“True courage is when a man quakes with fear in the face of death, yet still risks his life for something he cares about.” (4 stars)
Source- Personal Copy
Published September 1st 2011 by John Murray Publishers
Paperback edition- 387 pages
My experiences with reading Marina Fiorato’s historical fiction novels have admittedly been a bit hit and miss. I fell absolutely in love with the wonderfully atmospheric The Glassblower of Murano, disliked the potty-mouthed protagonist in The Botticelli Secret and was a bit indifferent towards The Venetian Contract when I picked it up in August last year. It was ok, but only ok. As a consequence of all that, I’d not even bothered trying Madonna of the Almonds and this book was off my radar completely too, until I chanced across it cheap in a supermarket a few weeks ago. The summary on the back made it sound like a pretty fascinating read.
Set in 1729 in Siena, Italy, the Palio, a world-famous white-knuckle horserace, is soon to be held: an event that promises pomp and pageantry, not to mention notoriety, for its winner. Each of Siena’s districts puts forth one of their young men to ride in the dangerous race to gain the honour of winning the banner for their wards, but this year more is at stake than ever before. Behind the beauty and honour of the event are corrupt towns fathers, determined to wrestle the control of the city from its governor, the Duchess Violante de Medici. We also have 19-year-old Pia, about to be forced into marrying one of the Palio’s riders and seemingly unable to escape from this cruel path chosen for her. As the Palio begins, the two women’s fates are inexplicably bound together forever by one man- the mysterious horseman Riccardo Bruni.
This was a very readable story of intrigue, politics and romance, set against a very agreeable backdrop of a glorious Tuscan city. You can almost feel the heat of the sun and sense the frantic excitement of the city mounting as the Palio draws closer. It is evident that the author’s research into the time period has been thoroughly extensive as the story is peppered with unusual facts and details about Siena itself that I found really interesting as a reader. They aren’t forced facts either and flow naturally within the narrative, never becoming dry or dull. The book does admittedly on occaision rely on the ‘tell’ rather than show device regarding some other situations, though as I sometimes needed reminding who was who, for me that was no bad thing- there are an awful lot of characters in this book! I’m glad the story was told via an omnipresent narrator as well, as it makes for a more colourful look at Siena and its surroundings which are allowed to take centre stage.
Character-wise, I found the main protagonists to have a lot of depth to them; Pia was bound by conventions of the time yet determined to try and change her fate somehow, Riccardo was scarred by his past experiences of war and the Duchess was forever trying to cope with the desperate losses of her past yet still try to live up to what was expected of her as a de Medici. My favourite character by far though was the pantomime-esque villain Gian Gastone de’ Medici: what an opportunity for any writer to explore! He was brilliantly depicted with all of the gluttony, sleaze and scandal surrounding him.
My only criticisms with this novel is that the vague mystery element alluded to regarding Riccardo’s background wasn’t actually that much of a mystery and was very easy to guess from the outset once a few titbits about other characters were divulged. I also wasn’t entirely convinced by the romance between him and Pia at first, either, though I grew to love it for its somewhat naïve and innocent qualities which is different to a lot of other books I have read about this period in history. That aside, I went into this book wanting to be purely entertained- and entertained I was, so the book certainly delivers on that front and for that I can discount any of the plot’s predictability.
Though I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as ‘The Glassblower…’ there was something inherently appealing and escapist about its evocative prose and elaborate descriptions of 18th Century Siena that made me very glad I picked it up. I appreciated its fairy-tale style ending too. Maybe I’ll consider giving Madonna of the Almonds a shot after all…
Other books by Marina Fiorato: