The Daughter of Siena is set in 18th century Italy against the backdrop of the famous Palio horse race held in the city of Siena twice a year. Siena is in political turmoil, having been ceded to the House of Medici, headed by Grand Duke Cosimo III, who appoints his widowed daughter-in-law, Violante Beatrix, as governor.
In the Middle Ages, Siena was divided into a series of contrade or divisions, governed by the oldest aristocratic families who were represented by an animal or mascot. These families originally administered their own divisions and rivalries with neighbouring contrade were intensified during the competitive horse races.
Fiorato wisely keeps the numbers of the contrade down to those participating in the horse race and the nine most prominent who are plotting to overthrow the Medici rule, but it still gets a bit confusing trying to sort out who belongs where. The main attention is on Riccardo Bruni, a lowborn farrier from the Torre (Tower) contrade, who comes to the attention of Violante Beatrix when he tries to save the life of Vincenzo Caprimulgi of the Aquila (Eagle) contrade who is fatally injured during the horse race.
Riccardo’s actions also bring him to the attention of Vicenzo’s father, Faustino, head of the Eagle contrade and one of the nine conspiring against the duchess. Faustino has plans to use Riccardo against the duchess and the young farrier is soon forced into making a decision about where his loyalties lie. Things are further complicated when Riccardo falls in love with Pia who is trapped in an unhappy marriage with Faustino’s youngest son, Nello.
I’m assuming since the novel is entitled The Daughter of Siena that Pia is supposed to be the main protagonist, however she isn’t really given much to do. At the start of the story, her father announces plans for her to marry Vincenzo Caprimulgi, in a move that shocks the Civetta (Owl) contrade, as marriages are generally kept within the contrade. Vincenzo is a cruel man and Pia’s prayers for deliverance are answered when Vincenzo is killed in the horse race before they are married. However, Pia’s father, determined to form an alliance with the Eagles, forces his daughter to marry Vincenzo’s albino brother, Nello, who is even more cruel.
When Riccardo is engaged to teach Pia how to ride, the young couple soon fall in love, and Pia passes on what information she can to help Riccardo and the duchess. However, neither are aware they are being used as pawns by Faustino and their growing love will have severe consequences for Pia. The political machinations are quite complicated so you really need to pay attention to what is going on otherwise it is easy to lose the threads of the plot. The second horse race also becomes important to each side but I’m afraid the preparations and the plan to rig the betting system bored me somewhat.
Fiorato is very skilled at interweaving real historical characters, such as Violante Beatrix and her brother-in-law, Gian Gastone, into a fictional story. While it is somewhat necessary for liberties to be taken with their characters, Fiorato keeps everything within the realms of believability while teasing her readers with hints of what might have been. Unfortunately, it is the fictional characters who are somewhat lacking and I really failed to warm up to Pia who could have easily been taken out of the book entirely.
The real star of the show is definitely the city of Siena which Fiorato magically brings to life with her detailed descriptions of the old streets and the colourful culture. Despite my lack of interest in the horse race, Fiorato does a great job of keeping the suspense and danger to the forefront, and any ambivalence I felt was purely down to me and not anything lacking in the writing.