The Brilliant Death is one of those books I’ve been hearing queer book Twitter raving about for months—a book I knew I was going to fall in love with even before I opened it. Magic based on Italian folklore, gender fluid characters, difficult questions about family and loyalty. I added it to my Goodreads list pretty much as soon as I heard about it. Then I saw a signed copy displayed at work, and the rest is history.
The Brilliant Death follows the story of Teodora di Sangro, the daughter of a powerful family known for their brutal tactics in keeping control over their land. Her father, the patriarch of the di Sangros, is one of the five most important men in the country of Vinalia, second only to the Capo, Vinalia’s ruler.
Teo is loyal to her family above all else, which makes hiding the fact that she’s a strega—a magic user—especially difficult. When a shapeshifting stranger named Cielo arrives, bearing a letter from the Capo that poisons Teo’s father, Teo’s safe world shatters. Teo is forced to heed the Capo’s demand that each of the five powerful families send a son to the capital. With the unlikely help of Cielo, Teo must learn to transform herself into a boy, while embarking on a perilous journey to confront the Capo and learn more about magic than either she or Cielo could have imagined.
So. Overall reaction to this book? A sense of wonder and a pulsing warmth in my chest, and the immediate desire to wrap Teo and Cielo up in blanket cocoons. I was so, so happy to read a fantasy that makes me invest in two distinct, queer teenaged characters who are exploring their identities while in the midst of a high-stakes adventure.
Cielo, who effortlessly shifts between masculine and feminine forms, is a mischievous gender-fluid strega who somehow manages to find humor even while in peril. Cielo uses she/her and he/him pronouns depending on the form Cielo has taken, and I even found a few instances where Capetta uses they/them pronouns for Cielo, so I’ll use they/them pronouns in this review.
For all of Cielo’s smiles and teasing flirtation, they’re hiding deep emotional wounds—wounds that Teo gives Cielo space to feel as Cielo uncovers more secrets about their past. I found that I was falling in love with Cielo right alongside Teodora (which, honestly, isn’t much of a spoiler. Cielo’s a big flirt. How could Teo not fall for them?) Cielo’s character arc deals with trust, grappling with difficult revelations about the past, and choosing one’s own family. To say that I found it compelling would be an understatement.
Likewise, Teo’s emotional journey is captivating. She grapples with her need for vengeance, her loyalty to her family, multiple losses, and questioning her gender as Cielo teaches her how to change into the de Sangro son she believes she needs to be. Teo has been discontent with the role of a di Sangro daughter since childhood, and she knows that if she had been born a boy, she would be the best contender to be her father’s heir.
Teo thinks of herself more as "Teo" than as a young woman, and as she explores what it means to look like and behave like a man, she realizes that while there is newfound freedom in being a man, there are limits there too. Capetta offers a surprisingly nuanced critique of the gender binary. I was really happy with how Teo resolved that question for herself at the end of the novel, while also deciding what role she wants to play in her family and if she and Cielo can make a life together.
I was so compelled by the main characters that I would have happily followed them anywhere they took me, especially into the world Capetta created for them. There is a rich Vinalian history and mythology shimmering behind the words on each page. I would be delighted if Capetta wrote more stories in this world, because it feels like there’s a lot of potential material there.
Capetta’s prose beautifully weaves together characters, sensory details, and setting. I particularly loved this sentence from a scene where Teo and Cielo are swimming in a pond: “I marveled at how the strega could tell me about his mother’s dark fate in one moment and in the next be darting around like a pale, delighted fish.” You can glean so much about Cielo in that sentence alone, and that level of care and detail is apparent throughout the entire novel.
Capetta describes the magic of the streghe with a vivid, dream-like quality, describing strega who can change men into music boxes, who can transform themselves into birds, and who can pluck fears out of the air and make them tangible objects. It really does feel like a wedding of the old and the new, a fresh take on magic you’d find in fairytales.
If I haven’t convinced you by now to pick up this book from your nearest book store, I’m not sure what will, other than an assurance that this book is nearly impossible to put down. The pacing is great, raising the stakes and pushing the reader to keep reading to find out if Teo and Cielo can make it through, and maybe also make out.
Really, I don’t know how she did it, but Capetta somehow makes each quiet moment that Cielo and Teo manage to steal with each other feel precious and hard-won. I would happily read an eight book series about these two going on long walks, living in a cottage, and playfully arguing over whose turn it is to weed the flower beds (Amy Rose, if you’re reading this, please, I will give you all my money. I need more books with these two cuties).
You can buy The Brilliant Death at Barnes and Noble for $17.28.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.