Sunday, October 2, 2011

Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire, by Ruth Downie, (author), Simon Vance (narrator)


Tantor Media, ISBN 9781400153633, March 2007

Gaius Petrius Ruso is doctor serving with a Roman legion in Britain. Not very long ago, he was married, a hero (he had saved the Emperor Trajan's life), and the elder son of a prosperous family in southern Gaul. Now he's divorced, his father has died leaving behind a mountain of debt, his brief notoriety is forgotten, and Trajan is dead. He's struggling to pay off his father's debts, with his brother at home in Gaul working to keep the real state of their finances quiet so that their efforts have time to work.

In the meantime, he's sharing a mouse-infested with another army doctor and the previous owner's former dog, who has produced a litter of puppies. They have no servant to clean and cook for them, and their lodgings show it. Ruso has spent an unpleasant night examining the body of a dead woman fished out of the harbor, and then a long day on medical rounds. He doesn't need to buy an injured slave girl to rescue her from her sadistic owner, especially when she's too injured to work, won't talk, and will cost more to feed than she's worth.

So of course he does.
While he's treating the girl and coaxing her to talk, he becomes not so much interested in as worried about the deaths of two bar girls, and the lack of any investigation into their deaths. He keeps hearing more than he wants to because, to get her out of the military hospital, he rents a room for the slave girl, who finally speaks enough to decide to go by the name Tilla, upstairs in the bar. Ruso starts asking questions, and things start to happen--a burning brand through the window of his house, a trowel dropped from a rooftop and missing him only because Tilla saw it and pushed him out of the way--and his financial situation gets more and more complicated. His life is further enlivened when the hospital administrator, who has been away, returns, and demands that Tilla be pledged as collateral for the large loan he's taken out from the thanksgiving fund, to help stave of bankruptcy at home.

Ruso is cranky, impatient, and kind and generous despite himself and despite his circumstances. He keeps asking questions even when it's hurting his chances for promotion and making his working life more difficult. Tilla is proud, independent, and has every intention of killing herself rather than working as a whore in a bar (her previous owner's plan for her). As they slowly learn to trust each other, Ruso learns more about the workings of this Roman British town than he wants to know, or is safe to know.

This is a fascinating look at Roman Britain, with engaging characters and a good mystery at the core of it. The solution manages to be both fair and unexpected. This is the first of a series, and I'll be reading more of them.

Recommended.

I borrowed this book from a friend.