2014; 337 pages. New Author? : No. Book 6 (out of 6) in the Medicus series. Genre : Historical Fiction; Crime Mystery. Overall Rating : 8½*/10.
Ruso must be getting old; he keeps losing things. But this time it’s something really big – his clerk, Candidus. Candidus is also the nephew of Ruso’s close friend, Albanus, who is on his way for a visit.
Perhaps it is connected to the latest rumor that’s been spreading throughout the garrison like wildfire: that one of the native Briton boys claims he saw a soldier put a body in the wall which the Roman army is in the process of building. But the rumor doesn’t say where or when, so even if it’s true, no one has any idea where in the wall to look. And only a fool would want to start tearing down random parts of the emperor’s wall.
Besides, Candidus wouldn’t be the first man to just up and walk away from the army. Nor the first one to fall prey to the restless locals. Heck, just recently they strung a soldier up by his feet, naked, and let the local bugs and critters nip at his flesh all night. Hmm. Someone’s gonna pay for that crazy bit of mischief.
Still, Albanus will be sore disappointed if Candidus isn’t found by the time he arrives. So Ruso better do some nosing around.
What’s To Like...
Tabula Rasa is the latest installment in the Medicus series, and takes us to a new area of 2nd-century Roman-occupied Britain – the northern limit of the Empire’s reach in Britain - Hadrian's Wall. As such, there is a greater focus on the life of the native tribes, which I liked a lot. Ruso (and the reader) are among Tilla’s people now, and we become acquainted with their gods, their psyche, and their way of life, even as they struggle to naintain their language and cultural identity. The highlight of all this is the Festival of Samhain, which was a real delight to experience with Ruso.
As a Historical Fiction novel, I thought this was Ruth Downie’s best book yet. The linguistic modernisms (“mate”, “ain’t”, etc.) seemed “smoother” and less frequent, and if there were any anachronisms, I didn’t spot them. A bunch of new characters are introduced, many whom I suspect will play recurring roles. Senecio is particularly memorable.
As a Mystery novel, this felt more like a Police Procedural than the other books I’ve read in this series. Ruso investigates a pair of disappearances, and frankly, doesn’t have much to work with in either case. I l like Police Procedurals, so for me this was a plus. But readers looking for a whodunit may find Ruso’s methodical ways, with the frequent red herrings and dead ends, feel like the story is sometimes spinning in its tracks.
There’s still a decent amount of action, however. And Downie’s trademark gentle-yet-wry humor keeps the storyline fresh and interesting. Tilla is hit with some personal revelations, which was kewl and didn’t detract at all from the fact that I am not reading this series in order. As always, this is a standalone novel, with an ending that wraps up all the plot threads quite nicely.
Kewlest New Word...
Hayrick (n.) : another word for “haystack”.
“Candidus,” the watch captain repeated. “Where is he?”
“Haven’t seen him, sir.”
“Not ever,” suggested the watch captain, “or just not lately?”
The man scratched his head, as if this were too subtle a question for one who had only just woken up.
“He arrived several days ago,” Ruso prompted. “He was assigned to this tent.”
“Ah,” said the man, apparently enlightened. “Him.” (loc. 1020)
“Albanus knows nothing of people,” she told him, pointing one slender foot in the air and hiding it inside a sock. “He spends too long with words and writing. He thinks I am bad for you.”
“I’m sure he’s never said that.”
“He thinks I lead you into trouble.”
“You do.” (loc. 1855)
Tabula Rasa sells for $9.99 at Amazon, and, since it is the newest release in this series, is understandably priced the highest. The other Medicus books range in price from $1.99 (for the first novel) to $9.59.
“You’ve been so much more entertaining since you met Tilla and adopted the native tendency to overdramatize.” (loc. 1658)
I enjoyed Tabula Rasa as much as, if not a bit more than any of the other three books I’ve read in this series. I can’t say whether this is due to the author's style and storytelling improving with each book, or if I’m just developing a better feel for what she’s trying to do with the series. I will say that Tabula Rasa felt more polished, and that’s a good sign for things to come in this series.
I admit it - I'm now hooked on Ruso and Tilla, and will probably read Terra Incognita (Book 2 in the series) as soon as it becomes available at my local digital library. This whole series is highly recommended.
8½ Stars. Here's hoping Ruso and Tilla continue to find themselves moving to new parts of the Roman Empire. It will be unsettling to them, but a treat for readers.