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Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire
By Ruth Downie

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A Novel of the Roman Empire

By Ruth Downie
Thorndike Press Large Print (2007)
ISBN 10: 0-7862-9602-X
ISBN 13: 978-0-7862-9602-6
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction

Reviewed by Herbert White - October 3, 2007

Gaius Petreius Ruso, is a Medicus (doctor) with the XX Legion, stationed near Deva (Chester), in Britannia. Ruso has not been having a very good year. Despite having saved the life of the Emperor Trajan, he is down on his luck in more ways than one. He was recently divorced, and his wife took everything, leaving him barely the clothes on his back. Even worse, his father recently died, making Ruso the head of his extended family - a role that had both religious, financial, and legal ramifications. To his dismay, he discovers that his father had accumulated a massive amount of debt, a fact that both Ruso and his brother are working tirelessly to keep hidden. Not only would the knowledge of their scant resources and huge debt cause all their creditors to demand their monies at once, but it would also ruin the family's reputation. To keep things running, Ruso's brother is tending the family farm while Ruso is working for the legion and sending almost all his pay home to his brother to settle their father's debts.

If that were not enough of a headache, Ruso has just been transferred from Africa to Britannia, where on his very first day on duty he is faced with doing a postmortem on a woman for whom he must try to identify not only the cause of death - but also who she is. He also discovers that he will be working for an obnoxious and tyrannical superior, and that he will be living in a hovel with an old friend, several rambunctious puppies, and an assortment of vermin. Ruso, is a man who attacks trouble, and before the day is out he finds himself the proud owner of a nearly dead slave who can neither speak, cook, nor initially, even walk. Even worse, he cannot afford to pay for her and she is all the time either trying to die or escape, depending upon her mood!

Ruso's disheartening introduction to Britannia grows even more dismal when he discovers that the woman he did the postmortem on was murdered - and that she was not the first victim of what soon appears to be a serial killer. Although he does not set out to discover the murderer, he soon finds himself enmeshed in the mystery as everyone assumes that he is going to be the one to solve the crime. In addition, his ongoing relationship with his new slave, Tilla, is rocky at best. She is uncooperative and not of much use to Ruso, and she tends to bring even more trouble to his door than he manages to do himself.

Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire is Ruth Downie's first novel, and it is an excellent addition to the broad body of Roman era based historical fiction. In Medicus, Downie paints a graphic picture of Roman occupied Britannia as seen from the viewpoint of the occupiers. The story deals in large measure with the 'workers' at Merula's, a bar and brothel whose workers are mostly slaves. Downie touches upon some of the issues about the accepted practice of slavery during this period, and the problem of women who were enslaved illegally, and how difficult it was to extricate oneself from such a position once the word slave was attached to your name. She also looks at how the Roman occupiers viewed the native inhabitants, and how these varied groups interacted with each other.

While Downie touches upon several interesting social issues, and provides a vibrant portrait of Roman life in Britannia, this is at its heart a murder mystery. While it takes Downie a bit to get into the meat of the mystery, she more than keeps you entertained while you wait. Her writing is picturesque, and her descriptions of life in Deva are compelling. The relationship between Ruso and Tilla, is intriguing, and there are a few bits of humor scattered throughout the book. Ruso is an interesting amateur detective, who will make a fine focus for a series of books, should Downie choose to develop this book into a series.

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