The Daughter of Siena

Written by Marina Fiorato
Review by Nanette Donohue

According to legend, Sienese noblewoman Pia Tolomei is a descendant of Egypt’s Ptolemy line, her beauty inviting comparisons to Queen Cleopatra. As daughter of the Civetta contrada, she must be matched to an eligible man from another city ward, but she does not expect betrothal to Vicenzo Caprimulgo, son of the Eagle contrada, a family known for brutality. No matter, since the marriage will take place following the Palio, Siena’s famous horse race, which Vicenzo is expected to win.

During the race, Vicenzo is hit in the face with a horsewhip, and he is unseated. A horseman from the Tower contrada leaps from his horse to tend to Vicenzo. The mysterious horseman’s heroism and good looks captivate Pia. Although Vicenzo dies, the Eagle contrada wants to keep Pia in the family. She is quickly married to Vicenzo’s brother Nello, but her heart is with the horseman, Riccardo Bruni. Riccardo’s efforts to save Vicenzo earn him the respect of the Caprimulgo family, and Pia is often in situations where she is close to Riccardo –fanning the flames of Nello’s jealousy.

Pia and Riccardo soon realize that there is a plot afoot to overthrow Duchess Violante de’Medici, widow of Ferdinand de’Medici and one of Italy’s last Medici rulers. Despite her best efforts, the duchess’ rule has been uneven, and the leaders of several of the contrade want to seize the Sienese throne. Riccardo joins the duchess to thwart the plot.

Few readers will be familiar with 18th-century Sienese politics, but Fiorato gives us the necessary information without lengthy explication. The unusual setting and strong female characters are enjoyable; there’s plenty of suspense, both political and romantic. Fiorato’s understanding of Sienese history and politics is extensive, and the blend of action, political machination, and romance makes for a fast-paced read.