Terra Incognita: A Novel of the Roman Empire
Bloomsbury, 2008 (2008)
Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
in Ruth Downie's excellent new mystery series set in Roman Britain. Her first book introduced readers to Gaius Petreius Ruso. A divorced Roman army doctor born in Gaul, Ruso had joined his friend Valens at a Twentieth Legion outpost in the Britannia port of Deva (now Chester). He bought a young female slave (Tilla) with a broken arm from her abusive owner, and together they solved the mystery of murders in a local whorehouse.
opens in A.D. 118, Ruso, Tilla (now his housekeeper) and his scribe Albanus accompany a Twentieth Legion contingent north to the borderlands. Ruso asked for the assignment in order to safely escort Tilla back to her homeland - she was sold into slavery after a raid by a neighboring tribe slaughtered her family. Of course, Tilla manages to get into all kinds of trouble en route, in addition to helping the camp followers as a midwife. As they travel, they hear rumors of an antlered messenger of the native god Cernunnos, dubbed the
by the Romans. An act of sabotage leaves Ruso with a patient, whom he takes to the fort at Coria, manned by the Tenth Batavians. There he finds the local medic, Thessalus, under guard as a madman.
t Coria, which is anticipating a visit from the Governor, Prefect Decianus asks Ruso to fill in for a few days until their new medic arrives, '
to sort out the shambles that calls itself a medical service
', and to examine the body of a murdered trumpeter. The suspect turns out to be Rianorix, a childhood friend of Tilla's. Medic Thessalus claims that he's the killer, but can't account for the fact that the corpse is missing its head. Ruso digs into his new role, reluctantly assisted by deputy medic Gambax, who has his own irons in the fire. Tilla - whose real name is Darlughdacha and who tells Ruso, '
I am not a friend of the army
' - faces interrogations by Metellus, who carries out '
special duties for the prefect
', revisits her old home, and reunites with her cousin Aemilia and rich uncle Catavignus.
s in the first episode, the author provides her own amusing summary at the beginning, listing what will happen to her hero, for example that he will be '
puzzled by ... a silenced trumpeter
endangered by ... a barber
', and '
thanked by nobody
'. Along the way, Ruso solves the murder, as well as the cold case of the attack on Tilla's family, and the mystery behind his fellow medic's confession. Between them, Ruso and Tilla prevent an uprising - and their relationship moves to another level. Ruth Downie delivers a highly entertaining series - think a Roman Britain
, enriched by the culture clash between invaders and locals - and I can't wait to see where she takes Ruso and Tilla next.
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