Ruth Downie's entertaining first
novel is set in Roman Britain sometime early in the
2nd century AD. The Roman conquest of Britannia was completed about 30 years
earlier, and the fall of the Roman empire won't be
for at least another 200 years. In other words,
having divided and conquered the tribes of
Britannia and built Hadrian's Wall to keep the
inhabitants of Scotland at bay, the Roman soldiers of the 20th Legion are
sitting pretty without a lot to do except wait for
payday (every 3 months), flirt with the native girls
and get into trouble.
Into this setting steps the harassed, impoverished and newly divorced Gaius Petrius Ruso, fresh off the boat from Africa, newly appointed medicus to the 20th Legion. His hope is that this damp little island outpost will afford him the breathing space he needs to juggle the multiple debts left by his father, so that his brother and family can keep their small farm in Gaul, and a roof over their heads. His objectives are single-minded: Keep his head down; save money; get a promotion.
What he doesn't need is trouble, but trouble finds him, and as we all know, trouble comes in threes. First, in a weak moment he buys an injured slave girl from a sadistic slave trader. The last thing he needs is the maintenance cost of an injured slave who refuses to talk and can't cook; but if she does get well there's a fighting chance he can recoup his investment by selling her, perhaps at a profit. Then he gets on the wrong side of the slimy hospital administrator. Lastly and most reluctantly, he finds himself playing amateur detective investigating the deaths of two brothel slave girls.
Medicus is a light-hearted read with a strong contemporary feel. Although almost 2000 years separates us from Ruso, his problems are familiar: The bitchy ex-wife who never thought he'd amount to much; a lifestyle lived paycheck to paycheck while all the time wondering where his life went off track; squalid quarters and a roommate who's a slob; and endless bureaucratic infighting.
Although, Downie's emphasis is on character development rather than place, she builds in delightful period details. The graffiti on the walls, the everyday banter, the painted statues*, even the junk mail from a local provider of medical supplies, all serve to bring the period to life without the need for long, detailed descriptions. In short, her debut sparkles with humor and witty dialogue, and offers the prospect of many more medical mysteries to come staring Ruso, his slave-girl Tilla, and Valens - his roommate and medical rival.
*We usually think of ancient statues as made of clean, white shiny marble. However, originally, many of them were painted. No one knows exactly how completely they were colored - whether it was an all over paint job, just the highlights, or how bright the colors might have been. Probably, some were subtlety tasteful while others were gaudy and overdone because, just like today, personal tastes differ and fashions change over time.
This review was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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