Review: The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer

Review: The Scribe of Siena by Melodie WinawerThe Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, time travel
Pages: 464
Published by Touchstone on May 16th 2017
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Equal parts transporting love story and gripping historical conspiracy—think The Girl with a Pearl Earring meets Outlander—debut author Melodie Winawer takes readers deep into medieval Italy, where the past and present blur and a twenty-first century woman will discover a plot to destroy Siena.
Accomplished 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.
The Scribe of Siena is the captivating story of a brilliant woman’s passionate affair with a time and a place that captures her in an impossibly romantic and dangerous trap—testing the strength of fate and the bonds of love.

My Review:

The Scribe of Siena is a time-travel whodunnit, or possibly howdunnit, wrapped inside a romance, and filled with plenty of scrumptious details on life in Medieval Italy, just before it all went pear-shaped.

Beatrice Trovato begins the story as a 21st century neurosurgeon, and ends it as a 14th century scribe. That’s quite a journey, and the beauty of the story is all in how she gets there.

We begin with Beatrice at her home in New York, just beginning to think that her career, while it has its compensations, is also consuming her life. She seems to be on 24/7, because even when she gets a rare day off, there’s always someone who desperately needs her life-saving skills.

Beatrice has a gift, not just for neurosurgery, but also for empathy. She occasionally just “knows” what’s wrong with a patient before the alarms start going off. She’s also more than a little too wrapped up in her work.

And then everything changes. Her beloved brother dies in Siena, Italy, of a heart attack. She’s always known that Ben had a congenital condition, but she also thought they’d have more time. Time she never seemed to make because of her demanding calling.

But Ben was in the middle of his own calling. He was a scholar who tracked the course of medieval epidemics. And he was looking at something potentially groundbreaking about the spread of the Black Death in Siena in the 1300s.

Now he’s dead, and Beatrice finally takes that often imagined trip to Siena to deal with his estate, and possibly pick up the pieces of his research.

The chase enthralls her. Beatrice, who almost followed Ben into historical research, revives long-abandoned skills, and finds herself caught up in the hunt. She falls in love, both with the city of Siena and with its storied, and possibly contentious, past.

And on the hunt for Ben’s elusive quarry, she finds the diary of a 14th century painter who lived at the time of Ben’s research, and may have left behind clues to the mystery. But more than anything else, Gabriele Accorsi imbued his diary with a sense of himself. A sense that Beatrice’s empathy grabs onto and uses to propel her back through time, to Gabriele’s side.

There she must make a life for herself, a lone woman in a medieval city, while she desperately hopes that she can find a way back to her own time before the quite literal oncoming Plague reaches Siena.

But instead of finding a way out, she finds a way of life that fulfills her as the 21st century never has. As she falls in love with both the man and the place, she fears that all is already lost. The Black Death is coming for Siena, and there is nothing she can do to stop it, or to protect those she loves.

Escape Rating A-: If you put Somewhere in Time, Outlander, The Girl With a Pearl Earring, Doomsday Book and Household Gods into a blender, you’d get something like The Scribe of Siena. You might also need to add a bit of Brother Cadfael or Crispin Guest for a bit of spice (and bodies).

Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium, and this book is no exception. That aspect of the story reminded me of Household Gods, where a commonplace object facilitates the time travel back. And also a bit of Somewhere in Time, where a common object of the modern era draws the protagonist forward again.

But the harrowing description of the time travel experience itself feels drawn straight from Outlander, as do the romantic aspects of the story. Beatrice, like Clare, is accidentally pulled back into the past and forced to make a way for herself against seemingly impossible odds. Where Clare marries to provide herself safety, Beatrice finds work as a scribe. It’s a career that both provides a reasonable living and causes trouble. Much as Clare does.

Beatrice also falls in love, but the relationship between Gabriele and Beatrice is very slow-building. She may be a 21st century woman, but he is a man of his times. He loves and respects her, and therefore wants things done properly, even if they must wait for all of the ceremonies to finally take place.

