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
Me, busy being emotionally invested in this 19th century mafia story featuring genderfluid shape-shifters, an amazing queer romance and an iconic and unabashed obliteration of the concept of gender binary: shhh please be quiet
So, what’s this book about?
Teodora di Sangro, the daughter of a mafia don, pays for the safety of her family with the coin of her own conscience, parceled out every time she wields her secret magic—a shadow talent of turning her father’s enemies into decorative objects—until that purse is empty at last. To Teo, “family is fate” and family comes with very strict lines and dedicated pigeonholes for everyone, and a burn of bitterness at the knowledge that her vindictive eldest brother should inherit the title that should have been hers with none of the hardship that had made her so desperate for it. When another high lord sends out poisoned letters to the dons of the five families, including her father, in a desperate clawing for advantage, Teo must journey to the capital masquerading as the di Sangro heir to save her father, but a simple disguise won’t do.
Enter Cielo, a genderfluid shape-shifting strega, who will tutor Teo and help her uncover the truths about her magic that’s she’s been mining for, like shaking dust from a tapestry of wonder. But Teo and Cielo quickly find out that a quell board has been set up, the game already in play, and all they could trust in the shifting sands of the capital’s politics is each other.
“We’re not like them. Or rather, we are and we aren’t. People hold a deep fear of complication.”
Do you get all giddy at YA fantasy? Do you relish stories that blend magic and political intrigues? Are you craving new diverse and inclusive fiction? If you answered yes to all three of those questions, then this book is just for you.
The Brilliant Death is a lively, quick-moving fantasy that makes sure readers know (and like) its characters well enough to care when threat comes for them. The intimidating and intricate workings of the mafia life provide an intriguing backdrop for the action—and power is a tangle of threads that everyone wants to clench in their fists, which ratchets up the tension and drives the novel to its bloody but satisfying conclusion.
Although The Brilliant Death sometimes flounders until it finds its footing, characters seen only briefly, early on in the book, come to ends that don’t feel necessary or earned, villains lack enough depth and care and detail in their development, and the story’s momentum suffers as a result of keeping a tight, narrow focus on the romance between Cielo and Teo, I wasn’t bothered enough to get thrown out of the story. I was very engrossed in the exploration of gender identity and the pull of family and history and other powerful themes and I think therein rests the reward for seeing this book through.
Cielo and Teo are two sharp minds, two fearless hearts, thrust together by chance and bound together by a single purpose, who discover that they have much more in common than the magic pulsing through their veins. Both identify as genderfluid and use their magic to pour with ease into and out of whatever shapes they please. It was utterly nourishing to see them given enough space to explore and frankly discuss their sexuality and gender identity. As Teo and Cielo bond together and we’re treated to a romance that illustrates the power of a well-matched pairing, the story pushes on the deepest questions ingrained into their hearts and blossoms into a thoughtful, emotionally complex and absorbing tale.
“Understanding rustled through me, soft as leaves. It wasn’t quite the same, but I’d often felt I didn’t fit inside the boundaries of the word girl. It reminded me of a country I could happily visit, but the longer I stayed, the more I knew I couldn’t live there all the time. There were moments when I sorely wished to be free of the confines of this body, the expectations it seemed to carry.”
Teodora’s arc, in particular, was incredible. She was the daughter of a mafia don who had kept the face of the world veiled from her. She was lost in the deep, narrow space between the two forms girls were allowed to take, but that only shored up her resolve to be more than what was preordained for her, speaking each want and ambition like a stone she built her future with. I was rooting for her all along.
All quibbles aside, The Brilliant Death was a solidly crafted and very engaging novel that has representation in sorely needed ways!