REVIEW: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

5/5 stars — a poignant, heart-stopping story culminating in tragedy and joy

When I say I want more representation of marginalized groups in science fiction and fantasy, Cemetery Boys is case in point. Main character Yadriel is a gay, trans, Latinx boy, and the cast includes mostly other people of color, several of whom are also queer. The characters’ ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexualities play into the story, but they’re not all the story’s about. It’s hard to discuss this without seeming dismissive of the need for a range of good representation across genres, but there’s a place for both books that center the real-world struggles and triumphs of marginalization and books where those struggles and triumphs happen alongside ghost stories and magic. But what I appreciated most about Cemetery Boys was that while the difficulties of existing at the crux of several marginalized identities cropped up in the story, the main sources of pain/drama/angst came from fantasy sources that weren’t identity-centered.

Cemetery Boys also drives home a point that critics of fanfiction—and of fanfic writers, both past and current—repeatedly fail to understand. The point is this: it doesn’t matter if you know how the story’s going to turn out; even if you’ve seen it play out similarly a hundred times before and you see where it’s going, the author can deliver that conclusion in an emotionally satisfying way. I don’t know if Aiden Thomas has written fanfic (my money says yes), but even though I guessed the antagonist and some elements of the climax around halfway through the book, the ending contained plenty of surprises in its execution. It’s why we say “trope” isn’t a bad word—tropes exist for a reason, and they don’t always have to be used in surprising ways to bring a story to a brilliant end.

Frankly, the fact that the antagonist and end twist were guessable pretty early in the book might be my only critique of Cemetery Boys. This is one of my favorite books ever, nearly perfect from the standpoints of craft and pure enjoyment value. Like his protagonist, Thomas is trans, gay, and Latinx, so his understanding of the nuance of the ways those identities intersect shines through in Yadriel. Only part of that identity applies to me, but the realness of Yadriel’s moments of joy, pain, and awkwardness were validating—particularly to a younger and more confused version of me. Despite everything this book puts its characters through, it left me feeling hopeful.

So, the story: What starts out as Yadriel’s quest to prove to his family and community that he’s a brujo with all the abilities that implies becomes the perilous search for a killer who’s disappearing young Latinx people—among them, a boy named Julian. When Yadriel’s friend Maritza and Julian’s friend Luca volunteer to help in the search for Julian, things get even more complicated. Friendships form an enduring theme in Cemetery Boys—it’s clear when an author thinks romance is more important than friendship, and that definitely wasn’t the case here. Maritza and Luca are very different kinds of friends (one snarky, one soft) but both are ride or die when the safety of their loved ones is at stake. Similarly, family is both a source of strength and conflict in the story, but it’s never pushed aside by the writing or framed as second to *relationship drama* or anything else.

In fact, the romance in Cemetery Boys is, for all its angst and potential tragedy, not a huge part of the book. In parts where it was the focus, I never found it overpowering compared to other plot events. Also, I thought the romantic relationship did a great job of avoiding insta-love territory. Yadriel initially finds Julian inconvenient and annoying and only slowly decides that he’s attractive. It takes even longer before any kind of rapport develops between them and that turns into romance. (Although, as romantic gestures go, scribbling out your crush’s deadname in his yearbook and writing his real name over it is up there.)

Thomas’ knack for creating real-feeling characters and gradually picking them apart leads to some absolutely gutting moments. Even though you can see the heartbreak coming, that doesn’t make it hurt any less when it actually happens! And I mean that as a compliment. Characterization may be one of the author’s strong suits, but certainly not the only one. The book is full of stunningly descriptive imagery, especially describing angry teenagers, churches, and Día de Muertos details like sugar skulls and marigolds. Although—or maybe because—it makes time to show detail and build elaborate character relationships, the pacing never lags in the second act, nor does anything feel rushed in the third. The emotional beats fall where they should, embellished by brutally raw dialogue and more of that gorgeous descriptive prose.

Let’s talk about gender-affirming worldbuilding for a second. The magic system in Cemetery Boys is described as being built around a gender binary: brujas heal living people who suffer; brujos guide spirits who are lost. The magic itself correctly identifies Yadriel as male, so when he tries to perform a female-only ability, it backfires, whereas the male-only one works. (Also, the binary-ness turns out to be partially a product of Yadriel as a narrator with a narrow scope of history: as Julian later points out, there must have been nonbinary brujx and others who didn’t conform to the narrow binary system in the past.) On this subject, the brujx’ knives or rosaries are used to indicate things about their characters—the style, whether they’re adorned with extra charms, etc., which is the kind of fun yet functional worldbuilding I love to see. Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention how the world and its magic are based on various Latinx cultures. I’m not Latinx, so I’m sure I missed some of the references/details, but I enjoyed the way traditions from various places mixed during Día de Muertos and among the brujx in general. And I liked how if there was a long or complex passage in Spanish, it's translated into English, but individual words—even those that weren’t obvious cognates, like sobrino—weren’t translated. People can Google that stuff if they don't know it and can't infer the meaning!

Random good parts that may not all make sense out of context but that I would be remiss not to point out

  • an immediate, first-chapter indication that Yadriel is trans (I think he mentions his binder or something) without spelling it out super obviously

  • the MC is a SHORT trans boy! Yadriel bemoans that he’s only “a little over five feet”

  • “His deadname slipped from her mouth,” instead of actually using the old name is an excellent way of dealing with trans names.

  • Julian’s intro is really cool! Definitely one of the most unique ways to introduce a love interest I’ve ever read.

  • so nice that Julian, despite being introduced as an archetypical ‘bad boy,’ accepts that Yadriel is trans without any big deal, and thinks it’s messed up that others don’t treat Yadriel (in his own words) like a “real boy."

  • “My tacos!” - Julian, finding moldy food on the ground.

  • Tito, the spirit gardener who tended flowers all his life and continues to grow them in death—especially flowers for Día de los Muertas, which are his pride and joy.

  • Maritza’s family’s pitbulls, Michelangelo and Donatello

  • - cempasúchil! Every instance where they were described sounded so pretty.

  • the romance: “How could he possibly recover from falling for Julian Diaz?” and “Yadriel would happily let himself be consumed by Julian’s fire.”

  • an actual non-forced, naturally incorporated meme: “I’ve been—dude, stop screaming—”

This book ripped my heart out and glued it back together upside down. That is to say: I give it my highest recommendation, particularly to young people likely to relate to Yadriel and/or Julian. The writing is stellar, the audiobook narration is wonderful, and the overall package is absolutely worth your time. (I’d like to mention here that Avi Roque, a trans Latinx narrator, was a great choice for the storytelling and really made the characters come alive. This was apparently their first audiobook narration, too!)

Content warnings: death of a loved one; repeated mention of death, dying, and grief; graphic depiction of death on-page; mention of shooting and stabbing; gangs; parental/familial abuse; youth homelessness; transphobia including misgendering and mentioned deadnaming; police profiling based on race