April 26, 2007

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Medicus, A Novel of the Roman Empire by Ruth Downie (Bloomsbury USA, 2007, 384 pages)
Reviewed by Lucas Lund news@hippopress.com

The protagonist of Medicus, Downie’s first novel, is a doctor named Ruso. He is stationed in Deva, Britannia (now Chester, England) in 116 AD. While searching for the identity of a woman’s body found nearby, Ruso rescues a battered female slave. He is then drawn into a snarl of machinations.

Though the town’s rumor mill would make him one, Ruso usually does not wish to be a detective. He is distracted by financial woes. He is also overworked and hindered by hospital politics among other things, all of which are comically enumerated in the brief prologue, the first clue that this book differs in pace and mood from most mysteries.

Ruso is a reluctant hero, thoroughly likable with a penchant for trouble. His integrity causes him to drive the mystery forward as much as to solve it. He knows medicine but is often puzzled by the rest of life, awkward. Downie writes some marvelously funny scenes as a result.

Medicus, though a fast and entertaining read, does not skimp on theme. Downie addresses justice, power and love, but never with a heavy hand. Her setting is marvelous. The one near-flaw: she risks melodrama with Ruso’s burgeoning love interest, but manages to evade it.

The book jacket states that Medicus is the first in a series, and one can only hope that Downie’s next book will be as richly imagined and funny. A