Friday, 8 June 2012

Book Review: Daughter of Siena

Title: Daughter of Siena
Author: Marina Fiorato
Year Published: 2011
Genre: Historical fiction

Though it has a romance-y cover,
Daughter of Siena is actually a tale of intrigue. The setting is Italy, 1723, and the novel is about Sienese contrade (districts) plotting to overthrow their Medici duchess. Now perhaps I've been watching too much Game of Thrones, but I found all the scheming in this book to be rather underwhelming, to say the least.

The story centres on a horse race and three characters who try to thwart their enemies. The way it all pans out is rather contrived. Myths, symbolism and literary allusions are in abundant supply, beloved by author and character alike. Whilst poetic at times, it ultimately got a bit much for me, especially when
the characters themselves insisted on using such symbolism as part of their intrigues. But hey, if you like the thought of riddles actually being used in political schemes, then this could be the book for you.

This wouldn't have been so bad if there wasn't so much repetition in the book. For example, we are constantly reminded that Pia is beautiful and that black and white are ~meaningful colours~. Things are both told and shown; there were many instances where the narrator tells us something, only to explain it all again when another character mentions it indirectly. It was very frustrating.

At other times, I could do nothing but wait for the author to reveal the answers. Solutions to certain problems depended on knowledge about the city, so it wasn't like I could guess for myself what the baddies were up to. However, for someone who knows Siena, figuring this stuff out could end up being a really enjoyable part of the book, so yeah, good for you I guess. I don't know how much artistic license the author has taken with this though; for example, while most of the things she mentions about the Medici are based on real life, I do know that she has tweaked key facts for the sake of the story.

To add to my list of complaints is the intelligence of the schemers in this book. If you're going to play at politics and wax lyrical about how you're moving chess pieces, then I expect you to know what you're doing. You shouldn't need to “suddenly” think of such-and-such and you shouldn't be surprised at the possible direct consequences of your actions – rather, you should be clever enough to have thought of these things all along!

Alright, pedant alert for my last complaint, which is about fact-checking. At one point, a curtain is described as “dark red as arterial blood” (p129). Arterial blood is not dark red, it is bright red. Venous blood is dark red. I suppose arterial blood would be dark red if it's in the dark, but really, come on. One more thing that I found jarring was when the narrator casually draws an analogy involving “satellite planets around the sun” (p255). I am nitpicking here, and the scenario is possible, but I'm not sure if an uneducated horseman in 1723 would have been aware – let alone so accepting – of heliocentric theory, particularly if the Church was against it. I know these are minor things, but they really did jolt me out of the story.

Now, despite my complaints, I could not leave the book unfinished.

The writing has a rich, pillowy quality that makes it easy to read, and the book is littered through with many a pretty phrase. I have mentioned the (over)use of symbolism above, but I should also say that it was at times also rather pleasant and charming.

The non-intrigue aspects were also nicely done. The book was strongest when it dealt with the characters' personal issues and histories, rather than the plot. Pia's married life, the duchess' children and so on – these were all human and believable and interesting to read about. Also well written were the descriptions about horses and riding and the
Palio. These aspects took up a good portion of the book, yet sadly for me, they are overshadowed by the main plot because of what it was. If the intrigue had remained in the background, or if some of it had been left to the imagination, I would have really enjoyed this novel.

My ranting makes this book sound worse than it is. Think of it this way: it was engaging enough that it got under my skin and I was still enraptured enough to want to find out how it all ended. If you like a historical tale rich with lyric symbolism, you may very well like this book. If you're the cynical pedantic type, avoid this book lest ye froth at the mouth.

Alex's Rating: 3/5

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