Ironically, even though both Doomsday Book and Scribe of Siena feature a heroine who goes back to the time of the Black Death, the way that the plague is handled is very different. In the Doomsday Book the heroine lives through the Plague in all its heartbreaking detail, and that’s where a lot of the empathy in that story comes from. In Scribe, the heroine escapes the Plague by accidentally sending herself back to the future where modern medicine can cure her. She returns to 14th century Siena in the winter after the Plague has temporarily passed, and is now immune. But she doesn’t experience the cataclysmic deaths first-hand.

The other piece of the puzzle in this story is the historical mystery, which is more of a historical conspiracy theory. The Black Death hit Siena especially hard, even for an epidemic which cut the population of Europe in half. The theory that Ben Trovato was attempting to prove was that political forces deliberately sent Plague carriers to Siena in an attempt to break the back of this ascendant city and let a different one rise in its place. It’s a fascinating idea, and Beatrice finds herself on the wrong side of powerful figures in both the 14th and 21st centuries as she strives to prove what happened. It gives us a glimpse of both 14th century power politics and 21st century academic politics, and while both are fascinating, neither are pretty.

In the end, whether readers will fall in love with this story rests with Beatrice. It is her perspective that we follow from the 21st century to the 14th, and it is through her eyes that we see this brave, old world. I felt for her journey, and in the end I believed I understood why she made the choices that she did. If you do too, you will love this book.

Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. FlynnThe Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, time travel
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Perennial on May 2nd 2017
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Perfect for fans of Jane Austen, this engrossing debut novel offers an unusual twist on the legacy of one of the world's most celebrated and beloved authors: two researchers from the future are sent back in time to meet Jane and recover a suspected unpublished novel.
London, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters—a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.
Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common besides the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.
But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the continuous convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile the woman she is with the proper lady nineteenth-century society expects her to be. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history intact and exactly as they found it…however heartbreaking that may prove.
 
 

My Review:

It’s a very big butterfly, and it is impossible to keep it from flapping its wings for an entire year.

The problem with time travel is that it is incredibly difficult to spend any time at all in the past and not change something – possibly even something significant. But that’s the dilemma that faces researchers Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane. Their job, which they have chosen to accept, is to go back to the England of 1815 and quite seriously meddle with the life of Jane Austen – but leave no trace of their meddling.

This is truly an impossible mission. And so it proves. But the story isn’t in what Rachel and Liam change about Jane Austen, it’s what changes about themselves in the process.

Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium. In this case, it’s a scientific process that sends them back to a specific place and time, armed with the knowledge (and the money) that it is hoped are necessary to inveigle their way into Jane Austen’s circle, her life, and wherever she stashed her unpublished manuscript. Oh, and by the way, discover what mysterious ailment killed her.

That last bit is Rachel’s job. In her own time (possibly the late 21st or early 22nd century), Rachel is a doctor. But in 1815, all she can be is Liam’s spinster sister, while he pretends to be the doctor. Lucky for both of them if not for Jane, medicine was not all that far advanced. As a well educated man, with a little bit of coaching from Rachel, Liam can fake it. And he does. While Liam is faking being a well-to-do doctor and man about town, Rachel has the much harder task of pretending to be a woman of the early 19th century, shy, retiring, unambitious and unintelligent. She is not very good at it, and wonders just how smart women managed not to go completely insane.

In spite of many, many roadblocks, both expected and otherwise, Rachel and Liam do manage to accomplish their task. Mostly. Only to discover that it wasn’t quite what they thought it was. And now that they are back in their own time, neither are they.

Escape Rating A-: For anyone who enjoys time travel stories, this one is an absolute treat. It will also remind some readers of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog. There is a bit of that sense of madcap adventure, but not too much, as well as the difficulty of determining what about the past can be meddled with and what can’t. At the same time, the stakes don’t feel too high, or the situation too dire, as it was in Willis’ Doomsday Book.

