The Daughter of Siena
by Marina Fiorato
Pia Tolomei is the most beautiful woman in Siena. Like her legendary ancestor, Cleopatra of the Ptolemy dynasty, she's also incredibly clever. All her virtues and good breeding, however, can't protect her from a disastrous marriage to a member of a rival contrada, or city district. Each year the contradas compete in a dangerous horse race, the Palio, a high stakes game on which fortunes are made and lost. When her husband-to-be is killed while racing in the Palio, only one racer stops to try and save him. This young man, Riccardo Bruni, steals Pia's heart, but she is hastily married off to another member of her dead fiance's family. Her new home is a hotbed of intrigue, and Pia and Riccardo are thrust into the thick of it. With the ruling Duchess of Siena, Violante de Medici, they must untangle a web of treachery before the next Palio, or the city will certainly fall.
The rich history and beauty of Siena is vividly described, and the excitement and danger of the Palio brought to life. I really enjoyed learning about the different contrade/city wards of Siena. The rivalries between the various factions are so intense! At first, I thought loyalty to one's contrada would be similar to a fondness for a sports team...but these guys make Oakland Raiders' fans look like peaceful, flower-bearing hippies. The contrada is a way of life; someone like Pia, born into the Owlet contrada, would live in her district, worship in a separate church, marry someone from an allied contrada.
Speaking of Pia, did I mention that she's beautiful and clever and virtuous? I probably should, since I swear this is stated in every chapter at least once. In fact, she's not only beautiful – she's the most beautiful woman in Siena. She's not only noble – she's descended from Cleopatra. Her life closely parallels that of Pia de' Tolomei, a character from Dante's Purgatory. The forbidden romance she shares with Riccardo Bruni parallels Le Morte d'Arthur. The book is so busy telling us what Pia is (gorgeous, intelligent, etc) and the heroines she recalls from classic literature that it never gives her a chance to shine. Pia never develops as a character, and that was a real disappointment.
The bad guys aren't nuanced at all – they're so cruel and awful and ugly that you know they'll get their comeuppance by the end of the story. Riccardo is so handsome, and Pia is so beautiful, and together they're so good and virtuous that you know they'll be together by the end of the story. I'd call the story a bodice ripper, but the main character remains a virgin 'til the very end, and can you even have a chaste bodice ripper? The plot twists are extremely formulaic and predictable. It's not unlike watching a melodramatic daytime soap opera.
The breathtaking setting and deep history of Siena kept the book interesting, but in the end it wasn't enough to elevate The Daughter of Siena to greatness or even make it memorable. Still, if you're ever planning to visit Siena during the time of the Palio, it would be a great read to help get you into the mood.
3 out of 5 stars