The fantasy genre is a great place to mix up familiar archetypes in new ways. For instance, why shouldn't a mafia princess be gender-fluid, heir to her father's empire and a witch?
Granted, none of those qualities exactly comes easily to Teodora "Teo" di Sangro, the narrator of The Brilliant Death. That's the latest young-adult novel from Montpelier resident and Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member Amy Rose Capetta. But Capetta's fast-paced fantasy, which varies in mood from sprightly to somber, offers a pointedly reimagined version of a famously patriarchal culture we may think we know.
The book abounds in Italian names and phrases (witch is strega), and its villain is a "Capo," but technically it takes place in the land of Vinalia. Teo, the second daughter of the feared di Sangro family, has a useful talent: She can transform people into objects. Most Vinalians regard magic as a sacrilegious superstition, so Teo uses her abilities on the sly, serving her beloved father's goals by turning his enemies into trinkets such as roses and music boxes.
Then Teo's father receives a literally poisoned letter from the Capo, the upstart ruler who hopes to unite all of Vinalia under one banner. With the di Sangro patriarch languishing at death's door, his heir must go to the capital and face the murderer.
But the eldest di Sangro son is a violent psychopath, and the second eldest a mild-mannered scholar. Teo, who combines the political smarts and ruthlessness the job requires, is disqualified by her sex. What's a strong-willed girl with magical powers to do?
To start with, she teams up with a mysterious strega named Cielo, who's continually transforming — boy one minute, girl the next. Teo hopes that transforming herself into a boy — an acceptable heir for her father — will be the answer to her problems. Naturally, it's only the beginning.
When it comes to exploring the possibilities of gender beyond the binary, YA lit is ahead of the curve these days. The playful and charming Cielo is a character whose physical forms and gender pronouns shift from scene to scene. One thing remains constant: the building attraction between Teo and Cielo, which they explore in various forms and combinations.
Teo's adventures as a boy are equally absorbing. She relishes the upsides to having a male form in her culture — for instance, being listened to in political contexts. "As a girl, I'd had to swallow at least half of what I wanted to say," she tells us. "Being allowed to speak my mind felt like running wild down a mountain slope; I might fall and break myself on the rocks at any moment, but for now all I felt was a heady rush."
Capetta deftly navigates this gender bending, indicating that, while Teo initially transforms herself in reaction to a male-dominated society, she "finds truth in knowing I was not one fixed thing." She'll learn by experience that suppressing her female form to wield power isn't what she wants — but she does want power and makes no apologies for it.
The novel's prose is lyrical, pocked with metaphors and tantalizing evocations of Vinalia's art and food. The plot isn't always as organically wrought, taking frequent turns that may feel a bit blockbuster-y to adult readers, especially when Capetta's version of magic turns out to have qualities that lend themselves to visual effects. And the moral responsibility incurred by turning one's enemies into tchotchkes could be more deeply explored.
Overall, however, with its bold and well-executed concepts, The Brilliant Death establishes Capetta as a versatile author to watch. Her previous YA novel, Echo After Echo, was a murder mystery set in the New York theater world, with a distinctly literary feel. Up next is Once & Future, out in March 2019, which Capetta coauthored with her partner, fellow VCFA faculty member Cori McCarthy. It's a sci-fi take on the King Arthur mythos in which the wielder of Excalibur is an undocumented immigrant — and a girl. We can't wait to see where that reimagining goes.