In some ways, the task before Rachel and Liam seems like a fool’s errand, or an absolutely impossibly unresolvable conflict. To get close enough to the somewhat reclusive Jane Austen to have access to a document she kept well-hidden without affecting the lives of anyone around her is improbable from the outset. It seems impossible to get that close and not change something, and also not to leave evidence of themselves somewhere in the Austen family correspondence.

It is also beyond imagining to live an entire year of one’s life in the circumstances that Rachel and Liam insert themselves into without their coming out of it changed, whether the world they left behind (ahead?) changes or not. And so it proves. And that’s a big part of what I can’t stop thinking about.

The world is what the world is because of what has happened before we came into it. While we may discover documentation of history that we did not previously know, the moving finger has already writ that history, and the effects of whatever happened have already been built into our world. If there are effects of discovering the formerly hidden information (the recent discovery of Richard III’s body comes to mind) that discovery doesn’t change anything written or believed or assumed about Richard III in the past. Shakespeare still used him as the epitome of evil. Future biographies will be affected, but past ones won’t re-write themselves.

That’s not the case in Rachel and Liam’s world. When the past changes, everything between then and their now re-writes itself. In that world, history is a shared delusion, just like paper money. It is so because we all believe it is so, and not because the piece of paper has an intrinsic value. In their world, history changes and everything adapts around it. That particular aspect reminds me more of The Eyre Affair than time-travel. Change the source and everything that derives from the source shifts to match – no matter how disruptive those shifts might be.

There’s also an attitude that it is possible to change the past and know, more or less, what the effects will be. I end up wondering about that. While there are some cases in their history that seem like there’s nowhere to go but up, how can one be certain? One of the short stories in John Scalzi’s Miniatures deals with this theme, as does Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman, a book I read long ago and have never been able to forget.

One part of the story that seems all-too-real and heartbreaking concerns the relationship between Rachel and Liam and the changes wrought both to themselves and to their past by their actions in 1815. We are the sum total of our experiences. The child, and everything that happens to that child, makes the man, or the woman. But they go back in time and experience a year together that does not happen for anyone else. They are both forced to play a part, and of necessity become some of that part in order to survive. At the same time, they are aware, and they are the only people aware, of the nature and the sheer magnitude of the lies that they are living.

But when they come back, the world they return to is not the same. They may be the sum total of their experiences, but the world they return to produced different versions of them than the ones they actually are. How does a person reconcile that? Is it better to remember, or is it better to conform and be, as a consequence, comfortable? And how does one decide which reality to accept, and which to reject?

This is the question that continues to haunt me, long after I closed the final page.

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi TaylorJust One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St. Mary’s, #1) by Jodi Taylor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, time travel
Series: Chronicles of St. Mary's #1
Pages: 348
Published by Night Shade Books on June 7th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The first book in the bestselling British madcap time-travelling series, served with a dash of wit that seems to be everyone’s cup of tea.
“History is just one damned thing after another.” —Arnold Toynbee
Behind the seemingly innocuous facade of St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, a different kind of academic work is taking place. Just don’t call it “time travel”—these historians “investigate major historical events in contemporary time.” And they aren’t your harmless eccentrics either; a more accurate description, as they ricochet around history, might be unintentional disaster-magnets.
The first thing you learn on the job at St. Mary’s is that one wrong move and history will fight back—sometimes in particularly nasty ways. But, as new recruit Madeleine Maxwell soon discovers, it’s not only history they’re often fighting.
The Chronicles of St. Mary’s tells the chaotic adventures of Max and her compatriots—Director Bairstow, Leon “Chief” Farrell, Mr. Markham, and many more—as they travel through time, saving St. Mary’s (too often by the very seat of their pants) and thwarting time-travelling terrorists, all the while leaving plenty of time for tea.
From eleventh-century London to World War I, from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria, one thing is for sure: wherever the historians at St. Mary’s go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake.

