We’re big fans of Cemetery Boys author Aiden Thomas here at Nerdist. His vibrant writing style and inclusive worldbuilding make them a truly unique storyteller. Thomas’ newest book The Sunbearer Trials might be his best yet. An expansive fantasy adventure pitched as Percy Jackson meets The Hunger Games, it manages to live up to those lofty comparisons. The book follows Teo. Teo, the teenage son of a god, lives in a world that reveres the children (semidioses) of deities as athletic celebrities. But only certain gods and certain children. So when Teo—a “lesser” semidioses known as a Jade—is selected for the famed and deadly Sunbearer Trials he can barely believe it. Soon the wild world of the trials and the famed semidioses known as the Golds becomes Teo’s world. The teen begins to question everything about the trials and how competitors win them.
The Sunbearer Trials is one of the best releases of 2022. We talked with Thomas over email about the book, its origins, and the power of inclusive queer fantasy.
Nerdist: Could you tell me about the origins of The Sunbearer Trials?
Aiden Thomas: I came up with the idea for The Sunbearer Trials based on my love for series like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, but I wanted to do something that was based on my own heritage and culture. I’ve also always been a huge fan of The Hunger Games, and wanted to do a kind of Survivor-style, capital-g Games book. I watched the Crash Course series on Mythology and learned about the patterns and tropes of different cultural pantheons, and then I created my own and made it SUPER queer!
You have the greater gods of elements needed for human survival, like Lumbre (fire), Tierra (earth), and Agua (water). But then I have lesser gods like Quetzal (birds), Maize (harvest), and Pan Dulce (home and hearth). Guerrero, the nonbinary god of war who is half jaguar and has top surgery scars, is a personal favorite of mine!
How soon did you know that Teo would be your lead? What made him your perfect in to the story?
Thomas: Teo was actually not the original protagonist when I came up with the idea for The Sunbearer Trials! It was originally going to be a dual POV story and the two main characters are still in the book! (Can you guess who?) Originally, Teo was actually the love interest! But as I started telling this story I realized Teo was really the one at the center of it. He’s the one who can see past all the fame and luxury of the upper class (the Golds), and he’s the one who’s going to make change. Teo is the hero of this world and the only one these other characters would rally behind!
It feels so wonderful to be immersed in a fantasy world where queerness and transness is the norm, could you speak to building that in?
Thomas: I can’t tell you how empowering it was to create a world where the intersections of my identity are celebrated, and even revered. I think it’s wild that inclusivity is still such a rare thing to find in fantasy worlds — there’s this idea that high fantasy needs to be “historically accurate” and have all these Western biases and bigotry about gender and sexuality. I created this world for me and my community and my friends, and the characters within really reflect that.
Queer folks have been here the whole time, and we deserve our own fantasy worlds, too. We are powerful, we are divine, and we are heroes.
These stories about a group of people fighting against each other to survive-–-or not be sacrificed in—a deadly game are so iconic, Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Squid Game, what do you think makes them resonate so much? How did the impact of stories like these play into The Sunbearer Trials?
Thomas: I think we’re living in a period of a lot of political anxiety, and figures like Katniss Everdeen really resonate because she’s this underdog from District 12 who never should have survived the first 20 minutes, let alone win the whole thing. She’s got conviction and morals and things she’s willing to die for, and I think we all want to be like that! I think we all like to imagine that, even in the most dire of circumstances, we’d still do the brave and right thing.
I also think it’s really important to write stories like this for teenage readers, specifically, because they are the future—it’s corny, but it’s true! Kids today are so aware of the world around them, and are often left feeling completely powerless. They need stories where equally powerless characters are able to seize agency and make a real change, because it shows them that they can do the same thing!
I know it’s like picking a favorite child but could you tell me about your personal favorite(s) competitors in the trials?
Thomas: I have a real soft-spot for Niya, Teo’s best friend, because she’s just SO fun to write! I think anyone who is really attached to Julian in Cemetery Boys will have a new favorite in Niya. She’s got a lot of that same big puppy dog energy, you know? Like, she’s always kinda bouncing along, singin’ her song, happy to be along for the ride, but also if you mess with her friends she’ll bite you. She’s a Gold, but kind of an outcast because her dad, Dios Tierra, accidentally aided in the Obsidians’ (the betrayer gods) coup. So, even though she’s one of the elite semidioses, she loathes them just as much as Teo does.
I also love Aurelio’s arc, but I don’t want to say too much about that yet because I think it really starts to shine in book two and I’m not allowed to talk about it!
Is there a moment or character beat you’re most excited for readers to discover when they pick up the book?
Thomas: Oh absolutely! There’s a twist right at the end that I almost didn’t even include! I wanted to keep it for the next book, but while I was revising my final draft, I realized the ending needed a little extra something to set the pieces for Part 2. And it turned into something REALLY fun and devastating. I’m excited to see what readers think!
What are you hoping for readers to take away from The Sunbearer Trials?
Thomas: That caste systems are bad, actually! And also that The Chosen One is a bogus and deeply flawed trope that’s been glorified by American Individualism. We need to focus more on uplifting each other and our communities as a whole. In the Trials, it’s inherently set up to be very you-against-the-world, but what’s revolutionary about Teo and his friends is that they refuse to play into that, and I think that’s something we’re all working through on a more global level at the moment, especially in the United States. That’s crap, frankly, and I delight in tearing it to shreds in this fun, super queer, magical secondary world I’ve created!