Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire, by Ruth Downie

A Roman doctor in Britain.


Bloomsbury USA, 2006, 400 pages

Gaius Petrius Ruso is a divorced and down-on-his-luck army doctor who has made the rash decision to seek his fortune in an inclement outpost of the Roman Empire, namely Britannia. His arrival in Deva (more commonly known today as Chester, England) does little to improve his mood, and after a 36-hour shift at the army hospital, he succumbs to a moment of weakness and rescues an injured slave girl, Tilla, from the hands of her abusive owner.

Now he has a new problem: a slave who won't talk and can't cook, and drags trouble in her wake. Before he knows it, Ruso is caught in the middle of an investigation into the deaths of prostitutes working out of the local bar.

A few years earlier, after he rescued Emperor Trajan from an earthquake in Antioch, Ruso seemed headed for glory: now he's living among heathens in a vermin-infested bachelor pad and must summon all his forensic knowledge to find a killer who may be after him next.

Who are the true barbarians, the conquered or the conquerors? It's up to Ruso (certainly the most likeable sleuth to come out of the Roman Empire) to discover the truth. With a gift for comic timing and historic detail, Ruth Downie has conjured an ancient world as raucous and real as our own.

This was a perfectly pleasant little historical mystery with engaging characters tuned to appeal to a progressive, 21st century audience.

Medicus is set in 1st century Roman Britain. Gaius Petrius Ruso is an army doctor stationed with the legions. He's got family troubles, money troubles, job troubles, and all he wants is some time to finish this book he's been writing, and maybe a promotion to Chief Medical Officer of the garrison hospital. The problem is, he's also burdened with a basic sense of decency that doesn't allow him to turn his back on an abused slave girl. And of course, when he ends up taking her in at his own expense, he's much too decent to rape her, beat her, or sell her, or do any of the other things that Romans actually did with their slaves.

While ostensibly a historical novel, Medicus is written, throughout, as if it were basically a contemporary story. The author deliberately takes historical situations but frames them the way their modern equivalents would see it, so Gaius, while practicing ancient Roman medicine, sounds very much like a modern medical doctor, and his career difficulties (wanting to be promoted to CMO, having an affable playboy colleague who scores all the women and the promotions, bureaucratic tussles with a penny-pinching hospital administrator, etc.) could come right out of a modern medical drama.

Where this runs aground against the supposedly historical setting is where the author tries to inject some consciousness about colonialism and sex trafficking. The Romans brutally occupied Britain and subjugated the native peoples, and while Gaius never really questions the economic underpinnings of the Roman Empire or the basic inferiority of the uncivilized natives, he's a "good Roman" who thinks it's not nice to mistreat them, and when he discovers just how miserable women who've been forced into prostitution to serve the needs of the local garrison are, he feels appropriately bad about it.

This is a frequent problem with historical novels - modern readers won't sympathize with a protagonist who has the actual historical attitudes of his time and place. No doubt there were nice Romans who didn't beat or rape their slaves, but Gaius Ruso really doesn't act like a Roman military officer, he acts like a modern medical doctor who is a bit bemused to find himself living in Roman Britain.

Complaints about historicity aside, Medicus had lots of characters, some of whom will no doubt return in future books, and enough twists to keep things moving. There is a good amount of humor, and if you read it as a Roman-themed medical detective drama without any expectations of immersive verisimilitude, you will find it enjoyable.

Gaius and his "slave" Tilla are obviously going to be dancing the romantic tension dance for the next few books.

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Tags: books, reviews

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