Sunday, March 22, 2015

Terra Incognita - Ruth Downie

    2010; 400 pages.  Book #2 (out of 6) of the Medicus series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Historical Fiction; Crime Mystery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    In Roman-ruled, 2nd-century Britannia, the natives are restless.  A legionnaire has been murdered, and they fear that the Roman army commander will once again pin the blame on a local, whether it is true or not.

    The Romans are happy of oblige, and finding a suspect is an easy matter.  There’s enough circumstantial evidence to execute one of the local troublemakers for the crime.  But the garrison's own (Roman) medical doctor is also confessing to the crime, which complicates matters.

    Then there’s the visiting medicus, Gaius Petreius Ruso, a naïve do-gooder who doesn’t believe either one of the suspects did it.  He changes his mind often as to who he thinks the murderer is, and admittedly has no evidence against any of them.  He’ll mess everything up with his meddling.

    And wouldn’t you know it, he’s our protagonist.

What’s To Like...
    Terra Incognita is the second book of Ruth Downie’s 6-book (so far) series, and once again is a pleasant combination of Historical Fiction and Murder Mystery.  Tilla is still Ruso’s slave, although that status becomes rather iffy now that they are among Tilla’s people at the northernmost limit of the Roman Empire.

   The Historical Fiction is a mixed bag.  On one hand, you have anachronisms such as candles, women’s underwear, and expressions such as “Right-oh” and “Fellers”.  On the other, there is an unusual and fascinating feeling if living in the hinterlands of a Roman Empire stretched woefully thin, with the restless Britons ready to do some pushing back. 

    The Murder Mystery is also mixed.  It’s a Police Procedural, which I always like, with lots of slimeballs, malcontents, and good-but-suspicious characters to investigate.  Ruso eventually susses out the perp, but lacks any proof.  The ending is average.  I kept waiting for a “twist” but none was forthcoming, and the events leading up to the culprit’s confession called for considerable suspension of belief.

    But it’s the wit and humor that make Terra Incognita an entertaining read.  Things such as the bedbugs at the Golden Fleece Inn and Doctor Ruso’s Special Love Potion will have you chuckling chapter after chapter.  There’s also some romance, some jealousy, and the more serious topic of drug addiction to balance the levity.

    This is both a standalone novel and a key book in a series.  A lot of Tilla’s background gets filled in, and her relationship with Ruso takes a significant turn.  There are lots of new characters to meet, a bunch of old ones from Medicus to greet, plus a handy Cast of Characters in the front should you get confused.  The Epilogue is a particularly compelling way to close out the book.

Kewlest New Word...
Dozy (adj.) : stupid  (a Britishism)
Others : Fug (n.).

    “When you think about it, we’re all foreigners here.  Except the Britons, of course.”
    “You know what I mean.  Troops who are used to those sorts of conditions.  The sort of chap who tramps bare chested through bogs and picks his teeth with a knife.  They bring them in from Germania, or Gaul, or somewhere.”
    “I’m from Gaul,” Ruso reminded him.
    “Yes, but you’re from the warm end.  You’re practically one of us.”  This was evidently intended as a compliment.  (loc. 228)

    “I’m trying to get the beer drinking under control here.”
    “Really?  Gambax told me you and he had a drink together when you first got here.  Then you asked specially to be put in the room with the barrel.  I hope you’re not falling into bad ways, Ruso.  Beer’s not good for you, you know.  Bad for the membranes, makes you bulge, and produces flatulence.  Dioscorides says so.”
    “Then why are you drinking it?”
    “To be sociable, of course.”  (loc. 4689)

Kindle Details...
    Terra Incognita sells for $9.59 at Amazon.  The other Medicus books range in price from $7.55  to $9.99.  The first novel is no longer a steal at $1.99.

“There was no fun in teasing Albanus.  It was like poking a kitten with a stick.”  (loc. 482)
    This is the fifth book I’ve read in this series (I'm not reading them in order), and I’ve made my peace with the historical anachronisms and modern lingo therein  They enhance the “feel” of the setting, and contribute to the wit.

    My only issue with Terra Incognita concerns “Stagman”, the local leader who’s stirring up the restive Britons with dreams of freedom.   This is a fascinating point in Anglo-Roman history, one of the few times the Empire decided that further conquest was too costly; and Ruth Downie develops this scenario nicely.  Alas, this thread is left unresolved, both here and in the subsequent books.

    This is apparently deliberate on the author’s part, as indicated in her Afterword.  But the reader is left hanging when nothing comes of it.  Oh well, one can always hope for Stagman to show up again sometime later in the series.

    8 Stars.  Don’t let my quibbling deter you from reading these books.  This is a fun and entertaining series, and I’ll be reading the one remaining book, Persona Non Grata, just as soon as I can borrow it from my local library.

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