The Brilliant Death shines in its complex exploration of identity, but falters in its setting.
As someone with Italian heritage spanning back as far as I have been able to trace, and having been told tale of the very real and devastating impact that the Mafia had, particularly in the poorest regions of Italy, I remained wary heading into The Brilliant Death. With the central story set around the Five Families, and the power vacuum that results when the Capo moves to wrest control of Vinalia, I knew that for myself — and many others — that the story would be treading a very, very fine line.
And, while The Brilliant Death did touch upon certain aspects of the Mafia hierarchy, and briefly upon what the Five Families were willing to do in order to remain in power, it never quite did enough for me to really showcase the truth of the realities there. With it being the major backdrop and setting to the story — and, ultimately, the catalyst for protagonist Teodora’s unwavering loyalty to their family — I had expected there to be more commentary on what, exactly, it meant for the very real people that lived under their rule.
Instead, Teodora’s particular brand of magic when dealing with their family’s enemies gave it an almost child-like sensation. Still sinister, to an extent, but the edges of the brutality that came with enforcing the stronghold of the DiSangro family were dulled with the niggling thought that — with time and knowledge of their powers — much of what Teodora did could be reversed. Something that would not be possible in real terms, when discussing the elimination of the Mafia’s enemies.
Which isn’t to say that The Brilliant Death isn’t without its merits. When an attempted assassination leaves Teodora’s father on his death bed, it sets into motion a sequence of events that provide the true highlight of Amy Rose Capetta’s novel: the theme of identity.
Teodora has, as is expected, obligations as the daughter of a prominent Mafia family. Ones that stifle her from truly exploring who she really is, and what she wants from her life — beyond her dedication to her family, which remains a major force driving her throughout the story.
Upon meeting Cielo — a “strega” who can shift between genders — Teodora’s whole world opens up, and with it the possibilities of who, and what, she can be. As her relationship with Cielo develops, so too does Teodora’s understanding of herself. The conflict within Teodora of how she truly identified, and the refusal for there to be a right or wrong in her gender identity, was utterly refreshing — and also, was deftly written. That push-and-pull, the struggle of where, exactly, Theodora fit was palpable, and was all at once beautiful and absolutely devastating to read.
In fact, the love story between Cielo and Teodora was another highlight. As Cielo continued to assist with Teodora’s understanding of their power, and they grew closer together, I found myself utterly captivated by how they came together. It was, without a doubt, of of the aspects of the novel that kept me hooked, wanting to see how it ultimately panned out.
Though there were some hiccups throughout — I, personally, found the magic inconsistent in its rules and applications, and the setting flirted with exploring the brutalities of the Mafia, before skipping back to treating it as irreverent — I still found myself enjoying the characters, their relationships, and their journey.
If, as a reader, you are seeking something that digs into gender identity and fluidity, and explores the relationship between two people who aren’t quite certain of where they fit, and are figuring it out, The Brilliant Death is absolutely a novel that you should take the time to check out and savor.
However, I would caution that, even with how compelling that aspect of the story is, it does have its pitfalls, especially if you’re sensitive to depictions of the Mafia. If you can find your way past that, The Brilliant Death is an enjoyable read, one that would likely benefit from more time spent digging into the world, and pushing the brutalities a little further.