I’m interested in novels that create a sense of what it was like to live in classical civilizations. Medicus, the first mystery in Ruth Downie’s Gaius Petreius Ruso series, probably isn’t such a novel, but it was a lot of fun anyway, and I’ll continue in the series.
In this series opener, Ruso, a doctor in the Roman legion, is new to his duties in Deva, in Brittania (modern day Chester, England). In a somewhat comic scene at the start of the book, he buys a slave he doesn’t really want to save her from being harmed by her current owner. She has a wounded arm, and her current owner seems as likely to let that give way to infection and death as he does to seek any treatment. Ruso names the woman Tilla (“useful” in his language) and sets about healing her so he can resell her for a much higher price. He’s in the legion to earn money that he can send home to Gaul and save the family farm.
Ruso also worries that Tilla might become another victim to a killer who has already killed one woman pulled out of a local river, but when, for propriety’s sake, he tries to find her a place to recover outside his own home, the only place he can find is a brothel, which turns out to be the very place the first victim was missing from when she turned up dead. His attempts to protect her are complicated by his own naivete and the meddling influence of a new hospital administrator.
Is this great history? Probably not. Downie doesn’t obviously violate what is known about the Roman legion in Brittania or medical practices of the time, but there is a somewhat anachronistic feel to the attitudes of the characters. They seem more contemporary than ancient to this reader.
On the mystery front, the medicine of ancient times is a rough business, and a story with sex trafficking and slavery at its center cannot be gentle, but Downie’s tone still falls somewhat in the cozy realm. There’s plenty of comic relief mixed in with the story. Experienced mystery readers may identify the criminals relatively early and some of the plot twists are perhaps a bit too convenient, but there’s plenty of plot and the solution is satisfying.
What really makes me recommend Medicus, however, is neither the history of the mystery, but the characters that Downie creates. She’s setting up a series for the long haul, and this book will make readers want to find out what becomes of the gifted doctor who can’t get the rest of his life in order and may be too naive to thrive in his rough surroundings. You’ll want to know more about Tilla’s unhappy past. Most important, you’ll want to know what kind of relationship a once-married, book-educated Roman doctor can make in the long run with a goddess-worshiping woman of native intelligence who is, according to the rules of their society, his possession. There are interesting secondary characters too, but I won’t write about them so you can’t scratch them off the suspect list from the start.
Book six of the series is due this year, and from what I understand, Ruso and Tilla’s adventures take them to locations around the Roman world. If you don’t mind the slightly out-of-time feel of their story, you’ll probably want to join me in following them on that journey.