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in assocication with amazon.com, click hereMedicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire
by Ruth Downie

“To all members of XX Legion Valeria Victrix. While the chief medic is on leave, this hospital has three officers. The administrative officer has gone shopping in Viroconium and taken his keys with him. One doctor has severe food poisoning. The other is doing his best, despite having no idea what's going on because he has no time to attend morning briefings. Until reinforcements arrive, nonurgent cases and injuries resulting from drunkenness, stupidity, or arguments with drill instructors will not be treated.”

Gaius Petreius Ruso, newly posted army medic to a grimy British outpost of the empire, recently divorced, beset by the debts his late father left behind, and having accidentally acquired a female slave he can't afford, is in the words of the author:

baffled by …
alarmed by …
assaulted by …
amused by …
followed by …
surrounded by …
tempted by …
sworn at by …
avoided by …
harangued by …
annoyed by …
ignored by …
informed by …
mothered by …
moved to sympathy by …
and ruled by …

and she provides a long list of people.

As you can see, Ruso is not a happy person! "ruled by" means the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Word has just arrived of Trajan's death, and no one knows yet what Hadrian will bring, except most likely, a bonus for the army. Ruso had a special relationship with Trajan: He was the mysterious stranger who rescued the emperor during the earthquake in Antioch. But it doesn't do him any good, the higher power of Jupiter as rescuer is more formidable than a mere mortal.

So here he is, in the port city of Deva, today's Chester, trying to hide his new poverty, dealing with a parsimonious administrator, Priscus, the untidy fellow medic Valens who is his house mate, a recalcitrant slave, Tilla, a number of puppies, and assorted patients, soldiers, and townspeople, and on top of all gets embroiled in doings at Merula's bar (and brothel), one of the attractions in town. Two murders soon catch his attention, and his own life is in peril more than once. And everybody in town expects him to solve the murders.

The story is presented through the eyes both of Ruso and Tilla, each of whom is bewildered by where fate has brought them. All Tilla, snatched from the tribe of the Brigantes, wants is to die; all Ruso wants is to be left alone and earn enough to pay off the debt. But both get involved in the plight of the girls a Merula's bar and have to rearrange their priorities. Tilla postpones her death wish. Ruso, who cannot help being a good and dedicated doctor, has also a general innate curiosity that eventually compels him to go and find out what's going on. There are misunderstandings and red herrings, but eventually, the crimes are solved in rollicking climax, and all is well that ends well. As so often, to tell more would kill the suspense.

Ms. Downie has created a vivid community of soldiers and mostly native townspeople and a largely imagined but believable army life. This is her first novel after writing short stories, but her prose is sure footed, and one hopes for more of the same. An NPR interview with Ruth Downie tells you more about the author and how the book came about.

Postscript: Indeed, Ruso strikes again in Terra Incognita: A Novel of the Roman Empire, slated for March 2008 publication in both the U.S. and the UK.

© 2007 Irene B. Hahn


in assocication with amazon.com, click here Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire
by Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury USA 2007
400 pages
ISBN: 1596912316
List Price: $23.95
A U.S. Paperback edition is scheduled for March 2008
book coverUK Paperback edition
Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls

by R.S. Downie
Penguin Books Ltd 2007
ISBN: 0141027258
List Price: £7.99

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