Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire
Doctor Gaius Petrius Ruso, who recently transferred from the
warmth of Africa to the sodden climes of Britannia, seems to have
no luck if it isn't bad luck. Set in the days between Emperor
Trajan's demise and Hadrian's inauguration, MEDICUS opens in the
outpost that Ruso has been reassigned to, a fictional community
close to the modern borderlands between England and Scotland.
Divorced and penniless, but with a wealth of optimism, the new
doctor tries to settle into his dank and very uncomfortable
environs. Trouble seems to have a way of finding him, though.
Walking along the streets one day, he spies a woman apparently
being mistreated by a fat, unsavory brute. Most men of the times
would smirk and pass on by, believing the scene to be one of a
disobedient slave in need of discipline. But not Ruso. Instead,
Ruso confronts the man and ultimately ends up purchasing the girl,
a sullen, injured and uncommunicative wench.
Now he not only has used what little remained of his funds, but he
has a worthless --- and sick --- slave to tend. Fortunately, Ruso's
colleague, Valens, has a few virtuous attributes, despite his
irreverent and lascivious comments. At least he doesn't rat on Ruso
when Ruso uses hospital equipment, supplies and space. He even
offers to let the girl stay at the residence he and Ruso share.
While Ruso suspects Valens's offer may have a personal motive, Ruso
can't come up with a better solution.
When the body of a young woman turns up at the doors of the
hospital --- on Ruso's watch, naturally --- Ruso determines the
cause of death but doesn't drop it there. True to his nature, he
begins to make inquiries about the victim. Rather than finding
answers, he scores several stringent warnings. Soon, the body of
another woman is found. Ruso doesn't think the two are unrelated.
"I know what happened to them, and at least one of them didn't die
by accident. What nobody seems to be able to find out is who did
it." One thing they had in common is Merula's bar, which isn't your
typical neighborhood bar. Men go there to find short-term
companionship. Were these women part of a mutiny gone wrong, or was
there something else going on?
While Ruso is after whoever did this to these girls, the hospital
administrator is after Ruso. It seems that Ruso got off on the
wrong foot from the beginning, and now Priscus is intent on making
his life hell. In dire financial straits, Ruso takes out a loan,
planning to repay it from the bonus promised by incoming emperor
Hadrian. But Priscus forces him to guarantee the loan in the event
of a default by signing over the slave girl. And Priscus seems set
on causing Ruso to default.
With all his traumas, it's amazing that Ruso has any time to poke
around for clues. But, notwithstanding his less-than-stellar
detective skills, Ruso manages to solve the mystery. Now what is he
going to do with a disabled slave?
Ruth Downie's clever wit makes MEDICUS a joy to read. Have some fun
with history, but note the author's tongue-in-cheek warning:
"Ancient accounts of Roman Britain are tantalizingly
patchy…gaps are still being filled by archaeology, and anyone
in search of reliable information about our ancestors should most
definitely look there rather than within the pages of an
entertainment such as this." And great entertainment it is!
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 7, 2011