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Downie, Ruth - 'Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire'
Hardback: 400 pages (Mar. 2007) Publisher: Bloomsbury USA ISBN: 1596912316

Gaius Petreius Ruso is a good doctor and a poor politician. A few years before the book opens, he managed to save the emperor Trajan from a collapsed building after an earthquake in Alexandria. But he forgot to hang around for his reward, so the rescue was put down to divine intervention. Ruso's wife divorced him, apparently on the grounds of lack of ambition, and he was left largely penniless and with his father's estate to rescue from bankruptcy. Now, in the hope of restoring his fortunes, he is an army surgeon in that furthest-flung western colony of Rome, Britain, in Deva (present-day Chester) to be precise and missing sunny Africa, where the worst he had to deal with was the odd scorpion.

Sun is in short supply in Britain, as is warmth, comfortable lodgings, and good food. He has to share accommodations with the charming, womanising Valens, in a relationship faintly reminiscent of Hawkeye and Trapper John in MASH. Ruso tries his best to be hard-headed and practical, but he is moved by the plight of a British slave girl, Tilla, and by the other bar girls working in the local brothel, several of whom have started to disappear, later to be found dead. As tough as he would like to imagine himself, he cannot ignore their situation and thus, reluctantly, finds himself pursuing the truth of what is happening to them and why.

The American publishers have done the book a disservice, I think, by replacing the original title (MEDICUS AND THE DISAPPEARING DANCING GIRLS) with the sterner MEDICUS: A NOVEL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. While comparisons with Lindsey Davis are inevitable, this is a rather different affair. It is not particularly heavy on the historical background - the main characters have a very modern sensibility and there is not a lot in the way of historical reconstruction. It is also frequently quite funny. Ruso is a most attractive character, and while you won't learn an awful lot about life in second century Deva, you'll probably enjoy hanging out for a bit in his company.

NB. As mentioned the UK hardback is called MEDICUS AND THE DISAPPEARING DANCING GIRLS however the UK paperback will be called RUSO AND THE DISAPPEARING DANCING GIRLS.

Yvonne Klein, Canada
May 2007

last updated 16/05/2007 13:04