May 07, 2017

The Scribe of Siena - Melodie Winawer

Touchstone Books, May 16, 2017.


Four Stars


Beatrice Trovato is a successful neurosurgeon living in New York. Orphaned at birth, Beatrice was raised by her older brother Benjamin, who named her after Dante’s muse. He insisted they honor their Italian heritage and learn to speak the language, which came in handy when Ben moved to Siena three years ago. Beatrice has never visited him there, and she is ready to change that – but before she can go, she receives the devastating news that Ben has died suddenly of a heart condition.


Since childhood, Beatrice has always had a powerful sense of empathy. It often connects her to her patients, and being able to feel what they feel has occasionally helped her to save lives. However, her empathic feelings are growing stronger, and beginning to impede her work. It seems like the perfect time to take a leave of absence and travel to Siena to deal with Ben’s estate, including the mysterious research he was involved with at the time of his death.


Benjamin was a microbiologist, but his interest in Italian history led him to research 14th century Siena and its fall from power during the aftermath of the plague. When Beatrice reads through Ben’s papers, she finds intriguing clues that point towards a conspiracy to decimate the city – Siena’s decline might have been a political powerplay, caused by the city’s enemies and their intentional spread of the plague.


Also included in Ben’s research are the journals of Medieval painter Gabriele Accorsi, who seems to be somehow involved in the plot against Siena. Beatrice immediately feels a connection to the artist, and when she uncovers one of his paintings on the walls of Ben’s home, she finds an image of her own face painted by Gabriele. Inexplicably, her empathic connection to Gabriele draws her back in time, and she arrives suddenly in the year 1347. She is still in Ben’s neighbourhood, but nothing else is familiar, and it’s not long before her modern sensibilities get her into trouble. Fortunately, Suor Umilta from Siena’s Ospedale della Scala is in search of a scribe, and Beatrice takes the job in exchange for a sense of security in this unknown world.


Through her work as scribe, Beatrice soon meets Gabriele – and their connection in person is just as strong as it was through his painting. However, happiness is fleeting as they are threatened not only by the impending plague but also by the ruthless Florentine men who wish to destroy Siena’s political power. The details of Medieval life are intriguing and thoroughly researched, and the collision of art and science (and artist and neurosurgeon) is fascinating.


The Scribe of Siena is immersive historical fiction, seen from the modern perspective of Beatrice, a strong, capable woman who is able to deal with extraordinary circumstances. Of course it is not always realistic, and the time travel aspect is mostly left unexplained, but it is well worth it to suspend disbelief and enjoy this clever, entertaining novel. It will inevitably be compared to Outlander because of the plot, but I also think it is very similar in tone and character. I’m curious to see whether this novel is also expanded into a series, as I think it would work very well.


I received this book from Touchstone Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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