The Scribe of Siena

Written by Melodie Winawer
Review by Kristen McQuinn

In her debut novel, Winawer scratches one of my literary itches: plague! There is rather a shortage of decent novels about the Black Death, in my opinion. Admittedly, I have a morbid fascination with it, but I am still selective in what I read and expect that to be well-written and well-researched. This novel hit most of my requirements.

The novel opens in modern New York where Beatrice Trovato, a neurosurgeon, has recently learned that her brother, a medieval scholar based in Siena, has unexpectedly died and left his home and research to her. She travels to Siena and discovers that he was on the trail of an academic breakthrough which would explain why medieval Siena was hit so hard by the plague and failed to recover. During the course of following her brother’s academic investigation, Beatrice has a timeslip and falls into medieval Siena, à la Outlander, in 1347, just before the bubonic plague struck; she has to rely on her knowledge of the future to survive. Along the way, Beatrice is astonished to realize not only the truth about her brother’s research, but also that she is becoming more at home in the past than in the future.

While this novel doesn’t incorporate the modern versus medieval elements quite as smoothly as some other timeslip novels, and it occasionally requires greater than the usual suspension of disbelief, it was still one of the most fun books I’ve read in a long time. It has quite a lot of great medical knowledge woven in, as well as a surprising amount of art history and information about scribes and papermaking. All in all, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.