REVIEW: ‘Cemetery Boys’ is a rich, enthralling spin on tradition and culture

This coming-of-age tale offers adventure, fantasy and romance

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“Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas released on September 1, 2020, made history when it was the first book to reach the New York Times Best Seller list with an out transgender author. Book cover by Feiwel & Friends.

Estefany Nuñez

Aiden Thomas’ debut high fantasy paranormal young adult book “Cemetery Boys” is everything I could have wished for when wanting to read something to fit this autumn mood. 

I’ve been reading YA since the early days of “The Hunger Games,” “Twilight” and “The Maze Runner,” and the genre has since come a long way. While I’m not a fan of revisiting stories set in high school, there’s definitely more to select from than the usual white, cisgender protagonists. I’m elated to see more intersectionality on book covers and “Cemetery Boys” is a perfect example of the stories that are yet to be told. 

What would happen if you were to summon a ghost and that ghost refuses to go away?

“Cemetery Boys” follows the story of a gay, transgender brujo named Yadriel who only wishes to be accepted by his long line of family brujx who have powers gifted by Lady Death. The men are spirit guides and the women are healers. 

As he’s determined to prove himself to his family, Yadriel accidentally summons a ghost of a former classmate days before the Día de Muertos festivities and starts the difficult task of finding out what happened to him. 

Not only does Thomas beautifully build this intricate world by combining high fantasy with Latinx tradition, but he sets it against the diverse and authentic setting of East Los Angeles in a contemporary, youthful and entertaining tale.

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Along with the multiple Latinx identities, Mexican, Columbian and Cuban, there’s also some great LGBTQ+ characters that pose for a refreshing reflection of our world today. It doesn’t feel forced at all — the heavy subjects of deadnaming, transphobia, gang violence and loneliness are tackled with delicacy and thoughtfulness. 

The audiobook did a fantastic job at bringing the cast of exuberant characters to life. Not only is the book written by a Latinx transgender man, but the representation also goes further with the narrator themselves — Avi Roque who is Latinx, transgender and non-binary. 

Roque’s Spanish accent made certain scenes strike a familiar chord with me. When Yadriel was being lovingly berated by his overbearing tía, I couldn’t help but think of my own aunts with their joyous, loud voices. Even the superstitions and home remedies strike similarities to my own cultural traditions. 

As a reader, you can’t help but to quickly grow fond of all the characters. Yadriel’s endearing candor is paired with his cousin Maritza’s fervor and together, they make for a hilarious and heart-warming duo. 

As Yadriel navigates his ghost classmate Julian Diaz’s unfinished business, we also learn of how Yadriel handles not quite fitting in with the rest of his family. It’s frustrating to read, but it feels relatable and genuine which can’t be said for other books. 

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we’ve got just 13 days until CEMETERY BOYS is published, so how’s about another quote?? ✨ when the story begins, Yadriel is tired and frustrated and with his family and the community of brujx he belongs to not accepting him for who he is. ✨ a big thing i wanted to address while writing CEMETERY BOYS is that, for queer youth, their families don’t necessarily HATE them for their queerness. a lot of the time (esp in latinx communities) they just don’t UNDERSTAND their queerness, which can lead to avoidance, isolation, and instances of deadnaming/misgendering. ✨ while it’s not an intentionally malicious attack, it can still feel like it. and after a while, it wears you down and leaves queer folks’ tough skin rubbed raw. ✨ it’s like death by a thousand cuts.

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The culture is animated in a spirited and lively way as the days count down to the two-day celebration of Día de Muertos from Nov. 1 to 2. Sugar skulls, marigolds, ofrendas and pan de muerto are all mentioned, adding to the holiday aesthetic which was only amplified by the spooky cemetery environment. 

This book not only carries a paranormal slow-burn romance, but touches upon a lot of issues that cisgender people possibly don’t think about on a day-to-day basis. By the end of this book, no matter how you feel about the character’s initial introductions, they grow on you and you’ll wind up rooting for them all. 

While some of the dialogue was cliche in terms of the “bad boy” tropes, vegan punchlines and sometimes exaggerated characteristics of the Latinx and brown characters, the overall character dynamics made the story worth the read. 

Romance in this book also blossomed naturally — it was gentle, warm, sweet and just a healthy dose of young love without all the dramatic teenage angst. I wish more YA with the emotional maturity the two love interests in this book have was available when I was younger. Despite one character being a ghost, there still was a great amount of light-hearted and teasing bickering between the two, which was immensely fun to read. 

The way Aiden expertly crafted all the story’s plots, with its high stakes to ultimately collide with the plot twist’s big reveal, truly made for a satisfying exposition. 

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This story has heart, so much spirit, and made me feel less alone. As someone who recently lost a beloved grandmother this year, I also did not expect to receive a sense of relief and clarity about life and death. While this book was fairly accessible, even more so for bilingual readers, it served a nuanced story of LGBTQ+ pain and trauma that felt personal. 

As tears filled my eyes during charming scenes, I was reminded of the power of writing and how wonderful books can create fantastical worlds that allow us to escape and still pull at our heartstrings. 

I can’t rave enough about this book, but I implore everyone to pick this one up at their library or local independent bookstore. 

Currently, the audiobook can be read on Scribd with a free 30-day trial. A quick Google search allowed me to obtain a 60-day-offer with a special link from book bloggers and booktubers.