In July of 1723, Pia Tolomei, a gorgeous, well-educated nineteen-year-old said to be descended from Cleopatra, is betrothed to a cruel man from an opposing contrada. After he is killed in an accident during the Palio, she is forcibly wed to his equally malicious albino brother. Shuttered away at his family’s palazzo, she can’t deny her growing affection for Riccardo, a horseman whose background is far less distinguished than hers.
While Pia makes for a suitable romantic heroine, another noblewoman provides a more intriguing and complex character study. Violante Beatrix of Bavaria, a barren Medici widow who had the misfortune to love her neglectful husband, governs Siena with benevolent dignity, but factions within the city – led by Pia’s nasty father-in-law – aim to depose her. Violante wants to put an end to the rivalries tearing Siena apart. In doing so, she awakens a new capability for political maneuvering. With Riccardo’s help, she investigates the secret plot against the Medici, but their unraveling of the scheme is marked by danger as well as missteps on both their parts (a realistic touch).
The parallel stories of these two daughters of the city, one native and one adopted, provide an intricate examination of women’s power and powerlessness in early 18th-century Italy. The villains are recognizably evil, and the coincidence-heavy denouement strains believability, but Fiorato deserves kudos for bringing to life an underutilized European setting. Most readers won’t be familiar with the royal families involved, which allows the historically-based subplots to unfold unpredictably.
The rich heritage of Siena is shown in all its facets, with scenes moving from formal staterooms and candle-lit cathedrals to dirty stables and macabre dungeons. The apricot silk gown on the cover reveals only part of the tale. Like the Palio itself, The Daughter of Siena is an exciting entertainment steeped in local color and years of cultural traditions.
The Daughter of Siena was published May 12th by St. Martin's Griffin at $14.99/$16.99 Canadian (trade pb, 382pp, includes author Q&A and reading group guide). John Murray will publish it in the UK in September.