The story takes place from 1825 to 1830, when Orsinia is ruled by the Austrian empire. The hero is Itale Sorde, the son of the owner of an estate on a lake called Malafrena in a valley of the same name. Itale leaves the estate, against his father's will, to engage in nationalistic and revolutionary politics in the capital.
In many ways, Malafrena reads like a nineteenth-century novel, with its many detailed characters, its political movement and love-story subplots, its lack of the supernatural, and its settings that range from the mansions of the aristocracy to slums and prisons.
When the fiery, idealistic Itale Sorde, son and heir to an estate owner in the beautiful Malafrena valley, is sent away to school, he quickly falls under the sway of an underground revolutionary movement sworn to destroy Austria's domination of Orsinia.
Itale is prepared to die for his country's independence and refuses to return home to the complacent life of a wealthy landowner.
But Itale pays a bitter price for his convictions: having already given up the secure life of Malafrena, the respect of his father, and perhaps the love of his childhood sweetheart, he is jailed by the Austrian secret police.
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