Ruth Downie - Terra Incognita: A Novel of the Roman Empire

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_Terra Incognita:_ Ruso and Tilla go north and meet barbarians and missing heads

Oct 6, 2011 (Updated Jan 14, 2012)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great writing, good historical details, and a mystery to puzzle over.

Cons:None really. I didn't much care for the Big Misunderstanding trope.

The Bottom Line: Second book in Downie's series about a Roman doctor on the outposts of Empire and his lovely housekeeper/girlfriend.

After I had read the first of Ruth Downie's Gaius Petreius Ruso mysteries, Medicus, I was hooked by the rich blend of historical detail, characters and a solid mystery, and was determined to find the second book of the series.

At the start of the novel, Ruso and his housekeeper/sweetheart Tilla, a native girl of one of the Celtic tribes are heading north towards Hadrian's Wall. Ruso is helping to sort out some of the chronic problems that the medical officers are dealing with along the northern frontier, and Tilla is hoping to see her relations again.

But just as they are about to reach the outpost of Corio near their destination, things go awry. A wagon breaks loose, resulting in the maiming of a carpenter, and a slave is blamed for the accident. Accompanying his patient, Ruso arrives in Corio to find the medical infirmary in gross disorder. The place is a mess, nothing is labeled, the orderlies are preferring to get drunk on the local, but excellent, beer and the pharmacist Gambax, is more interested in slacking off than seeing that anything is done. Worst of all, the doctor, a Greek named Thassalus, is stark raving mad, nattering on endlessly on the most inane subjects. Clearly Ruso has stepped right into a mess.

Things complicate further with the impending arrival of the Governor, and the discovery of a body without a head. The fact that the body belongs to a Roman citizen named Felix, an importer of very good wine, and it seems that the murder is a warning carried out by the local natives. Most of the natives are not too happy about the arrival of the Romans, and rumours of the sighting of the Stag God, Cernennos, are rampant.

For Tilla, things aren't much better. Unable to get inside the fortress where Ruso is, she turns to the solution of trying to get to where her family used to live. But the place is a shambles, with a family friend, Rianorix, living there, and making his living by weaving wicker and baskets for the market. Clearly, he has a soft spot still in his heart for Tilla, and that night she shares the only bed in the hut with him. Just sleeping, mind, but when the Romans show up, and find them together and the missing head in a pile of rubbish, things go very badly very quickly. While Rianorix is hauled off, and the hut tossed about, Tilla is back again on her own.

Heaven only knows what will happen when Ruso hears the gossip that she was found in another man's bed...

There are other flamboyant characters in this one. Catavignus is the head of the guild of caterers in the town, and brewer of the best beer around. He clearly wants to have the Romans about, and his pretty, plump daughter Aemilia even more so. But as is usual, there are deeper ties going on here, and no one really wants to talk about it. There's Metellus, the prefect's assistant, who is as Tilla puts it so succinctly, a snake with a smile.

There's plenty of information about Roman medicine here, all of which I found very interesting to read, including what opium can and can not do; the use of prayer, and even the philosophies of Plato.

What I enjoy very much about this writer was that she was able to give the reader a sense of being in an outpost of the Roman Empire. There isn't any grand marbles or spectacles going on, it's just the daily grind of being out in the back of beyond, up at what would be known eventually as Hadrian's Wall, and coping with the hassles of everyday life. What really works is quite naturally her characters -- Ruso may be a bit cynical, but deep down inside, he cares a great deal not just for everyone around him, but for everyone suffering. Only once do we see that mask of cynicism slip in the story, and we get to see some of the anguish that every doctor, in whatever time and place, must go through when they come across something that they might not be able to fix. It's a terrific bit of storytelling and one that most authors don't do very well.

Best of all, Ms. Downie lets the story unfold through her character's eyes, letting all of the rich details of living in the Roman empire would be for the everyday citizen come through. But never does she slide into the mistake of telling us about what is going on, but rather letting them appear bit by bit.

In addition to the narrative, there are author's notes, and excerpts from the next two books in the series, Persona Non Grata and Caveat Emptor.

This is a series that I can happily recommend to anyone who enjoys a good historical mystery, or reading about ancient Rome. It's a solid four star read, with hardly a flaw to be seen, and some inventive takes on some classic themes in the mystery genre.

This was published in the UK as Ruso and the Demented Doctor.

The Gaius Petreius Ruso Series:

Terra Incognita -- you are here
Persona non Grata
Caveat Emptor

This review is part of talyseon's
It's Elementary My Dear Watson! Mystery Write-off.

Terra Incognita: A Novel of the Roman Empire

Ruth Downie
2008; Bloomsbury Books
ISBN 978-1-59691-966-2

Recommend this product? Yes

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