The Brilliant Death, Amy Rose Capetta (Viking Books for Young Readers 978-0451478443, $18.99, 352pp, hc) October 2018.
I haven’t much followed Amy Rose Capetta’s career to date, though buried somewhere in the depths of my to-read pile is (I believe) a copy of her third novel, last year’s Echo After Echo. The Brilliant Death is Capetta’s fourth novel, set in a land reminiscent of Italy, where five great families with their own code eye with suspicion the manoeuvres of the new Capo who’s united Vinalia against the potential threat of an invasion from Ettera.
Teodora di Sangro is the daughter of the head of the di Sangro family. She’s imbibed loyalty to her family with her every breath, so much so that she has taken it on herself to become her family’s enforcer – for unknown to her father, her sadistic elder brother Beniamo, her elder sister Mirella, and her younger brother Luca, Teo is possessed of magic that allows her to transform people and things, transmuting them into objects large or small. In secret, Teo changes those who might become her family’s enemies. She doesn’t understand her magic – she’s never meet another magic-user, another strega, outside of a story – but that doesn’t stop her from using it.
Then a shapeshifting messenger appears over the brow of a hill, bearing a letter for Teo’s father. The letter is from the Capo, and it’s poisoned. The elder di Sangro hovers near death, while the Capo’s letter demands that the di Sangros send a representative to the capital to discuss the new order of things. Teo and Luca set out – Luca as representative, despite his lack of desire to become head of the family; Teo to try to keep him safe – but when a jealous Beniamo attacks them, murdering Luca, Teo is on her own. The Capo will never take her seriously if she shows up as girl, which will ruin her plan to revenge her father and discover an antidote for the poison that laid him low. Her magic has always changed other things, not herself. But now she needs to learn how to transform herself: into a boy, so that she may pass for Luca and take his place at the Capo’s court.
Fortunately, she has a teacher. The shapeshifter who delivered the poisoned missive to her father did so without knowing that the letter was a murder attempt. Cielo – sometimes boy, sometimes girl, sometimes cloud or any number of other things – seems to feel that they owe something to Teo. Besides which, Cielo wants access to the Capo’s court: they’re trying to learn about their mother, who left them as a child.
In the Capo’s court, both Teo and Cielo are engaged in a dangerous masquerade and an equally dangerous search for truth. Teo’s imposture is complicated by her magic, which seems to have a mind of her own: transforming herself carries a cost. With four other young men, heirs to their families, also called to the Capo’s court, she can’t afford to slip. Her plan to assassinate the Capo has more than one wrench thrown in it by the fact that the Capo has a pair of powerful witches in his service – and by the fact that among the heirs to the five families, at least one is a traitor, betraying all their plans directly to the Capo himself.
Meanwhile, Teo’s developing feelings for Cielo, and both of them are discovering the truth about the magic that each of them has considered their birthright. Magic, it seems, grows from death: the nearby death of another strega can add to one’s power, or give one magic if one did not already possess it. When Teo’s imposture is discovered – when she’s betrayed to the Capo and backed into a corner – she has to choose between loyalty to her family and the ability to live life as herself.
The Brilliant Death is part coming-of-age, part romance, and part adventure thriller. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot: Capetta gives Teo a vivid, engaging voice, and it’s a delight, in this Italianate fantasy world, to see a burgeoning romance between the two young people play out in a way that affirms nonbinary gender identities and revels in gender-noncomforming characters. The magic is playful and baroque, gleefully resisting categorisation: power with a mind of its own.
Unfortunately, its political masquerades feel much slighter than its romance elements, as though they were a frame on which to hang Teo’s journey of self-discovery and mutual attraction with Cielo, rather than a fully realised tapestry of their own. The Capo’s court lacks any figures of political import other than the Capo himself; the influence of a Church on Vinalian life is glossed over when it’s mentioned at all; all of these children of important families go about with no retainers, no entourage, no bodyguard, and seem to have no town agents or people of business in the Capo’s capital. The fact that Teo’s life is miraculously unencumbered by any such person as a maid or a valet is perhaps more unbelievable than the magic (and no one appears to be very religious, although there’s a Church that’s claimed to be important).
Being a historian by education and training, I tend to get hung up on social context and the logistics of pre-modern life. The Brilliant Death is an enjoyable romp of a YA adventure, despite my quibbles: I’d be inclined to heap its praises higher, though, if it had gone in for the kind of depth-of-field in worldbuilding that delights me as much as the queer representation.
I’ll be looking forward to the sequel regardless.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the November 2018 issue of Locus.
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