The subtitle of this novel is important—“A Novel of the Roman Empire”—lest we think it’s about the Marine Corps.
Downie’s narrative unfolds in a remote outpost of the empire, along the northern border of England (or more accurately, Britannia). Although the 20th Legion is stationed along the frontier, untoward things have been happening—like the deaths of recent recruits to the Roman army, deaths that might be suicides except they’re occurring with alarming frequency. Legionnaire Gaius Petreius Ruso, a medical doctor, starts to investigate why these deaths have come about, and he uncovers some rather sordid imperial activity. Geminus, one of the Roman centurions, has been promoting fights to the death among Roman soldiers, for example, and having the legionnaires bet on the outcomes. Ruso’s wife, Tilla, a native of Britannia and hence somewhat suspect to the other Roman soldiers, is also wondering why this has been happening and wants to help her husband’s investigation. Tension ratchets up when two things happen: Geminus is found murdered and Hadrian, the emperor, is coming to inspect how the empire is faring along the periphery. Because of his curiosity about Geminus’ role in the deaths of the young soldiers, Ruso becomes a prime suspect in the murder, so he’s arrested on what seems a trumped-up charge. Hadrian visits this corner of Britannia since, after all, there’s a wall to build.
Downie injects a modern who-done-it twist into the imperial action.