I had had Aiden Thomas on my radar because their newest book is a Peter Pan retelling with a gorgeous cover and I just can’t resist Peter Pan retellings that look like they do something new and interesting with one of my favorite stories. But then Thomas’ first book, Cemetery Boys, became a finalist for the Lodestar Award (not-a-Hugo but really totally a YA Hugo), so I picked that one up first. It won’t make ranking the finalists easier but it was a great reading experience.
by Aiden Thomas
Published: Swoon Reads, 2020
eBook: 352 pages
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life.
A trans boy determined to prove his gender to his conservative Latinx family summons a ghost who refuses to leave in Aiden Thomas’s paranormal YA debut.
Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.
When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true 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 off 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.
Yadriel is a young trans boy living in a brujx family. What he wants most in the world is to be accepted for who he is, and that includes being a brujo (rather than a bruja), one of the men of his community who can summon spirits and send them on to the afterlife. The only people who seem to undertand him and take him seriously are his cousin Maritza – who, as a vegan, refuses to become a bruja because they use animal blood for their healing rituals – and his tío Catriz who has no magical powers at all, despite being born into a brujx family.
Right from the start, this book has so much to offer! The first few chapters may be heavy on the exposition, but it’s exposition about interesting stuff, so I didn’t mind all that much. Getting to know how the whole brujx thing works and why Yadriel lives on a cemetery (!), as well as meeting the protagonists is important. Not every book needs a steep learning curve. Sometimes, it’s really nice to have things explained to you first, and then go and have adventures in that world.
The plot kicks off with Yadriel and Maritza secretly performing a ritual which will grant Yadriel his brujo powers – if, indeed Lady Death, sees and accepts him as the young man he is, rather than the young woman some of his family think of him. The ritual works out – YAY! – but almost at the same moment, something terrible happens. Yadriel’s cousin, Miguel, dies and because brujx are all connected somehow, every brujx feels it. The problem is, there is no body and nobody knows what happened to Miguel. Sure, they can wait for Día de Muertos, which is only a few days away, for his spirit to return and tell them how he died and where his body is, but if something went wrong and he hasn’t crossed over into the afterlife, they need to find his body and help him.
In an attempt to help his cousin’s spirit and prove to his family (and himself, a bit) that he truly is a brujo, Yadriel summons a spirit, thinking it’s Miguel. It turns out that it’s a boy from Yadriel’s school (although he isn’t there very often) named Julian Díaz. And Julian, although definitely dead, has no idea where he is, why he’s a spirit, or how he died. Bewilderment ensues.
I enjoyed this book so very much and despite the fact that I had guessed the solution to the murder mystery at pretty much the halfway mark. I guessed both the villain and the reason for Miguel’s missing body as well as Julian’s death, and my guess turned out to be exactly right. Like, not even a detail missing… You’d think that would take the fun out of this book but it really didn’t. That, to me, proves that this is about much more than just an exciting plot or solving a murder case. It’s about a wonderful cast of characters and the pretty tough things they have to go through.
I immediately liked Yadriel. The fact that he is trans is a big part of his life, mostly because his family are super traditional and don’t really take him seriously. His mother did, buying him a proper binder and making sure the rest of the family called him by his name, didn’t misgender him, etc. But his mother died not long ago in a car accident, so now Yadriel only has Maritza to truly support him and his uncle to understand what it’s like feeling like an outsider. As I have only occasionally read books with trans characters, many aspects of Yadriel’s daily life were interesting to me. I admit, I get annoyed when my boobs get in the way sometimes, but I have never thought about what it’s like to bind them up every day and how that affects your life. Yadriel’s binder isn’t mentioned all that often, but it is part of his life and if you’ve ever worn tight clothing, you know that when it doesn’t fit, it can get uncomfortable fast. When you’re running around the city, trying to find out who killed your new ghost friend, these things are important. Just as controlling what you wear or how you cut your hair can make a huge difference for your identity.
But as much as I liked Yadriel, I freaking loved Julian. I was super bummed out that, when we first meet him, he’s already a spirit. His life is officially over and all he can do now is convince Yadriel to help him check on his friends and his brother and make sure everyone’s okay. Julian has a reputation as a bad boy, a guy who never goes to school but rather hangs out with dangerous gang kids on the street. In reality, Julian is the kindest, sweetest boy you can imagine, even if he does have anger management issues. Discovering, alongside Yadriel and Maritza, what this dead boy was really like and how, even after dying, he is still trying to look out for others, is the heart of this book.
You may guess that Yadriel develops feelings for Julian, but this book isn’t super heavy on the romance. There is way too much going on for sappy moments or big declarations of love. No, what feelings there are, they are shown in small ways, through gestures or little moments. It’s my favorite kind so I don’t need to tell you that I was close to tears several times while reading this.
All things considered, this is a very good debut novel. The important (and I suspect hardest) bits are well done, the characters all feel real and fleshed out. They have agency, they are individuals but they aren’t defined by their character traits – Maritza isn’t only vegan, just the way Yadriel isn’t only trans – they are people and these things are part of what makes them, them. I also adored the world building. Sure, there are probably more elegant ways of explaining the magic and intricacies of brujx culture, but for a book aimed at a young audience, I don’t think it’s terrible to just straigh up tell your readers how things work. I loved how Thomas conveyed the feeling of Latinx families. Without ever really saying it, you totally get the feeling of large families with lots of siblings and cousins and grandparents, all living close together and watching out for each other. And cooking. Lots of cooking. 🙂
Was this a perfect book? Probably not. Or at least not for me. I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans boy out there, looking for stories with someone like themselves and coming across this book. I can only imagine that it must be delightful and wonderful, especially because it’s #ownvoices. To me, an adult, cis woman, this book was just beautiful and made me want to pick up Thomas’ next one even more. And I have to say, after guessing the solution the the biggest mystery, I was more than happy that the ending still held a few surprises in store. But that’s all I’m willing to say because you should really pick this book up and enjoy it for yourselves.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good