Friday, March 30, 2012

Medicus by Ruth Downie

Gaius Petrius Ruso is a divorced and down-on his luck army doctor who has made the rash decision to seek his fortune in an inclement outpost of the Roman Empire, namely Britannia. His arrival in Deva (more commonly known as Chester, England) does little to improve his mood, and after a straight thirty six hour shift at the army hospital, he succumbs to a moment of weakness and rescues an injured slave girl, Tilla, from the hands of her abusive owner.

Now he has a new problem: a slave who won’t talk and can’t cook, and drags trouble in her wake. Before he knows it, Ruso is caught in the middle of an investigation into the deaths of prostitutes working out of the local bar. A few years earlier, after he rescued Emperor Trajan from an earthquake in Antioch, Ruso seemed headed for glory: now he’s living among heathens in a vermin-infested bachelor pad and must summon all his forensic knowledge to find a killer who may be after him next.

Who are the true barbarians, the conquered or the conquerors? It’s up to Ruso—certainly the most likeable sleuth to come out of the Roman Empire—to discover the truth. With a gift for comic timing and historic detail, Ruth Downie has conjured an ancient world as raucous and real as our own.

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An interesting little mystery that pulls you in pretty much from the start. The pacing is fairly casual as the author follows Ruso through his daily activities, and as he tries to avoid getting caught up with the lives of the girls at Merula's bar, but only succeeds in becoming more tangled up in their affairs. It all begins pretty much on page one when he has to examine a corpse that's brought into the hospital - an unidentified female, naked, with all of her hair shorn off. All signs point to foul play, but as no one knows who she is, and all signs are that she was likely a prostitute, no one really cares - except for Ruso, for all that he tries not to care.

Ruso is a very realistic character, with his down-to-earth attitudes about things, and his financial and former-relationship troubles that many readers can likely identify fully with. A doctor, and something of an intellectual, he's the perfect candidate to get pulled into matters that he'd really rather not get involved with simply because he's presented with a puzzle that his mind can't help but keep trying to solve, and the more that things don't quite add up between the various things he learns, the more he can't help himself with trying to figure it all out. He maintains a practical attitude throughout, even while plagued with bad luck, and faced with an increasing number of problems, he never succumbs to depression or despair, but faces things head on with an "ok, this is how it is, best deal with it and try to make the best of things" approach.

Tilla, the slave girl that Ruso rescues by purchasing her cheaply on the street from an unscrupulous trader when she was on the brink of death and had a badly broken arm, is another interesting character. Highly intelligent, her past is a bit of a mystery, though it seems obvious that she once enjoyed a much higher standing. Why or how she ended up as a slave is never really explained, nor is it ever fully explained just what she is or was. There are hints that she might be a druid, though when asked point blank by Ruso if she is, she neither confirms nor denies it. It's mentioned that her mother was a healer, and it's obvious that Tilla has learned much of herbs, medicines and poisons, and midwifery. Perhaps we'll learn more of her story in future books in the series.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable read, and one that I'd recommend to anyone who likes historical fiction and/or mysteries. While there are some minor details that don't seem to be quite historically accurate, the majority of the book does seem to be entirely plausible, if not truly accurate. As the author points out in her afterword, not much is really known about the details of daily life there, so it's left to writers to fill in the blanks as best they can. Ms. Downie seems to have done an excellent job with this book, and I'll look forward to reading more of Ruso's story in the future.

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