My Review:

The story opens with a quote attributed to the great historian Arnold Toynbee, that “History is just one damned thing after another…” What I find more interesting after having finished the book is that when Toynbee made that famous statement, he was actually quoting someone else, another historian named Elbert Hubbard.

In the context of the story in Just One Damned Thing After Another, there’s a quote from Hubbard that is possibly even more apropos, “Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.” Our protagonist in this story makes a point of using up her five minute quotient of foolishness every single day, down to the second. But she gets the job done – even when she doesn’t know quite what the job is until it’s chasing after her.

St. Mary’s is one of those places that doesn’t exist, but should. Maybe not its time traveling function, but at least its propensity for insanity and organized disorganized chaos. It feels a bit like it ought to be a graduate school for Brakebills from Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy. There is that much insanity, that much chaos, and definitely that much threat to life and limb. Also the inability to talk about it with anyone after getting ejected.

We see everything and everyone through the eyes of one character, Madeleine Maxwell, better known as Max. The book begins with Max’ interview and introduction to St. Mary’s, and then follows her somewhat madcap career through training and early missions. I say somewhat madcap not because Max is occasionally serious but because madcap appears to be the norm for St. Mary’s. The staid and stolid either do not make it through the rigorous training in thinking on your feet and lying through your teeth, or they don’t survive their first missions.

And where do those missions go? St. Mary’s historians take trips back in time, using marvelous time travel pods. Kind of like TARDISes but with functioning chameleon circuits and limited to Earth’s past. However, unlike the frequently interfering Time Lord, the historians of St. Mary’s observe a rigorous version of Starfleet’s Prime Directive. They do not interfere, they only watch and record. Because history will defend herself vigorously and with extreme prejudice if a St. Mary’s historian even thinks of interfering with history.

Max is generally a disaster magnet of eye-watering and bowel-loosening propensity at the best of times, but when she and her partner get the mission to go back and observe the dinosaurs, it seems like the absolutely coolest thing ever. Until it all goes terribly, horribly, wrong.

Escape Rating A+: When I picked this up, I was expecting it to be something like The Invisible Library, which was marvelous in its own way. But not in the same way. The Chronicles of St. Mary’s do not dip their toes into the multiverse. Instead, their remit is the long and frequently bloody history of our very own Earth. They have all of the past to play in, as long as they restrict themselves to observation and recording. That still gives them a lot of possibilities, especially with an allied university that would really like someone to go back and resolve some of history’s unanswered questions.

So instead of The Invisible Library, this series’ godparents are probably Connie Willis’ time travel stories, especially Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog (both awesome) and Kage Baker’s fantastic series about The Company, beginning with In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote.

In a bit of synchronicity, the St. Mary’s folks and The Company go back in time to rescue the same bit of history. It made me wonder if they just missed each other in the chaos and confusion that they were both taking advantage of. It could have happened…

Also similar to The Company, the historians of St. Mary’s are not the only people playing with time travel. If St. Mary’s represents the good guys, there are also bad guys. St. Mary’s interest is in preserving history. Their opposite numbers want to profit from it, and don’t care if they rip the timeline to shreds in order to do so. After all, they can just escape back into history and let the future unravel itself.

There is a lot going on in this story, and it is one of those wild ride type of stories that never lets up for a minute. While first-person-singular doesn’t always work, in this case it’s brilliant. Max and St. Mary’s deal with so much ambient chaos that viewing it all through the eyes of one single person pulls the reader into the world and into the story. There is so much going on that any kind of omniscience would be too much.

symphony of echoes by jodi taylorWhile Toynbee, quoting Hubbard, said that “History is just one damned thing after another”, there’s a not dissimilar quote from Oscar Wilde that also sums up this book. Wilde said that, “”Life is one fool thing after another where as love is two fool things after each other.”

The events in Just One Damned Thing After Another are indeed also one fool thing after another. And there certainly are two fool things after each other. This story is one that will keep you thinking and smiling long after you turn the last page. It certainly did me, so I’m very happy to say that The Chronicles of St. Mary’s continue with A Symphony of Echoes.