2007; 416 pages. New Author? : Yes. Full Title : Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire. Book #1 (out of 5) of Ruth Downie’s Medicus series. Genre : Historical Fiction; Murder-Mystery. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
Gaius Petreius Ruso has woman problems. Women problems, actually.
First, there’s his ex, who is a world away, but whose nagging still manages to creep into Ruso’s thoughts. Then there’s the corpse of a young lady that was just pulled out of the river, who is unidentified and shorn of all her hair. Finally, there’s the damaged-goods slave-girl that he got talked into unwittingly buying.
Curiously, it’s the latter one that will give him the most headaches.
What’s To Like...
Medicus is set in Roman-occupied Britain in the 2nd Century AD. Ruso is a recent arrival, and serves in the Roman army as a surgeon/doctor, which in Latin is ‘Medicus’. I found him to be a well-developed, fascinating character, and enjoyed watching him try to cope with his many and assorted career, financial, and women woes.
The rest of the crew, who are listed in a handy “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of the book, aren’t particularly 3-D, but at least they’re interesting. Valens, Ruso’s roommate and fellow doctor, is a great supporting character. Hopefully, he is a “regular” in the series. The book is an ambitious mixture of genres – Murder-Mystery, Historical Fiction, and Romance.
The Romance stays in the background, which will be a plus for most male readers. The Murder-Mystery is a police-procedural. It plods along predictably, with the question being not so much “Who done it”, as “How is Ruso going to prove it”. I kept waiting for a plot twist, but it never came.
Frankly, the Historical Fiction is poorly done. Anachronisms abound. There are candles, paper, and underwear – none of which were around at the time. Even worse is the dialogue, riddled with out-of-place verbiage such as “Bollocks”, “Oy”, “Right-Oh”, and (You’re another of those medical) “fellers”. I don’t expect the characters to speak in Latin, but come on now. Fellers?!?!
That being said, the pacing was good and held my interest. The writing is witty and captivating, which is no mean feat given the underlying serious themes of slavery, prostitution, and imperialism. The ending is so-so, but it does tie everything up. The Epilogue is fantastic.
The plump woman, casually propping one hand under her jaw to disguise her chins, leaned forward and peered at Ruso. He was diagnosing short sight as she said, “So, how long have you been in Britannia, doctor?”
“Two weeks,” replied Ruso.
The woman appeared to be waiting for more. He felt there was something else he should add to this reply to pad it out a little, but since he had fully answered the question he could not think what the something might be. This was another reason why he disliked dinner parties. (loc. 2084)
“May you rest in peace, sister. May you enjoy a better life in the next world than you suffered in this one. May you forgive us all for not avenging you sooner and …” He paused to clear his throat, “and may the dead be kind enough to forgive me for not telling the whole truth, because I have a duty to the living.”
“Sometimes,” murmured a girl’s voice, “is good not to tell too much truth.” (loc. 6664)
Medicus Sells for $1.99 at Amazon, which is a nice, cost-effective way to become acquainted with Ruth Downie and Gaius Petreius Ruso. The other four books in the series are priced in the $7.39-$9.99 range for the Kindle. I borrowed this e-book for free from my local library.
”I’m a doctor, not a fortune-teller.” (loc. 2723)
If you read Medicus as a Romance, a Murder-Mystery, or a piece of Historical Fiction, you will probably be disappointed. But as I read the book, I kept wondering if such expectations were not the author’s intent.
There is a lightheartedness to the writing that I haven’t seen from any other writer in this genre – Lindsey Davis, Ellis Peters, John Maddox Roberts, etc. It’s a pleasant change to have someone treat a historical setting with wit and humor, while still telling a story that doesn’t bog down. The ancients weren’t stodgy and serious all the time. I’m sure they got drunk, told jokes, palled around, and laughed at both themselves and other ‘fellers’.
So treat Medicus like it’s an airport novel (aka “beach read”), and enjoy the ride. Ignore the inaccuracies and colloquialisms; they’re there to enhance the storyline. If you want to read something more serious along these lines, any of the aforementioned authors are highly recommended. But Ruth Downie seems to have carved out her own little niche, and I think it’s a pleasant broadening of the literary choices in this genre.
8 Stars. Subtract 2 stars if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy. Add 1 star if you read this on an airplane or at the beach.