I have confessed on this blog to being conservative when it comes to my historical fiction: I prefer it realistic and serious, no fantasy, parody, alternative histories, etc. Then I came across a synopsis of The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer. The setting of the novel – medieval Siena – had me sit up straight, but time travel? I was not sure I would like that part. Then I thought, “but medieval Siena!” and before I knew it, it was on my bedside table.
The novel’s protagonist is Beatrice Trovato, a New York neurosurgeon whose medievalist brother spent his last years in Siena, researching the reasons for that city’s particularly severe experience with the plague of 1348. His untimely death leaves Beatrice in possession of his house in Siena and a cache of documents that may hold the key to that centuries-old mystery.
Among the documents Beatrice discovers is a journal written by painter Gabriele Accorsi who was working on a commission to paint the Assumption of the Virgin on a public building in medieval Siena. One day, when Beatrice enters the city’s Duomo and admires one of Accorsi’s paintings, she is hurled back in time and emerges in the same place in the year 1347.
As she learns to survive in an era of lax legal standards and rampant misogyny, not to mention the lack of plumbing, Beatrice finds herself smitten with the handsome painter. But the obstacles in their path include not just the six-hundred-year age gap, but also a conspiracy involving murder and revenge, all as the Black Death closes in on Europe.
With just her wits and the bits of knowledge gleaned from the research materials left behind in the 21st century, Beatrice must save herself and Gabriele from this dual threat. She must also solve the mystery of the plague’s disproportional impact on Siena, which a modern-day descendant of one of city’s most prominent families would prefer not come to light.
The Scribe of Siena is thoroughly enjoyable – fast-paced and evocative of the period – although the time travel part took some getting used to. But I have come to believe that this device, when employed skillfully, can help the reader experience the past more fully and intimately.
That is because a modern protagonist thrust into a non-modern setting must absorb his or her environment with greater curiosity and sensory acuity than someone born and bred in that era would. The inevitable differences – not just in fashion, cuisine, or technology but also in the cultural, social, and political spheres – become all the more relevant for how they affect that modern protagonist, who, after all, is just like us.
If you like medieval historical fiction, check out The Greenest Branch, a novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.