The newest novel by Marina Fiorato is set in 18th century Siena and tells the story of Pia, a young lady from the Civetta contrada (the Owlet district) who is forced into marriage with Vicenzo from the Aquila contrada (the Eagle district). When Vicenzo is killed in the Palio, her betrothal changes to her deceased fincancés younger brother Nello. Trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage, Pia falls in love with Riccardo, the rider who attempt to save Vincenzo’s life in the Palio and who makes Nello extremely jealous when he spoke to Pia. Riccardo is hired by Nello’s father to teach Pia how to ride, but with ulterior motives. It is his hope that Riccardo will not have time to train his new horse for the upcoming Palio and to make Nello even more jealous, to serve as motivation to win the Palio, not only for his contrada but also to prove that he deserves a wife as beautiful as Pia. Throughout the story of the forbidden lovers, there is another plot going on in the city of Siena to overthrow the governess Violante de Medici.
This is the second novel that I have read by Fiorato and I have to say my expectations for this novel were extremely high and unfortunately the novel did not live up to my expectations. Honestly, it took me a while to get into this book; I even reached a point where I was questioning whether to continue reading. I decided to continue with the book and it was around the 110 page mark when I finally got into the story and it started to pick up. While Fiorato did a great job in recreating 18th century Siena and the excitement and danger of the Palio including the rivalries between the contradas, I found that there were some critical flaws. First, the characters were either good or bad . . . and nothing really in the middle. The good were very good and the bad were very bad. Secondly, the two main protagonists Pia and Riccardo were described as being extremely beautiful (of course!) and intelligent (even though Riccardo was illiterate) whereas the antagonist Nello is described as ugly (from the description I presumed that he was an Albino, who attempts to disguise this by dying his hair black) and not very intelligent. Finally, I would have appreciated more of a focus on the secret plot in Siena and less on the budding romance between Pia and Riccardo. The one character who really saved this novel for me was young Zebra the orphan messenger boy.