The Scribe of Siena

Unknown-3Melodie Winawer creates a compelling adventure with time travel back to medieval Italy in The Scribe of Siena – history, romance and art mingle with an historic mystery.

Beatrice, a neurosurgeon from New York City inherits a thirteenth century mansion when her brother, a medieval scholar dies suddenly in Siena, Italy.  Soon after she arrives to settle her brother’s estate,  she discovers the journal of the fourteenth century artist, Gabriel Accorsi in her brother’s research paper, and finds her own face in one of his paintings.  Suddenly, she is mysteriously transported to Siena in the year 1347, months before the Bubonic Plague is about to eradicate the city.

Yes, there is romance; yes, the heroine knows more than she can tell; and yes, the parallel between worlds is conveniently accommodated with much of the fourteenth’s century’s inconveniences sublimated.  Yet, despite the trite plot underpinnings, Winawer manages to create a captivating tale full of well-researched historical trappings.  Most of the story takes place in fourteenth century Italy when medieval life was primitive, with Church and art providing respite from the misery of everyday life.  Italian paintings from the Middle Ages were darkly mystical, and Winawer uses this artistic mysticism as the conduit between the modern world and a mysterious 700 year old conspiracy to destroy the city of Siena.  Political intrigue with the Medici family offers a sinister subplot, threatening Accorsi’s life as well as the possible extinction of Siena’s population.

When Beatrice meets Accorsi, of course she falls in love, but her new medieval life also offers her a chance to reinvent herself as she works as the city’s scribe, creating contracts, recording lists, even writing a copy of Dante on parchment.  Winawer creates a strong character – a brilliant neurosurgeon clearly in charge of herself but also with empathy for her patients – who manages to maneuver the unexpected difficulties of her new environment.   Although Beatrice does conveniently revisit the present in time to be saved from the Plague by modern antibiotics, clearly her heart is in the fourteenth century where she eventually finds a new life.

If you are missing the swashbuckling adventure and time travel back to another century of Diane Gabalon (Outlander) or Deborah Harness (Discovery of Witches), try Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena.  

Related Review:   Discovery of Witches

 

 

Shadow of Night

Modern witch Diana Bishop and her vampire lover, Matthew Clairmont, are back in Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night. Diana and Matthew, scientific creatures who research DNA and alchemy in the new world, time travel back to merry Old England’s Elizabethan Age to hone Diana’s witching skills and look for the elusive book – Ashmole 782 – that started the tale.

Harkness cleverly manages the time differential with threads weaving through the magic, and delivers as much adventure, mystery, romance – and fun – as she did in A Discovery of Witches, her first book in this All Souls trilogy. If you are a fan of sixteenth century English literature, you will marvel at the literary luminaries that Diana meets – Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” will never be the same.

As a recognized scholar and continuing student of Elizabethan London, Harkness adds details that create the clothing, manners, and rivalries of the Old World better than any Renaissance fair. Scientific inquiry is a major catalyst in the plot, and Harkness sets the record straight on who invented the telescope, sending me to google Galileo and Thomas Harriot.

Like the first book, this one is long and complicated with plot twists and surprises.

Read A Discovery of Witches first, if you can – check out my review here

It’s going to be a long wait until the third book’s final installment, but Hollywood is already planning the movies.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

What if you could go back in time, what would you change?   Stephen King adds clever twists to the well-worn theme of time travel in 11/22/63 – but it takes a long time to get to the end – almost 900 pages.

Jake Epping, a burned out thirty-five year old English teacher in Maine, finds a portal to the past in the back of a diner scheduled to be demolished and replaced by an L.L. Bean, and decides to change history – specifically the day JFK was shot.  But no matter how long he stays in this parallel world, the portal always delivers him back to the same place and time he left, September 9, 1958.  The caveat: each visit rewinds when he goes through the portal again, so whenever he time travels, everything he did during his last visit is erased; his next trip is always the first time.  King warns “the past doesn’t want to be changed.

Stephen King’s talent for drawing a seemingly normal scene, with strange characters that are just a little off, and a plot that continues to change and surprise – sometimes terrifyingly – works well with the possibility that the world could be a better place, if only some painful history could be erased.  Although this is Stephen King, don’t expect the horrors along with the casual innuendo –  this tale is full of suspense and history and as strange as he usually writes, but not full of the usual terror.

Jake’s appreciation of the food and the life style of the era will have you yearning for a root bear and real cream in your coffee.

“…the air smelled incredibly sweet…Food tasted good; milk was delivered directly to your door.  After a period of withdrawal from my computer, {I realized} just how addicted …I’d become, spending hours reading stupid email attachments and visiting websites…”

While King plays with the familiar history, he adds the humanity that keeps the story suspenseful.  On a trial run to change the local janitor’s past, Jake tests his capabilities, armed with the knowledge of the brutality that is about to happen in the janitor’s past.  When he returns to the diner, he finds he has changed history but the “butterfly effect” created consequences.

Jake’s investigation follows Lee Harvey Oswald, but Jake’s love affair in the past with a beautiful dark-haired librarian with her own secrets, and his increased connection to people and places as they morph into an eerie combination of both worlds, will keep you reading.

How does it turn out?  Does he make a difference – change history?  Could he return to 1958, now changed with the new life he’s invented?  Throughout, time is the enemy and the controller; in the end, King has not only decided the mystery behind the assassination (as he invents it), but also offers a thoughtful treatise on life, love, and relativity.  I won’t spoil the journey by telling you the details, but the ending is both romantic and jarring.

At times, the descriptions and narrative are overdone, and King could have told the story in a shorter volume.  The book seemed to go on and on, but I got to a point of no return and could not stop; the key action is riveting and makes up for some of King’s meandering.  Though not a fan of Stephen King, I ploughed through this thick tome, and was not disappointed – suspenseful and provocative – with a good story and even better hypothesis on fate and time.

Don’t we all secretly know…{the world} is a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life…a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”