“We’re not like them. Or rather, we are and we aren’t. People hold a deep fear of complication.”
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.
CW: violence, gore, domestic abuse, implied animal abuse and death, loss of a loved one, suicide, nudity, sex scene
After reading Amy Rose’s The Lost Coast a little while ago, I figured that I needed to get a move on and try her other work. Thankfully, The Brilliant Death was already sitting on my TBR, and it seemed like a perfectly logical next destination!
And it certainly is a destination. Set in Vinalia, which is pretty much fantasy Italy (even the map is Italy-esque, trust me), The Brilliant Death follows strega Teodora as she tries to get to the root of the attempt on her father’s life while keeping her magic, which allows her to turn people and objects into other things, a secret. Throw in the added complication that she’s a di Sangro daughter rather than a di Sangro son, and that everything about the story is steeped in uncertainty and treachery, and it makes for a tense storyline.
I think the greatest strength the book has, though, is its exploration of identity through Teo and Cielo, the strega she meets who can effortlessly change appearance. At this point, for clarity’s sake in such a short space, I’ll be using she/her pronouns for Teo, and he/him for Cielo, though both characters are genderfluid and actively embrace that fluidity throughout the novel. It’s that active embrace that I really admired, too. There’s no beating around the bush with it, for one; Teo looks at genderfluidity as a possibility rather than something to be confused by, while Cielo lives his life completely intertwined with shifting shape and gender, easy as breathing. The way Amy Rose presents these two characters is so confident, and though the characters have to explore what their identities really mean to them, you get the sense that the overall voice, the authorial undertone, has no doubt about them whatsoever.
I also enjoyed Cielo and Teo’s relationship once it shifted away from that brief period of mentor/mentee. Cielo is so calm and collected most of the time (with a hint of flightiness in him, going wherever the wind seems to blow), but Teo has a stubborn, grounded streak that balances Cielo out. Plus, they’re attracted to one another in no uncertain terms regardless of gender, so yay for added queer rep!
Really, it was watching Teo and Cielo navigate identity and family that kept me interested in this book. There were personal stakes to be explored, and connections that required conclusion. That said, this is also where the book fell apart: when it went beyond the personal, angling more towards broader, higher stakes for all of Vinalia, I lost interest.
It’s really a shame, too, because I was enjoying this otherwise. But the fact of the matter is that I didn’t get the sense of dread and danger from Teo’s time in the court that I should have. When all of Vinalia is possibly being threatened, it just wasn’t sinking in. Plus, Teo had some moments of seeing straight through the big bad’s plan where no one else had before, which was hard to swallow. You’re telling me a sixteen year old kid who’s never been to court before sees through a mastermind’s plan while an entire court still hasn’t? It all felt too easy, too shallow, and that was, on a lot of levels, pretty disappointing for me. Good character relations can save a weak plot, but that doesn’t mean the weak plot disappears.
I’m hoping the sequel is a little stronger on the plot front. I believe this is supposed to be a duology (never fear over that sort of cliffhanger!), and I can only hope the conclusion rounds things out and improves on this book’s shortcomings.
In the end, though, I did enjoy reading The Brilliant Death, and I really appreciate the unabashed queerness that Amy Rose brings to her work. That alone delights me to no end, and I absolutely want to see more of it in the future.
So, have you read The Brilliant Death? If you were a strega, what do you think your magic would be? And if you haven’t read it, think you’ll pick it up soon? Let’s chat!