This is one of those books that I knew I was going to read as soon as I heard about it. It seemed so original and right up my alley, interest-wise, and also that cover is really gorgeous. Plus, it was just about the most perfect book to cuddle up with on a cold Autumn day – for so many reasons.
“Our traditions should grow and change with every generation. Just because we follow the ancient ways does not mean we can’t also grow.”
All Yadriel wants is to prove to his gender to his tradition-bound Latinx family. So, he plans and carries out his quinces ritual in secret, with the help of his cousin Maritza, taking the vows to Lady Death that all brujo take. Right afterwards, another brujo dies suddenly and mysteriously and Yadriel, thinking this will be the final and inarguable evidence of his being a real brujo, tries to summon his ghost and release its spirit to the afterlife. But…he summons the wrong ghost, that of Julian Diaz, a schoolmate of Yadriel’s with a shady reputation. Julian’s ghost refuses to be released until he’s had a chance to check in on his friends and he and Yadriel strike a deal. Though, that turns into a much bigger ordeal than expected, including solving the mystery of a number of disappeared bodies/deaths and defeating a supernatural evil power. Plus, Yadriel starts to realize he actually would rather Julian stick around…
Well goodness. This book was everything I wanted it to be and, possibly, more. As a very main point, I loved reading all the traditions and legends about Día de los Muertos, Santa Muerte/Lady Death, the old gods, and I was so into the added paranormal twists about the brujx and their family lineage and powers. I am a sucker for pretty much any kind of witchcraft/magic, so the healing powers and seeing ghosts and releasing of souls was so cool to me. Plus, I am a nerd for magic systems, so reading about the items needed for these powers to work, like the animal blood and portajes, and how the powers waned from generation to generation – it was all just so culturally and imagination-ally fascinating.
Also, the diversity (racial/ethnic and gender/sexuality) in these pages was spectacular, and so natural. I feel like YA is taking all the awards for representation right now. Like, in Thomas’ writing/words, it’s so obvious and genuine and communicated with nuance and feeling, while still being taken in stride as just…reality. And I could not be more here for that. Adult fiction has a lot of work to do on this front, to even get close to some of the wonderful YA I’ve read lately. Anyways, I also appreciated many of the related messages that Thomas includes, particularly focused on cultures and belief systems with long histories, as those tend to be some of the most exclusionary. There are such profound and gorgeous and straightforward messages about honoring and respecting tradition while still allowing it to change and adapt with time. The idea of “inclusivity instead of rigidity” is so perfectly central and woven in. Relatedly, there was some really heavy theme-ing around how that exclusion and fear of “change” and discomfort of “other” creates for us, as people, our own worst enemies. It’s also a (necessary) damning exploration of what years of dismissal and being ignored can do to a person/heart/mental state. Phew.
There are a few other things I want to mention, so this will be my paragraph of hodge podge thoughts. Haha. I loved the found family aspect. That shit always gets my heartstrings and it was no exception here. Yadriel and Julian are adorable and have a great push and pull dynamic that I think is healthy, in the way it challenges/supports them, for both. Wow, the feels: I definitely cried a few times in the final chapters (but a lot of it was good tears, so worry not). Maritza is a great cousin/friend – it makes me wish I’d lived closer to cousins growing up and could have seen them more! It sucks to find out that, sometimes, the people who seem the best, and most supportive, can hide deeper evil (or hidden mental health needs that aren’t being met) and it’s disappointing (in this fictional context) and a reminder to us all to check on everyone in our lives, even those who seem to be alright. You never know. Last, the unconditional support of some of Yadriel’s family (even though it was far from everyone/ideal) is still more than many people have. Related, the position of power that Yadriel’s dad has in the community, though it could (and did at times) work as a detriment, can (and sometimes was) a large privilege towards changing the minds/hearts of others. (Of note: the greys of this situation are really well addressed throughout.) And the entire brujx culture/coming of age provided a very clear-cut way for Yadriel to “prove” his gender that just doesn’t exist, in any tangible way, in non-supernatural life. So…just some things to keep in mind, as a reader.
Basically, this was a freaking awesome debut. There was magic and found family and great LBGTQ+ (especially trans) character representation, with great dialogue, plot flow and relationship development (and adorbs romantic elements). There was mystery, cemetery-ambience, paranormal-ness, and the most wonderfully hopeful ending, acknowledging with gorgeous balance both the progress made/acceptance found and the work still ahead. I hope all readers take to heart the messages of inclusivity and, simultaneously, not needing anyone’s permission/approval to be who you are. I’ll be over here basking in how warm and full after finishing this book.
Enjoy these few passages that really stuck out to me:
“It was easier to hide behind their traditions than to challenge their own beliefs and understanding of how things in the world of the brujx worked.”
“Yadriel hadn’t known it could be that painless and simple for someone to see him as he was.”
“Growth isn’t a deviation from what we’ve done before, but a natural progression to honor all those who make this community strong.”
“Things weren’t magically fixed by an empowering speech, but it opened doors and built bridges. It carved out space for Yadriel to step forward and be who he was, as he was. There were still more obstacles to overcome and battles to fight, but Yadriel wouldn’t feel along in it anymore. No, it wasn’t the end. It was a better beginning.”