In a lively sequel to English author Downie’s historical mystery Medicus (2007), its eponymous protagonist—Roman army physician Gaius Petreius Ruso—finds himself absorbed by dark deeds done in the northern wasteland of occupied Brittania.
It’s a bleak, forbidding land, where (comparatively) innocent villagers are terrorized by Rome’s finest (who tend to strut and make trouble when far from home) and avaricious warlords and their minions—memorialized in a storyteller’s violent account of a peaceful settlement menaced by a vicious Wolf. None of this fazes Ruso’s housekeeper and frequent bedmate Tilla, who hails from these parts, and knows how to handle misbehaving males. Downie creates a vividly detailed stage on which a puzzling mystery is enacted. A soldier is murdered, in a primitive manner that points fingers in several directions, exacerbates Ruso’s fraying relations with his generally uncooperative new colleagues and provokes him to conclude that the soldier’s death “was some sort of ritual killing, and he was being asked to help cover it up.” Prime suspects include local medicus Thessalus (“as mad as a bee in a bottle”), suspiciously officious prefect’s aide Metellus, womanizing basket maker Rianorix, a local brewer (Catavignus), who seems to run several businesses at once, and a vainglorious northerner (Trenus) responsible for the slaughter of Tilla’s family. Downie distributes the action throughout 91 brisk chapters, and heightens the narrative’s energy level by commenting sardonically on her characters’ (often very witty) conversational exchanges. The puzzle’s solution is immensely satisfying, and the story ends with Ruso and Tilla apparently prepared to part ways. But it isn’t set in marble, and we’re given reason to hope another sequel is in the works.
Ruso rocks. Let’s hear it for those Romans.