History and Drama in "Medicus"

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In Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire Ruth Downie uses the tensions between Roman army and British locals to create a believable historical setting and a page-turning mystery

Roman army medic Gaius Petrius Ruso is just trying to keep up appearances for his impoverished family without letting anyone know just how deeply in debt his father was. When an old army buddy, Valens, suggests that Ruso join him in a forsaken outpost of the Roman empire, Ruso jumps at the chance to make some money and maybe also to get away from his ex-wife. Of course, Valens hadn’t quite mentioned all the miserable weather, surly natives and hospital bureaucracy that Ruso would encounter in Britannia.

Ruso is just trying to get by until payday, and the promised army bonus from the new emperor, Hadrian, when corpse of a local girl is brought into the army hospital, setting a local mystery in moment. Soft-hearted Ruso can’t keep himself from investigating, especially not when a second girl from the same brothel is found dead. He also -- despite his rising debts -- can’t stop himself from buying an injured slave girl, and setting her broken arm.

It’s hard not to like Ruso, whether he’s having it out with an officious and penny-pinching hospital administrator or trying to work on his Concise Guide To Field Medicine. The poor guy just wants to be left alone to get on with his work and pay off his debts, and he keeps getting dragged into unpleasant situations with unpleasant natives.

Ruth Downie makes the same kind of snarky remarks about the dreadful English weather and useless British natives that Robert Graves slipped into I, Claudius. It’s probably exactly what a Roman would think of the outer reaches of the empire, after indoor plumbing and gorgeous Mediterranean weather in Rome, but, again, a British author explaining how desperate the culture and weather are in Britannia is always funny.

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While moments in Roman-occupied Deva are delightful, the romantic subplot was underwhelming. The stunningly gorgeous slave girl and her bratty-yet-somehow-charming behavior would have fit seamlessly into any Harlequin romance, and I found myself speeding through their interactions, while savoring descriptions of Ruso’s daily life in Deva. (While I’m sure there was a Roman noble who married his slave, I thought Valens’ comment that he appreciated the new housekeeper and he wouldn’t bed her without Ruso’s permission was more typical of the owner-slave relationship in Rome.) One bright moment in otherwise underwhelming “courtship” was Ruso accidentally naming the girl Tilla while explaining that he could fix her arm. He explains that she could still be a useful worker, by saying utila in Latin, while she heard as You Tilla.

As the story unfolds, Downie artfully connects minor events in the village and army base of Deva with larger historical trends, while building an engaging mystery. Fans of Rosemary Rowe's Libertus mystery series, also set in Roman Britain, will enjoy this one. For more Roman fiction, try John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR series, David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus series, or Crystal King's Feast of Sorrow.

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