“It was the Palio tomorrow and the whole city was a ferment of excitement, a ferment that sometimes bubbled over into violence.” (p. 4) The year is 1723, and Siena is wildly obsessed with the upcoming Palio horse race. However, this year something sinister is brewing. Pia Tolomei, the beautiful daughter of the leader of the Owlet contrada (a ward of Siena), has just been betrothed to the cruel and violent Vicenzo Caprimulgo of the opposing Eagle contrada. What political intrigue is behind this strange marriage alliance? When Vicenzo dies in the Palio, Pia breathes a sigh of relief as she watches a mysterious horseman (Riccardo Bruni) try in vain to save Vicenzo.
But Pia is now doomed to marry her former fiancé’s albino brother, Nello, who is even more violent and cruel than his dead brother. The alliance between the Eagle and the Owlet contrada is part of a scheme to overthrow the Governess of Siena, Duchess Violante Beatrix de Medici. Pia is caught up in the scheme and, in the process, falls in love with Riccardo, the handsome and mysterious horseman with a secret past. Will the conspirators succeed in their plot? Will the lovers be separated forever?
Marina Fiorato’s newest novel, The Daughter of Siena, is a departure for this writer of Italian historical romances. Two of her previous novels – The Glassblower of Murano (2008) and The Botticelli Secret (2010) – had close links to the city of Venice. Fiorato sets The Daughter of Siena in the Tuscan city of Siena, which is described as a dangerous but extremely beautiful and intriguing place. It is divided into seventeen wards (contrade), and the citizens of Siena are loyal to their individual contrada above all else. The Palio horse race is run each year to determine which ward will win the banner and bring pride to their contrada: “No outsider could conceive of – let alone understand – what the Palio meant to the Sienese. That they ate it, breathed it, slept it.” (p. 11)
Fiorato’s background as a history graduate of Oxford University and the University of Venice serves her well in this novel. She is skilled at weaving together interesting historical and cultural details with romance and political intrigue. Details of the literature, religion, art, and architecture of the period give the text depth and substance. Readers will not only enjoy her fast-paced prose, but will also appreciate the addition of the final “Reading Group Gold” section which includes a conversation with the author, background information, reading group questions, and other recommended titles. Those who are fans of Marina Fiorato’s novels will not be disappointed by her newest novel. If you have never read any of Marina Fiorato’s novels, you are in for a treat with The Daughter of Siena.