Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Terra Incognita by Ruth Downie

Gaius Petrius Ruso is a medicus, or a doctor, stationed with the Twentieth Legion in Britain. Stationed there for nearly a year, his career has suffered a bit too much attention lately, mainly because of a case he got pulled into where he investigated the murders of some local prostitutes. Looking for a change of scenery, he chooses to go with the legion to Coria, near Hadrian's wall in the very wilds of Britain, on what is the edge of the Roman Empire.

With him is his servant Tilla, a native woman he took in to be his housekeeper and has since become his lover. She is grateful to him for saving her when she broke her arm, and has set his household in order as a way to repay him. Coria is where she was born, and she has come with him to find out if any of her family is left alive. As a former slave, she has been working as a midwife and interpreter for Ruso, but a confrontation on the road has him realizing she has also been stealing when she believes people have been cheating him... or her.

After giving him the ill-gotten proceeds of her "savings". Ruso uses it to pay for a room at the inn, where Tilla sees a man with deer's antlers who she identifies as the God Cerunnnos (pronounced Hurrrn). Ruso is skeptical, but later the next day, the wagon train runs into difficulties, and several men are hurt, including one who has to have his leg amputated. As the man's wife has just given birth, Ruso finds it hard to tell her how good the chances are that her husband could die. When they arrive in Coria, he commandeers the local infirmary to look after his patients, and finds that the medicus stationed there has confessed to the murder of a trumpeter named Felix, and seems to have gone insane.

The commander of the fort doesn't want to believe that the Doctor had anything to do with the murder, but he shares enough details that they must lock him up. They want to pin the blame on Rianorix, a local basket maker who was involved in an altercation with Felix before he died. Since he will have to stay here to look after the man who lost his leg anyway, Ruso offers to look at the body of the dead Felix and the commander asks him to take on the job of organizing the infirmary while he is there.

While doing the autopsy, Ruso discovers one fact that isn't being gossiped about all over town: Felix is missing his head. Without that, he can't make a true determination of death, but puts it down to "possible head injuries", since there appears to be no other major wounds on the rest of his body.

Tilla, meanwhile, attempts to track down her family. The maid left to look after her uncle's house is of no help, but tells her that her uncle now has a grand house in the town. Even though it is a long journey back, Tilla doesn't choose to stay the night, but decides to return, only to encounter the bruised and beaten Rianorix, who she helps and stays the night with. However, during the night, they are woken by Roman soldiers, who drag Rianorix back to their fort, leaving Tilla behind.

She attempts to see Ruso the next day when she returns to town, and is refused by the soldiers at the front gate. Even when she tries to pay them for taking him a message from her, they pocket her money and refuse to do it. She has no choice but to find her uncle in town and stay with him.

Ruso is missing Tilla, and he finds that Gambrax, the second in command of the imprisoned Doctor, is extremely lazy and doesn't like to do any work. Ruso practically has to stand over him with a stick, but gets him to do the work that is needed, while trying to doctor the former doctor and dealing with repeated attacks by the antler-headed man, who has been killing people in town and foementing rebellion against the Romans.

Tilla discovers that her cousin Aemilla was seeing Felix and in love with him. She even thought she was pregnant with his child. When she told him, she expected him to be happy, push for a promotion, and marry her. But instead, he ran as far from her as he could, so she asked her friend Rianorix, who was like a brother to her and was charged to act as a brother would, to get something from Felix. Rianorix attempted to ask the man for five cows, the traditional payment for a slighted woman, but was refused and beaten by Felix and his colleagues. Not just once, but twice.

Felix seems to have had his hand in many pots, and kept a list of those who owed him, which was not found with his body. As Ruso attempts to reconstruct the last days of Felix's life, he will have to deal with Tilla's apparent betrayal, the members of her family, rebellious natives, and the Roman military and higher-ups to bring true justice to the perpetrators of the crime. But can he survive the experience?

There seems to be no shortage of historical mysteries set in Roman times nowadays. We have Gordianus the Finder of Steven Saylor, Decius Metellus of John Maddox Roberts, Marcus Didius Falco of Lindsay Davis and even Flavia Gemina in the Roman Mysteries, a series for children by Caroline Lawrence. There also may be others I am unaware of, but never have I seen a Roman mysteries series featuring a medicus, or Doctor.

I was rather disppointed that the medical part of the description didn't wind up being used much in the mystery. Ruso takes care of wounds, and attempts to find out what is wrong with Tullius, the supposedly insane doctor, but otherwise, his medical profession doesn't come into it very much in the course of solving the mysteries.

I found the book a very easy read. The writing style is fresh and open, and while the parts involving native Saxon tribes is a bit more stilted, it gives the impression that one would get if they were a Roman and trying to understand strange (to them) foreigners. The mystery is fairly muddy, and readers will struggle to understand, along with Medicus Ruso, but the outcome is satisfying, and presages a follow-up volume.

I also liked the characters of Ruso and Tilla (or Darlughdacha, her native Briton name). Ruso is portrayed as blind to the motives and emotions of women. He is divorced from his wife, one reason why he is in Britain in the first place, and Tilla is no less strange to him. I liked their interactions. Tilla is supposedly his slave/servant, but he has freed her, and protects her from the other Romans when they would use or abuse her. Tilla feels gratitude towards him, and has become his lover, but is his lover for seemingly more than reasons of gratitude. And in the end, when he believes she has chosen her old life over life with him, he prepares to leave, knowing he will miss her dreadfully, but she turns up again to stay with him.

All in all, the mysteries were good and satisfying, I found the main characters delightful and charming, and the book was easy to get into and satisfied my need for something not a brainless romance right to a T. Anyone looking for a good mystery set in Roman Britain will deeply enjoy this book. Even mystery fans should check it out.

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