Pros: Clever dialogue, unusual setting, and a hero beset by problems.
Cons: The villain is a bit too obvious here.
It seems that I can no more resist reading a book set during the Roman Empire than I can getting wet out in the rain. They just seem to suck me right in, and usually, they tend to be not too bad. On the other hand, when they are bad, they're pretty awful, so it was with some mixed feelings that I picked up Ruth Downie's Medicus.
Medicus is set in the second century CE, in the distant hinterlands of Britannia, where Rome is still working on assimilating the local tribes of Celts into the Roman way of thinking and behaving. Gaius Petreius Ruso, a surgeon with quite a bit of army experience behind him, has come to the town of Deva, equally backward and uncouth as the rest of Britannia to join the Twentieth Legion. He's been struggling with a downturn in finances and luck, what with his wife divorcing him, and the family farm back in Gaul struggling to stay afloat. Britannia is one of the few places left where a fortune might be made, or at least a bit more money, and Ruso had been hoping for a comfortable posting.
Now things have gotten worse. Ruso was hoping that things would be a bit better in Deva, but it seems that the place is only half-built, understaffed in the hospital, his quarters shared with a likeable, but very scattered fellow doctor named Valens, and the whole damn place crawling with mice and the like. As well as countless dogs. It's pretty bleak.
And right away, things start to go badly. A woman's corpse has been found in the river. She is naked, her body badly abused, and her once vivid red hair shorn off. No one has come forward to claim the body, and to complicate matters, Ruso is working extra hours, leaving him cranky and sleep deprived. In the midst of all this, he rescues a pretty native slave from a brutal master, and purchases her on the spot. Tilla, as she comes to be called, neither speaks or seems to even want to get well. And Ruso, by bringing her into the local hospital, finds himself running afoul of the parsiminous, noxious, bean-counting administrator, Priscus. It's not exactly a good way to start.
To complicate things, turns out that the dead woman is one of the 'working girls' from a local bar/brothel. And here it starts to get complicated, for she's not the only one who is turning up dead -- another girl had vanished about the same time, without leaving a trace. Ruso, deciding to find out what is really going on, and perhaps learn a bit more about his slave, Tilla, begins to try to solve the mystery, but it seems that no one wants the truth to come out...
I really enjoyed this one. True, mystery series set in ancient Rome are fairly common, with ones already being written by Lindsay Davies, Steven Saylor and John Maddox Roberts. All of them are good, with plenty of historical details, and not too many anachronisms or modern attitudes to litter up the scene. Too, I liked how the author, Ruth Downie, moved the setting out of Rome, and to the backwaters of Britannia, and then have it turn out to be a rundown, frontier town.
Of the characters, they're all painted with a vivid brush, from the Romans such as Valens, Ruso and Priscus, to the girls in the bar -- Chloe, Merula, Daphne and Phryne, each one has a distinct character and mannerisms that keep them from being merged into a mass of cutouts. But the character that really caught my attention was Tilla. Here the author is wise enough to show us a bit of her, but not all of what is motivating her, and why she is doing what she does. Another aspect that I enjoyed was the use of religion, whether it be the dark Celtic ones that Tilla follows, or the ones that Ruso tries to adhere to despite his cynicism.
Finally, there are some important lessons in here, most notably slavery, and the degrading nature of it, but the author never does get preachy about it. I like that when an author can pull that off, and not be obnoxious about it. The writing overall is crisp, there is plenty of action, the characters are believable in their motivations and deeds, and the humour is there, without the grim overtones of Saylor or Roberts, which helped to keep the story from getting too downtrodden.
In addition to the narrative, an author's note, and an excerpt from the next novel in the series, Terra Incognita, is included.
For those who like their mysteries to be in the historical vein and with a sly touch of laughter to keep the mood up, I'd recommend this series. Four stars overall.
This book was published in the UK under the title of Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls.
Once again, many thanks to the Books CL Pestyside for finding me the proper link to this book in the database!
Gaius Petreius Ruso series by Ruth Downie
Medicus -- you are here
Persona non Grata
Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire
2006; Bloomsbury USA