The Brilliant Death
by Amy Rose Capetta
For Teodora DiSangro, a mafia don’s daughter, family is fate.
All her life, Teodora has hidden the fact that she secretly turns her family’s enemies into music boxes, mirrors, and other decorative objects. After all, everyone in Vinalia knows that stregas–wielders of magic–are figures out of fairytales. Nobody believes they’re real.
Then the Capo, the land’s new ruler, sends poisoned letters to the heads of the Five Families that have long controlled Vinalia. Four lie dead and Teo’s beloved father is gravely ill. To save him, Teo must travel to the capital as a DiSangro son–not merely disguised as a boy, but transformed into one.
Enter Cielo, a strega who can switch back and forth between male and female as effortlessly as turning a page in a book. Teo and Cielo journey together to the capital, and Teo struggles to master her powers and to keep her growing feelings for Cielo locked in her heart. As she falls in love with witty, irascible Cielo, Teo realizes how much of life she’s missed by hiding her true nature. But she can’t forget her mission, and the closer they get to the palace, the more sinister secrets they uncover about what’s really going on in their beloved country–and the more determined Teo becomes to save her family at any cost.
I love books featuring LGBT+ characters, witches and Italy, so I was never not going to enjoy an Italian-inspired LGBT+ fantasy about gender-fluid witches.
I have a feeling I’ve discovered a new favourite author in Amy Rose Capetta and I’m so excited to read more of her work; so much of what she’s written sounds right up my street, particularly her genderbent sci-fi retelling of the Arthurian legends, Once & Future, written with Cori McCarthy, and her latest novel, The Lost Coast, featuring queer witches.
Italy is one of my favourite countries and even though the setting of this novel, Vinalia, is a fictional, fantastical world, as soon as I started reading this novel I felt like I was walking the streets of Rome again and it was the best feeling. Capetta immerses her readers in this world; I could feel the heat of the sun and the dirt under my feet and taste the sugar on the end of Teo’s tongue. Having read this and Foundryside this year, it’s clear that Italian-inspired fantasy is my jam.
Teo is the daughter of one of Vinalia’s leading families and she has a secret: she’s a strega. Strega are essentially witches, but throughout most of Vinalia they are treated as nothing but children’s stories, and in the places they are genuinely believed in they are threatened by the inquisition. Teo has never told her family of her abilities, abilities she discovered after witnessing her father kill a man when she was just a girl, but she has put them to use over the years to keep her family safe. When she discovers a traitor in the parts of Vinalia her father rules over, she deals with them in her own way by turning them into objects, from music boxes to shoe horns.
Then the new Capo poisons the leaders of Vinalia’s Five Families and invites their sons to the capital to help him create a new Vinalia and, with the help of a fellow strega named Cielo who has their own reasons for wanting to get near the Capo, Teo must develop her powers enough to turn herself into a boy and find her father’s cure.
More than anything, this book was a lot of fun. It reminded me of the kind of fantasy stories I loved when I was younger, with hidden magic and court intrigue and religious turmoil, but with an LGBT+ twist I’ve sorely craved my whole reading life. Both Teo and Cielo are gender-fluid and can literally change their bodies – I hesitate to call them non-binary, because when they present as male they refer to themselves as ‘he’ and refer to themselves as ‘she’ when they present as female – and it was so refreshing to read a YA fantasy that was unapologetically queer, but also wasn’t really about being queer.
Those stories are important and still need to be told, but I so want to see queerness normalised in fiction and we’re starting to see more and more of it in fantasy, which is great; when a book’s set in an entirely different world, it shouldn’t have to adhere to our prejudices regarding gender and sexuality.
Teo does have moments where she explores how she feels about her gender. When she’s finally able to change into a boy, he loves the feeling it gives him, but that doesn’t mean he never wants to present himself as a girl again either. Teo ultimately enjoys being able to celebrate her own gender-fluidity. Cielo is also a joy as a character because they’re so comfortable in their own skin, whether they’re presenting themselves as a girl, a boy or a breeze, and I loved the magic system and how Capetta described it.
The story itself wasn’t a huge surprise, but I did enjoy learning what ‘the brilliant death’ was and the Capo’s plans to use it to boost his own power. There were moments when the plot felt a little rushed, but overall I had a great time reading it. I can’t deny that I was little disappointed to discover there’s a sequel coming out – I can’t help feeling that this book could have been stretched out into a chunkier standalone that would have been so satisfying to read – but I’m looking forward to seeing more of this world and these characters, and to more of Capetta’s writing.