Book review: The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer

From the official blurb:

“Accomplished neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato knows that her deep empathy for her patients is starting to impede her work. So when her beloved brother passes away, she welcomes the unexpected trip to the Tuscan city of Siena to resolve his estate, even as she wrestles with grief. But as she delves deeper into her brother’s affairs, she discovers intrigue she never imagined—a 700-yeEnjoy an enchanting debut by one of the new historical fiction writers on the conspiracy to decimate the city.

After uncovering the journal and paintings of Gabriele Accorsi, the fourteenth-century artist at the heart of the plot, Beatrice finds a startling image of her own face and is suddenly transported to the year 1347. She awakens in a Siena unfamiliar to her, one that will soon be hit by the Plague.

Yet when Beatrice meets Accorsi, something unexpected happens: she falls in love—not only with Gabriele, but also with the beauty and cadence of medieval life. As the Plague and the ruthless hands behind its trajectory threaten not only her survival but also Siena’s very existence, Beatrice must decide in which century she belongs”.


I don’t read time-travel novels that often; I’ll even confess one shameful secret to you: I didn’t like the Outlander. But The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer’s recent debut, was truly something new for me. While there was a pleasant love plot, the greatest passion in the story was the one heroine feels for history and art; and that was a very welcomed change.

I won’t talk about the plot itself too much, if only for the fear of revealing too much and spoiling the pleasure. I’ll just mention, that there is room for international conspiracies (well, sort of international – Florence and Siena were separate city-states back then!), exotic trade and poignant familial relationships alike. But, most of all, I’ll applaud the author for discarding the much-used and oft-abused Dark Ages trope. Melodie Winawer has really done a good job of gentle myth-busting, pertaining to various aspects of medieval life – from hygiene (the abundance of public bathhouses) to the treatment of women (the characters include a respected midwife, a capable merchant widow and, of course, the eponymous scribe).

I’ve also really enjoyed the loving, lingering descriptions of medieval art, be it an Ascension fresco blooming with gold on the hospital façade, illuminated manuscripts in the Sienese library, or a city cathedral flooded with multicolored light through the new stained glass.

Moreover, while I’ve recently reviewed plenty of historical novels about Italy (like here, here or here), The Scribe of Siena’s setting still strikes me as original – both in terms of the era (14th century, as opposed to the antiquity or the Renaissance) and the place (Siena, as opposed to the magnificent triumvirate of Rome, Florence and Venice). All in all, this is an enchanting debut by one of the new historical fiction writers on the scene.

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