I strikes me that while I have mentioned Ruth Downie‘s writing before, have interviewed her protagonist Gaius Petreius Ruso, and have even used him for a guest appearance – with permission! – in In Numina, I have never actually wrote a full review of her books.
I’ve read the first two books a couple of years ago, and have been reading the rest of the series this year. Below are my thoughts on the whole series, as I’ve just finished the last published volume, Vita Brevis. I actually wrote this post after finishing the 3rd volume, Persona Non Grata, back in November – but since I schedule posts in advance and have been catching up on my reading over the holidays, I had the chance to finish the other volumes in the series between writing this and posting. That should give you an idea about how much I love the series.
Since I do not include spoilers in my reviews and the below applies equally to all volumes I’ve read, I’ve made this post a review of the whole series. (I wrote individual reviews for each book on Amazon & Goodreads).
What to Expect
Ruso is a physician, serving as a medic in Rome’s Legio XX stationed in Britannia at the start of Hadrian’s reign. The series takes place (mostly) in the height of Roman occupation of Britain, which serves as a great background to view the empire at it’s Western extreme.
Each novel is a mystery, where Ruso is reluctantly (he’s a doctor, dammit, not an investigator!) dragged to solve murders no one else wants to take a close look at. Things naturally become much more complicated than anyone expects, and Ruso is both aided and frustrated by his native housekeeper (and future wife) Tilla.
What I liked
The absolute charm of the writing. All characters are fully fleshed, believable, with their own motivations. The writing is witty, the setting is rich, the plot thought-out, and the mysteries engaging.
These are the kind of books where you care for the characters. Downie has a knack to depict the world-views of the characters realistically, switching viewpoints from a Roman medical officer to a British peasant woman. It is clear that each character – from main to support cast – is a fully realised person, with their own agendas and biases.
The plot of the stories grips you till can’t put the book down. Downie is masterfully weaving the investigations through sub-plots, distractions, daily lives, grand events – till you just have to know what happens next. Ruso may be a reluctant investigator, but he has that nagging voice in his head when things don’t quite fit well, and it keeps him following and digging for the truth. Tilla has her own sense of fairness, and views on what makes the world tick.
Downie locates each book in a different town, mostly around Roman Britain (#3 is set in Roman Gaul, and #7 in Rome itself). She has clearly done her research, and each location comes alive with the latest modern archaeological understanding of life there seeping through her writing.
What to be aware of
These aren’t the noir mysteries I normally read and recommend. While there are certainly some gruesome bits (did I mention combat medic?), these aren’t your typical first-person hard-boiled detective. Rather, the stories are told in a lighter vein, in third person perspective from either Ruso or Tilla’s POV.
Ms Downie has experience with archaeology and Latin history, and it shows in her writing. She has elected to translate most Latin terms into modern English (e.g. calling a master ‘my lord’ rather then ‘domine’, or using ‘doctor’ for physician), which may sound a tad weird to those used to Latin terms from similar series.
I absolutely love this series. I have no idea why it took me so long to get back to it, but I am glad I did. I wrote this post saying I plan to finish it, but while it was waiting in the queue to be published I went ahead and devoured the whole series (individual reviews on Amazon and Goodreads). I can’t wait till the next volume. Memento Mori, is out later this year.
When I cheekily sent Ms Downie an homage scene in which (the Egretian version of) Ruso made a guest appearance in In Numina (Felix needed a medic), I was flabbergasted and honoured that she let me use it.
So head to the Amazon for the Medicus Roman Mysteries series, grab a copy of the first novel (titled, appropriated, Medicus), and settle back for some few hours of reading enjoyment!