The final book in my journey through the finalists for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult novel is Cemetery Boys, by Aiden Thomas. Like many of the finalists, I’d heard a lot of praise for this one, but it was the nomination that spurred me to finally pick it up. And, as a book centered around Día de los Muertos, an October read was especially well-timed.
Cemetery Boys follows Yadriel, a gay, trans teenager in a traditional Latin American community in Los Angeles. His family of witches have refused to present him in the ceremony for becoming a brujo—a male witch, with power to call and release spirits of the dead—despite his identification as male and his failure to manifest the healing powers associated with his assigned birth gender. When his cousin disappears under suspicion of violence and Yadriel is excluded from the search, he takes matters into his own hands. But the ghost he summons is that of Julian, a troublemaker from his school, who has no intention of being peacefully released to the underworld.
Cemetery Boys doesn’t stray too far from the stereotypes of YA fantasy. There’s a lead who distrusts his family and refuses to involve the older generation in his affairs, even as he entangles himself in a search for a murderer. There’s a supportive friend, a supportive-but-slightly-distant uncle, and a burgeoning romantic interest. And the plot goes exactly where you’d expect, with much of the conclusion obvious from the opening chapters.
Of course, tropes exist for a reason, and a story can stick close to the formula and still be powerfully told. But Cemetery Boys isn’t particularly special in the telling, with unexceptional, straightforward prose and a lead that feels like so many others. It does gain some energy from the introduction of Julian, the ghost with intense emotions and more spontaneity than any three people would need. His immediate chemistry with the lead kept me reading when I was considering a DNF, and his presence continued to liven the story throughout the middle half.
But while a burgeoning partnership between Julian and Yadriel keeps the story from dragging and delivers a lighter tone than one might expect from the subject matter, it’s not enough to make Cemetery Boys stand out from the crowd. It’s readable and moderately entertaining, but neither the plot nor the themes have particular depth, and the cliched refusal to ever seek help from an adult is particularly egregious (full disclosure: I am an adult reader with children of my own, so this trope probably annoys me more than it does the target audience). The fun and uplifting central relationship and intersectional representation seem to have won it plenty of fans, but chemistry between the leads isn’t enough for a standout novel. I imagine it will hit differently for a reader who more closely identifies with the lead, and it certainly has enough quality that YA fantasy benefits from its existence. But in a subgenre that is bursting with outstanding books from diverse perspectives, Cemetery Boys just doesn’t hit the heights of so many others. It’s worth a look for those who adore common YA tropes, or for those looking for particular representation or energetic and uplifting romances. But for other readers, it just doesn’t demand to be placed at the front of an ever-more-crowded queue of books to read.
Recommended if you like: typical YA plots with a fun central relationship, Latin inspiration, and gay/trans representation.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Trans/NB, Witches, and Revenge-Seeking Character, as well as hitting the Latin American Author and Debut Author squares.
Overall rating: 12 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.