. Julian is the first person besides Yadriel's mum and Maritza that accepts Yadrial for who he is without question, and it's not long before Julian wants to fight his corne. It's beautiful, but it's complicated - because Julian is dead.

I loved what fuels this story. The story wouldn't exist as it does if Yadriel wasn't trans. Everything he does is to try and prove to his father and the brujx that he is a brujo, that he can be part of the community. It's quite early on, but it was quite emotional when Yadriel's quinces goes perfectly; Lady Death accepts him for who he is without question. There is immediate elation, but quickly followed by sadness and anger; if Lady Death can accept him, why can't the others? It's so layered, because he's not just trying to be accepted as a man, but to be allowed to take his place in his community. The magic is gendered; the women heal, the men summon and pass on spirits. Yes, it could have been written so that magic wasn't gendered, but then the crux of the story for Yadriel wouldn't be there; it's about him wanting and needing to be accepted. And as the magic is gendered, there's definitely a question from the brujx of whether Yadriel could be a brujo. While Yadriel, as the reader, knows from early on that Lady Death accepts him as a man and as a brujo, his father isn't sure whether he would be granted the brujos' powers. In some senses, it's a valid question; what would actually happen? Would Lady Death accept him? But it actually stems more from a lack of understanding and a lack of complete acceptance of Yadriel as a man. How can he be a brujo when he isn't a man? It's a really fraught situation, and it was handled with so much care and sensitivity, and I loved Yadriel's strength and him deciding to no longer accept people's apologies when they use his deadname or misgender him. How long will it be until they get it right? How many times does he have to forgive them? Saying all of this though, it's only part of the story, and while it's difficult at times, the story is mostly light and fun - how could it not be with Julian?

I also loved how rooted this story is in Latinx culture. Every single person with a speaking part - if not also those who don't speak - is Latinx. Not just in the brujx community, but outside it as well; Julian's friends and everyone at school, too. And they're Latinx people from all over; Mexico, Haiti, Columbia, Ecuador, and so on. With the brujx, the stories of Xibalba, which has similarities to hell, Santa Muerte (Lady Death), the celebrations for Día de Muertos, Cemetery Boys is brimming in Latinx culture, traditions, beliefs and mythology, which make up the backbone of this fantasy. While this is a work of fiction inspired by those beliefs and traditions, there is so much love and respect for it all pouring through the pages. It's incredibly beautiful.

I did guess very early on what was happening and who the murderer was, but even so, it wasn't an issue, because I just loved these characters and the story. However, when we get to the big reveal, I did feel the antagonist become a bit of a villain caricature. I do wish more time was given to the reveal and explanation, and it was developed more, because I did feel the idea behind the motivation was interesting. I think if Thomas had dug just a little deeper for this character in particular, it could have made them a more interesting villain, instead of a villain we've seen many times before. Saying that, there were some twists to how things were resolved that I wasn't expecting at all, and were just brilliant! And it had such a powerful and moving ending.

I adored Cemetery Boys; it's such a fantastic story! I'm so excited to read Thomas' other books, and I'm so, so glad that it's been announced that Thomas will be writing a sequel! I honestly can't recommend Cemetery Boys enough, it's brilliant!

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