About the Book

Title: The Brilliant Death (The Brilliant Death #1)
Published: 2018
Series: The Brilliant Death
Swoonworthy Scale: 9

Cover Story: The Pen Is Mightier
BFF Charm: Yay!
Talky Talk: Ciao, Strega
Bonus Factors: Gender Fluidity, Masquerade, Machiavellian Machinations
Relationship Status: It’s Dangerous To Go Alone. Take Me!

Cover Story: The Pen Is Mightier

I like this cover, although I’m pretty sure that it is Cover Law that any fantasy book that includes a sword or dagger must show one on the cover. The transformation to a feather is a nod to the story, but it does bring to mind the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

The Deal:

Teo—Teodora—di Sangro is a strega (witch) whose magic has the power to transform objects and people. Streghe are feared in Vinalia, her country, so she keeps her magic under wraps even when she uses it to help her powerful family. Since she’s a girl, she’ll never get to rule the family, even though out of all of her siblings, she’s the only one with a head for it.

When her father barely survives an assassination attempt, though, Teo and her younger brother Luca set out to confront his would-be killer. Along the way, they dodge their insane brother Benaimo, and meet Cielo—a gender-fluid strega who can appear as a young man, woman, or even the wind, if they want.

Now all she has to do is outsmart her father’s assassin, get the antidote, avoid Benaimo, and learn to control her magic. No problem, right?

BFF Charm: Yay!

Yay BFF Charm

I loved Teo, particularly when we get to the gender fluidity portion of the novel. She’s (and I use “she” because Teo decides she is mostly female, even when she feels that she can’t quite be confined by her female body) fiercely loyal to her loved ones and an utter terror to her enemies, with a conscience that keeps her on the straight and narrow…most of the time.

Swoonworthy Scale: 9

Holy. Crap. Imagine a book that’s Megan Whalen Turner meets Holly Black meets Sabaa Tahir, with Jenn Bennett’s signature steam, and you’ve got the general idea. Why does it score a 9 on the Swoonworthy Scale? Because with two gender-fluid partners who can change their physical form at will, there is a lot of makeout (and more!) potential, with a lot of very interesting results. I’m glad I didn’t read this book as an actual young adult, because I’m pretty sure my head would have exploded (in a good way). Even in my 30s, I had to put the book down, fan myself a bit, and text Mandy W. about the kissing scenes. Hot damn.

Talky Talk: Ciao, Strega

If you’ve followed my reviews before, you know that I’m not the biggest fantasy fan. I have a limited amount of interest in epic world-building, so I tend to pick fantasy that’s firmly grounded in the real world. Capetta’s old world Italian-style setting is perfect for a reader like me: the country, government, and the language are familiar enough to set the scene without getting bogged down in detail. If you have even a passing knowledge of how Italian is pronounced, you won’t have any trouble with mentally pronouncing names or places.

This lets Capetta’s story shine, and oh, what a story it is! Life, death, vengeance, romance—all the best and most dramatic things life has to offer—are seamlessly woven alongside magic and rich sensual detail. I particularly loved the concept of “the brilliant life”: the idea that life is often harsh and cruel, so we must fight against it with as many forms of beauty as possible. (Seems appropriate for election day in the US.)

Bonus Factor: Gender Fluidity

I’ve read YA books with gender-fluid protagonists before, but this was the first time I’ve read one where the romantic leads are both fluid. Teo is confused at first by Cielo’s changing appearance and utter comfort in whichever body they’re in, but she comes to realize that there are many parts of her that don’t fit into a traditional female mold. It makes perfect sense, and on top of that, I’m certain that I’m not the only one who has wondered what it would be like to be the opposite sex. (There’s a particularly amusing description when Teo first transforms into a boy that made me think, hmm. Being a guy would have its drawbacks, even if you’re enjoying a higher wage and society catering to your every whim.)

I thought it was interesting how Capetta treats personal pronouns: Teo refers to Cielo as he or she, depending on which body they appear in, and Cielo doesn’t seem to mind. I am in no way an authority on gender fluidity and how actual modern gender-fluid folks will feel about this, but I thought (as a cishet woman) that in the context of the story and Teo’s understanding, it worked. I’d be very interested in hearing other opinions, though.

Bonus Factor: Masquerade

I am a sucker for masquerades no matter what the media. Gossip GirlVampire Diaries, you name it—put masks on people and the tension/sexiness ratchets up to 11.

Bonus Factor: Machiavellian Machinations

Teo reminds me of a warmer, kinder Jude from Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air series: she’s a nice girl, and in normal circumstances, even though her town thinks she’s odd, she’d probably be a great friend. Once you mess with her family, though, there are no holds barred.

I absolutely loved the way Capetta plotted this story: it’s intricate, and surprised me more than once. If you love the way Jude’s single-minded focus clashes with the court intrigue in The Cruel Prince, you will love it when Teo starts brainstorming ways to kill her father’s would-be assassin.

Relationship Status: It’s Dangerous To Go Alone. Take Me!

Book, why. WHY are you a series starter? You taunt me with one of my favorite reads of 2018, then turn around and give me the ol’, “But wait! There’s more!” I am old(er), I have no patience, and to quote a giant blueberry, I WANT IT NOW. DON’T CARE HOW. Obviously you need an adventure partner, and there’s no way I’m abandoning you now. So how about you slide the sequel over to me, give me a few hours, and we’ll continue on our quest?

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Penguin. This review was originally posted on Kirkus Reviews in exchange for monetary compensation, which did not affect or influence my opinions. The Brilliant Death is available now.