332 pages. Acknowledgments.
This was the first novel in a new series, from an author who has previously specialized in young-adult novels.
The Di Sangro family rules the mountainous land of Uccelli. Once independent, they have been subjugated by a new power which has united the five lands.
Niccolo Di Sangro is the family head, but unknown to him, his teenage daughter Teodora has been silencing his enemies for him. Her secret? She is a strega, using magical powers which the Church forbids.
Then life changes when an enchanted letter leaves Niccolo on the verge of death, and a family representative must be sent to the capital. The oldest son, Beniami, is stupid and sadistic. The younger son, Luca, is intellectual but weak. As a young woman, Teo cannot represent the family. If only her magic could transform her into a man!
Soon Teo's adventure begins, and along the way she meets Cielo, a strega who seems both male and female.
This novel is set in a land reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, with a powerful repressive church and a persecuted community of stregas. As the plot rolls along, the reader learns where magic comes from, the rules by which it works, and the meaning of the Brilliant Death.
Bisexuality is a theme throughout the novel. Teo dreams of being free to act in the way that a man does in society, but does she really want to be male? There's a strong attraction between her and Cielo, whose gender is fluid.
This writer has a gift for prose, and her writing is a pleasure to read. The plot moves along at a fast pace, and I found myself drawn into the story. There are a number of plot twists and revelations, but I found the ending a let-down.
My major problem with this book is the poorly developed background. The world is well described but empty. I won't reveal how the magic works, but the system seems unworkable. And despite two characters having unplanned pregnancies, the protagonist carries on regardless of biology or the supposedly oppressive church and conservative society.
As for the bisexuality theme, the author is obviously pandering to a particular audience, but she shows little understanding of actual transsexualism. She is no Ursula Le Guin. Gender-bending here is just a plot gimmick.
Also note that the protagonist is effectively an assassin. Not exactly a likeable character.
Can you game it? Combat in this novel involves magic, and the magic here would be difficult to tie down to a game's magic system.
I have a split decision on this one. The novel is excellently written, well plotted, fun to read, but I felt the author did not handle the subject matter responsibly, and the background had large gaping holes.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .