Off the Beaten Shelf

News & Reviews from the
York County Public Library

View All Posts

Aug 01

Review: The Scribe of Siena

Posted on August 1, 2017 at 6:08 PM by Elizabeth Land

Time travel books have always been popular, but only recently have there been a number of historical fiction novels that include the time travel twist. Melodie Winawer's The Scribe of Siena is an excellent example of the burgeoning genre that is well worth a place on your summer reading list.

Publisher's Summary

The Scribe of SienaAccomplished 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-year-old 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.


Melodie Winawer debuts with a beautifully written historical fiction that follows a neurosurgeon as she tries to pick up the pieces after her brother's untimely death in present-day Siena, Italy. As she attempts to finish his research into the Black Plague's effect on the medieval city, she stumbles upon a painting with her likeness that draws her back to the 1300's less than a year before the sickness arrives. Relying on her general knowledge of the Italian language and facts from her brother's research, she attempts to survive long enough to return to the present, even as she begins to feel more at home in the past.

Winawer's debut is a speedy read that is still packed with descriptions that allow the reader to experience beauty of both present-day and Medieval Italy. Time travel narratives always feature fish-out-of-water scenarios, but Winawer uses these tropes to reveal how wonderful it can be to discover that where you end up can sometimes be where you belonged all along. We recommend this title for those who long to stumble into the past themselves, or for those who have an interest in Medieval Italy and the way people lived back then.

More recommendations

Readers will finish The Scribe of Siena hungry for more from Melodie Winawer. But there are other authors whose work is similar, and might fill the void until Winawer pens a new novel:

  • Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon—Scottish Highlands, 1945. Claire Randall, a former British combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach-an "outlander"-in a Scotland torn by war and raiding clans in the year of Our Lord...1743. This is for those who want an immersive and long series that features a surprise time traveler.
  • The Fortune TellerThe Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack—Semele Cavnow appraises antiquities for an exclusive Manhattan auction house, specializing in deciphering ancient texts. And when she discovers a manuscript written in the time of Cleopatra, she knows it will be the find of her career. Its author tells the story of a priceless tarot deck, now lost to history, but as Semele delves further she realizes the manuscript is more than it seems: The manuscript holds the key to a two-thousand-year-old secret, a secret someone will do anything to possess.
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier—In seventeenth-century Delft, there's a strict social order—rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, master and servant—and all know their place. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of the painter Johannes Vermeer, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry, and the care of his six children. She even feels able to handle his shrewd mother-in-law; his restless, sensual wife; and their jealous servant. What no one expects is that Griet's quiet manner, quick perceptions, and fascination with her master's paintings will draw her inexorably into his world. Their growing intimacy sparks whispers; and when Vermeer paints her wearing his wife's pearl earrings, the gossip escalates into a full-blown scandal that irrevocably changes Griet's life. For fans of art who want a straight-forward historical fiction, without all the pesky time travel.
  • The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett—Hay-on-Wye, 1995. Peter Byerly isn't sure what drew him into this particular bookshop. Nine months earlier, the death of his beloved wife, Amanda, had left him shattered. The young antiquarian bookseller is shocked when upon opening an eighteenth-century study of Shakespeare forgeries, a portrait of Amanda tumbles out of its pages. Peter becomes obsessed with learning the picture's origins. As he follows the trail back first to the Victorian era and then to Shakespeare's time, Peter communes with Amanda's spirit, learns the truth about his own past, and discovers a book that might definitively prove Shakespeare was, indeed, the author of all his plays. For those who like a literary and historical mystery but could do without the time travel.

To request a copy of any of these titles, visit our online catalog.