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Thursday, 25 April 2013

‘Semper Fidelis’ by Ruth Downie

Published by Bloomsbury USA in hardback,
Jan 2013.
ISBN: 978 1 60819 709 5
(UK publication date to be announced)

A new Ruso novel by Ruth Downie is a long-awaited treat, albeit one available for UK readers only from on-line booksellers, at least for the time being.
For an established fan of the series, Semper Fidelis is up there with the best of them; for a newcomer, possibly seeking to supplement Lindsey Davis’s visits to ancient Rome in the company of Falco, it stands sufficiently alone to be enjoyed for itself, and also whets the appetite for the previous four.
For the benefit of those newcomers: Gaius Petreius Ruso is a doctor with the Roman army of occupation in Britannia, during the second century AD, some time after Julius Caesar came to, saw and conquered what later became the British Isles. In the previous four episodes in the series, having accidentally, and somewhat reluctantly, reinvented himself as an investigator, he variously abandoned his medical career, visited several parts of Britannia, left the army, and took a trip home to Gaul to sort out his rather demanding family. He also acquired a British slave, Darlughdacha of the Corionotate (Tilla for short), a woman with a mind of her own, who became his housekeeper and later his wife.
This time around, he is back in the army, has returned to Britannia, and is once again practising medicine. Carrying out a review of the medical facilities at the fort at Eboracum, he learns that the British recruits to the Twentieth Legion think they are cursed, following a series of deaths and serious injuries in dubious circumstances. He makes some alarming discoveries, which culminate in the discovery of a body.
After that it’s downhill all the way for poor old Ruso. Downie charts his and Tilla’s adventures with her customary deft wit and a lot of humour. She has a nimble hand with her characters, both major and minor. Ruso himself is a satisfying mix of self-assurance in the hospital ward and total bafflement when faced with a mystery to solve. Tilla is capable and feisty, but her determination to help her husband out of trouble invariably backfires.
A couple more familiar faces pop up: Valens, Ruso’s charming, ambitious friend and Metellus the devious security chief both have a part to play. And then there’s Hadrian, the man-of-the-people emperor, and Sabina his spoilt wife; and a whole cast of officers and soldiers and their women, each very much an individual.
It all makes for a rich tapestry, with a huge amount of historical research woven in with such a light hand that you hardly notice you’re being educated as well as entertained. The secret of good historical fiction is not necessarily to ensure every detail is absolutely accurate – an impossible task anyway – but to persuade the reader that this is how it could have happened. I have no idea whether the Emperor Hadrian’s ship was almost wrecked and forced to come ashore at somewhere that equates to Hull, or whether his wife was a gullible, selfish snob, but I’m quite happy to suspend disbelief of both these things in the context of Downie’s narrative. And she certainly includes enough sound common sense to convince me that she knows what she’s talking about: details like the small boys who are the inevitable consequence of silly girls hanging around the garrison, for instance. 
Whether or not you’re a fan of historical fiction, Ruth Downie offers a lot to enjoy in this latest Ruso adventure. Me, I can hardly wait for the next one.
Reviewer Lynne Patrick

Ruth Downie left university with an English degree and a plan to get married and live happily ever after. She is still working on it. In the meantime she is also the New York Times bestselling author of a mystery series featuring Roman doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso. This is her fifth book. The four currently available are: Medicus (published as Medicus/Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls in the UK and Australia)Terra Incognita (Ruso and the Demented Doctor) Persona non Grata (Ruso and the Root of All Evils) Caveat Emptor (Ruso and the River of Darkness)
Ruth is not the RS Downie who writes real medical textbooks. Absolutely none of the medical advice in the Ruso books should be followed. Roman and Greek doctors were very wise about many things but they were also known to prescribe donkey dung and boiled cockroaches.
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Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning.
She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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