Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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’ve been yearning to read this book ever since I first heard about it a couple of months ago. Non-binary representation is still few and far between, and being agender myself, discovering a book has non-binary characters is like having my birthday and Christmas on the same day.
The Brilliant Death follows Teodora, who uses her carefully hidden magic powers to rid her family of their enemies. She’s her father’s eldest daughter, but being a girl, she can never inherit the title of family head, and her most fervent wish is to be a di Sangro son. She finally gets her wish when she has to transform herself into a boy and journey to Amalia as her family’s representative in the wake of her father’s poisoning, accompanied by another strega, Cielo.
I occasionally thought that the writing was a little bumpy, and especially in the beginning, the pacing was slightly off. The writing is still engaging though, and the further I got into the book, the less I wanted to put it down.
I really enjoyed Teo’s character development. She grows so much over the course of the book. Growing up as a mafia don’s child has left her with a warped sense of morality, but in her pursuit of power, she re-evaluates right and wrong. At the end of the book, she makes a pivotal decision that I didn’t see coming but cheered for nonetheless.
It felt like I had spent my entire life speaking a secret language and then stumbled on someone else who was perfectly fluent.
I also loved the relationship between Teo and Cielo. As they journey across the mountains and navigate court, they teach each other about magic and power, family and gender. They slowly fall in love, and while they often tease and bicker, they share some deep moments as well. Their attraction to each other is palpable, no matter which form either Cielo or Teo take, and there are a couple of really hot scenes between the two characters. Hoo boy, does this author know how to cook up some sexual tension.
“It’s true that I contain more than one thing,” Cielo said. “And sometimes the balance shifts.”
I do have some critical thoughts on the non-binary representation. I loved Cielo as a character, but the binarism and biological essentialism in the exploration of gender bothered me.
“I can’t figure out if I should be using the word he or she or something else entirely.” (…)
“Either will do,” Cielo said. (…) “Though all of those words feel a bit like coats that are too tight in the elbows.”
I feel like this was a missed opportunity to introduce either they pronouns or maybe even neo-pronouns, instead of pushing the narrative that there are two ill-fitting options to choose from. Cielo is genderfluid, and it rankles that Teo always uses she when Cielo is in their “girlish body” and he when Cielo is in their “boyish body”, reinforcing the idea that certain pronouns match certain bodies.
A true non-binary exploration of gender should challenge the idea that any one type of body has a certain gender, or that certain biological traits mark you as a boy or a girl. Considering the author is non-binary herself, I was expecting a lot better.
The queer representation was great. Neither Teo’s nor Cielo’s sexuality is ever stated outright, but it’s safe to assume from the text that they’re both some flavour of queer, and Teo makes her attraction to women quite clear more than once. Overall, I would have appreciated some more diverse representation, especially with regards to race and disability.
Even though it’s not perfect, I really enjoyed The Brilliant Death, and I’m glad that this book has put Amy Rose Capetta on my radar. I will definitely be checking out some of her other books, first and foremost Once & Future, since I received an eARC for that one. I’m excited!
Have you read The Brilliant Death or any of the author’s other books? Let’s chat in the comments below!