"Am I dead?"
"Oh, Jesus." -- "My brother is gonna kill me.."
"Looks like someone already beat him to it."
'Cemetery Boys' by Aiden Thomas has been one of my most highly anticipated releases of the year and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. I'm still feeling a little raw from reading it..
Following the path of a trans boy named Yadriel, the story centers around his determination to prove his status as a brujo to his traditional Latinx family as he struggles with the inherent prejudices both inside and outside their community.
Wielding ancient magic gifted to them by their goddess, Lady Death, those who carry her gift are able to see spirits. Women have the power to heal bodies and souls, while men can release lost spirits into the afterlife, but as a trans boy.. Yadriel has never been able to heal like the brujas.. and the leader of the brujx has never allowed him to prove he can fulfill the role of a brujo.
Having been prevented from going through his quinces, Yadriel and his best friend Maritza take it upon themselves to see his opportunity come to fruition. When his cousin dies suddenly, Yadriel's focus on proving himself becomes laser-sharp.
"You don't need anyone's permission to be you, Yads..."
When the spirit he summons turns out not to be his cousin, but rather the resident bad boy.. Julian Diaz, things grow even more complicated. Julian isn't interested in passing quietly into the afterlife. He's intent on discovering what happened to him and taking care of some things before he leaves.. and with Yadriel unable to force him, the two make a deal to help each other.
Much of the mythos here is born of a mixture of Aztec and Mayan legend that makes up the more recent Mexican-American folk Catholicism.. such as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess and queen of the underworld, also known as Santa Muerte (Saint Death or Holy Death).. la Niña Blanca (the White Girl).. la Huesuda (the Bony Lady).. la Flaquita (the Skinny Lady).. and many other names.
The magic origins are built largely from the stories of Xibalba (roughly translated as Place of Fright or Place of Fear), which is prominient in both early cultures.. though Bahlam, the Jaguar god and one of the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh (though there are three translations of this text so it varies slightly), is born of Mayan sources who were said to have defeated the Lords of the Underworld (Xibalba) who had tricked and killed their father and uncle, also twins. Here though, Bahlam is no benevolent being.. and it is conflict between him and Lady Death that actually begins the story of the generations of brujx.
"Yeah, but I think you're kinda into it..."
Obviously, the story is full of mystique and the tales from which portions of it are created only make it more interesting.. if that's possible. I've always been entranced by myths of gods and goddesses from all cultures and of the pantheons, the Aztec and Mayan remain amongst my favorites.
It's impossible not to feel for Yadriel, not to want to shout at those who make things unnecessarily difficult for him.. and not to warm to Maritza for being that ride or die chick by his side. The best friend who will fight the world for him, who wants to see him succeed maybe even more than he does.. even if she has a moral aversion to aspects of the lifestyle for herself.
Thomas did a fantastic job of painting Julian as an obnoxious, stubborn spirit with a wicked temper, all the while managing to offer us peeks of those parts of himself he preferred to keep hidden. If I'm being honest, Luca broke my heart more than anyone.. but there's a lot of beauty and a lot of pain sprinkled deftly throughout this bewitching debut novel with all the skill of an old hand.
I caught myself laughing and couldn't stop myself from crying. It's emotional and lovely.. and everything I could have hoped for...