I’m kind of entertained that the first book review I wrote in 2020 and the first book review I’m writing in 2021 are both of YA books. And both of them are books that I came to because I’m trying to read widely in terms of the types of characters I read about and the types of authors I’m trying to read books from. To wit, Aiden Thomas is a queer Latinx transgender male, and Cemetery Boys is one of only a handful of books I’ve read with a trans male as the main character. (Also worth checking out: Lila Bowen’s The Shadow series.)
So, what’s it about? Also something I haven’t seen much of: the main character, Yadriel, is a 15-year-old trans boy who is a member of a community of brujx, people who follow traditional practices regarding communicating with and aiding the dead in passing on from this world to the next. The book takes place a couple of days before el Dia de los Muertos, and it begins with Yadriel completing a ritual on his own to confirm himself as a brujo. As it turns out, brujos and brujas have different abilities and focus on different things, and Yadriel’s family has resisted him becoming a brujo since he was assigned female at birth. Prejudice toward Yadriel isn’t a huge part of the book, but his mother was his main protector and she’s been dead for several months as the book starts, and it’s clear that his relationship toward his father is strained at best and moving toward broken at worst. Becoming a brujo requires a sort of confirmation or blessing from Lady Death, you see, and everyone basically thinks that it just won’t work, so they haven’t let him try.
So he does it on his own. And it works. And he summons a ghost, and the ghost is of a boy named Julian who has recently died– so recently, in fact, that no one seems to know he is gone and no one is looking for him. That same night, another member of Yadriel’s community dies (brujx can feel it when other brujx pass away) but despite lots of people looking for him, they can’t find him.
From here, the book moves into what is sort of a murder mystery– Julian remembers very little leading up to his death, and doesn’t want to pass on to the next world until he makes sure his friends are okay– and what is almost a slapsticky sort of thing as Yadriel tries to hide Julian from his family until he can help him pass on. All of whom can see dead people, remember.
I four-starred this; this is one of those books where the good things (the setting, the characters) are very very good and the overall actual plot is not as well executed. I thought the first 100 pages kind of dragged on a bit, and the book really doesn’t feel like a murder mystery until all the sudden at the end the villain is suddenly revealed, in a very Scooby-Doo sort of way. I wasn’t expecting there to even be a villain, to be honest; the search for Miguel, the missing person, is mostly handled off camera and the focus is on finding out how he died and where his body is, not searching for someone who killed him, and Julian’s death felt to me like random gang violence or something similar, and I wasn’t expecting them to pin it to one person and have a big Here Is My Evil Plan moment at the end.
(Like, remember the movie Stand By Me? They know they’re looking for a body the whole time. They know it’s a dead kid. They’re not really worried about how he died, they just want to find him. Imagine if that movie had ended with Ace and Eyeball explaining that they’d murdered Ray Brower in some sort of insurance scam or something. This has much the same feel.)
I can’t quite claim that I loved this book, but it’s still well worth recommending just because of the “I’ve never read anything like this” angle. The representation is great, and I can think of a couple of students I’ve had who I might try to get this book into the hands of. Where it’s strong, it’s very strong, it’s just that the story itself falls down a bit.
Some kind of random thoughts:
- Never once is Yadriel’s deadname used in the book. There are two direct references to it; one when someone calls him by it and another when Julian sees it in a yearbook. Both times the name itself is not used in the text.
- Thomas’ skill at writing characters who speak a lot of Spanish in a way that’s clear and understandable to non-Spanish readers is frankly phenomenal. My Spanish is good enough that I made it to page 304 before deciding to look something up– and it turned out to be an idiom, so I felt okay about it– but in general whenever someone says something in Spanish, or at least the first time something is said in Spanish, the word or phrase is used in English quickly afterward to make it very easy to infer the meaning of the word from context. Just as an example, Yadriel’s aunt says “Dame un beso” at one point, and the next sentence he kisses her on the cheek. That sort of thing. This could have felt really shoehorned in if Thomas wasn’t careful, but it always felt natural. Nicely done.
- The words “Latinx” and “brujx” are used throughout the text, both as character dialogue and as narrative references. This did feel a little intrusive, as I’ve spent a lot of time teaching young people from Latinx backgrounds and have worked at a couple of schools where they were either a solid majority or virtually everyone, and I’ve never heard either of those words out of the mouth of a young person. I mean, okay, I wouldn’t expect “brujx,” but I think if I dropped “Latinx” in conversation with one of my Mexican or Puerto Rican students they wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. This isn’t a complaint so much as an observation; it’s entirely possible that the -x suffix is more widely used in other parts of the country and hasn’t made its way to the Midwest yet, but my (possibly erroneous) understanding was that it isn’t widely used yet and, in fact, was kind of controversial. It will be interesting to see if, ten years from now, the term dates the book at all.