Reading between the Lines

Magic aids gender identity in ‘The Brilliant Death’

by Shuyler Clark

Although the publishing industry has made great strides in promoting diversity in recent years, gender identity, particularly in fantasy, is often underutilized and unexplored. Author A.R. Capetta (all pronouns) tackles gender’s vast spectrum in many of their works, including their 2018 young adult novel The Brilliant Death.

Teodora “Teo” di Sangro lives in service to her father, using her magic as a strega, or witch, to transform her family’s enemies into harmless objects. When the country’s Capo poisons the heads of the Five Families and leaves Teo’s father gravely ill, Teo must answer the Capo’s summons as the new head of the family. She soon meets Cielo, a fellow strega who teaches her how to transform herself from female to male. Donning a form that grants her a place among the patriarchy, Teo sets out to find the antidote for her father and exact vengeance on the Capo.

From the outset, Capetta establishes Teo’s inner conflict of how she identifies versus how she must present herself in her patriarchal country, making Teo’s characterization the strongest aspect of this book. The first-person perspective gives readers a clear window into Teo’s development and how her interactions with her shapeshifting love interest, Cielo, further solidify how Teo views herself.

Although the main characters are well fleshed-out, other narrative aspects are less developed. Cielo provides the gateway for most of the story’s worldbuilding, particularly when it comes to the magic system and the history of streghe. Despite this, aspects of magic are puzzling, particularly in how it is inherited between streghe. At the risk of entering spoiler territory, rules of magic inheritance are seemingly forgotten or ignored by the end of the book, leading to confusion and a somewhat unsatisfying ending.

The plot, though decently established, also takes a backseat to the character building and Teo and Cielo’s romance. Although romance is common in young adult fantasies, in this case it has a knack for intruding on otherwise dramatic plot points. For instance, the characters opting for intense canoodling behind a tapestry when both are at risk of blowing their plans if caught is typical for the genre but still disappointing.

Also in regards to the intersection of character and plot, the antagonists are one-dimensional compared to the main characters. This leads to conflicts that would have benefited from longer development, especially considering this is book one of two. Some conflicts end without a satisfying conclusion as a result.

Despite these flaws, The Brilliant Death is worth reading for the queer representation. Capetta carefully crafts the genderfluid and bisexual experience for general audiences, including the joys and prejudices such individuals encounter. Such fiction serves as an ideal gateway to understanding these identities and reaching a position of allyship with our queer neighbors.

Shuyler Clark

Shuyler Clark is a graduate of Stockbridge High School and Lansing Community College. When she is not reading or writing, she can be found snuggling with her birds.

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