Pros: The scene changes from Roman Britain to southern Gaul.
Cons: Hard to see where the mystery is going, but the last hundred pages are riveting.
Mention that a book is set in the ancient Roman empire, and my attention tends to be focused. And if it's a well-written mystery, my interest becomes all the more intent. Especially when the author can blend in a good mix of historical detail and humour. Author Ruth Downie can do all of these things at once, which gives me a good chuckle, and quite a few hours of entertainment.
After the events of Terra Incognita, Gaius Petreius Ruso and his housekeeper/girlfriend Tilla are still up on the edges of the Roman Empire in the province of Britannia. Things have quieted down a little, but Ruso is still up to his neck in the casualties from the latest attempt of the natives to free themselves from the invaders. Worst still, Ruso has managed to break his foot from resucing a young boy from the mayhem of a group of drunken legionnaries. When he manages to get back to his quarters, a letter from back home in Gaul is waiting for him, with the simple phrase, Come Home, and signed by his younger brother Lucius. Of course Ruso takes off with Tilla in tow, wondering what sort of new crisis has hit his family.
By ship and overland, Ruso and Tilla find themselves arriving in Gallia Narbonensis, a relatively peaceful and prosperous province in what is now sourthern France. But the family farm is in a mess. For one, everyone denies having sent a letter, and the family debt is being called in. It's not a little bit of money either, and it's been chronically made worse by Ruso's late father having built a grandiose temple to the goddess Diana in town. On top of that, Ruso's stepmother, Arria, is completely oblivious to the family's finances and keeps spending. Brother Lucius and his wife Cassiana -- Cass, for short -- have five young children, and then there are the two sisters, Marcia and Flora, who are more than ready to get married, but the dowry question hasn't been settled yet.
Of course, everyone is expecting Ruso to fix everything, a feat that Ruso knows that it's damn impossible to do.
When Severus, the man to whom the family owes the money, comes to call about settling that said debt, catastrophe occurs when Severus drops dead, muttering only "The b---- has poisoned me!" Of course, Ruso becomes the immediate suspect. But that's not the really bad news -- Ruso's ex-wife Claudia, just happens to be Severus' widow.
Poor Tilla, for her part, keeps getting bossed about by Marcia, who has a secret of her own; gets accused of shoplifting, and is worried that Ruso is getting interested in his ex, or the forthright Lollia next door. And then there's language problem to overcome.
All in all, it's quite a tangle for Ruso to overcome, and the story moves quite briskly through to the end. While not all of the threads are tied off neatly, I found the mystery to be logical and sensible by the end, without too many over-dramatics.
One of the best parts of a Ruth Downie novel is the humour, with the typical Roman love of puns, and here, the best hilarity is caused when Tilla encounters the local followers of Christos, and makes her own prayer, with some tongue-in-cheek touches. What I like about it is that it is neither overly preachy nor offensive, which is hard to find when religion is mentioned in novels set in the past. The humour is made all the more poignant by several scenes of dispair and especially during gladitorial games which proves that life can be very very short in the empire, especially when you're at the bottom of the heap.
The author also includes a note at the end, explaining a bit of the more obscure parts, and providing also a list of books for further reading.
I do recommend reading the series in order, as Ms. Downie doesn't give much of a synopsis for what has gone on before. And besides the story of Ruso and Tilla's adventures and how they met is worth reading. The novel is pretty much self-contained, and it will be interesting to see what will happen in the next Ruso novel.
Four stars overall, recommended.
This was published in the UK as Ruso and the Root of All Evils.
The Gaius Petreius Ruso Series:
Persona Non Grata -- you are here
Persona Non Grata: A Novel of the Roman Empire
2009; Bloomsbury USA