by Ruth Downie
“Divorced and down on his luck, Gaius Petreius Ruso has made the rash decision to seek his fortune in an inclement outpost of the Roman Empire, namely Britannia. In a moment of weakness, after a straight thirty six-hour shift at the army hospital, he succumbs to compassion and rescues an injured slave girl, Tilla, from the hands of her abusive owner. Now he has a new problem: a slave who won’t talk and can’t cook, and drags trouble in her wake. Before he knows it, Ruso is caught in the middle of an investigation into the deaths of prostitutes working out of the local bar. Now Ruso must summon all his forensic knowledge to find a killer who may be after him next. With a gift for comic timing and historical detail, Ruth Downie has conjured an ancient world as raucous and real as our own.” (via Amazon)
Good Things: I picked up Medicus for Kindle because the price was right–it’s still $1.99, actually–and because the premise was pretty interesting. I’m starting to get more into mysteries these days, and an unusual setting can spice up what might otherwise be a predictable story, so why not a murder mystery set during the Roman Empire?
Which is not to say that the mystery in Medicus is predictable–at least, not to me it wasn’t, although I’m still a mystery newb at this point. The solution to the murders is both more and less complex than I expected, and while the answers that come out left me a little with a feeling of really? that’s what was going on?, it felt like a rather realistic, muted end to things, especially in comparison to some of the weirdness that the story goes through as it races to the denouement. I enjoyed the setting, although I couldn’t speak to the historical accuracy, which may end up being a sticking point for those more versed in Roman history than I. (As an aside, how much does historical accuracy matter to you in a historically-based novel? I’m still working through my feelings on authenticity and how much I care about it.)
There are moments of casual misogyny that don’t feel out of place for such a patriarchially-oriented society, and most of the moments that would have become really uncomfortable–oh great, Ruso thinks, my slave has misbehaved and now I must beat her–are thankfully averted in a way that doesn’t feel too contrived. I feel complicatedly about historical novels that impress current morals and culture on a historical setting, especially with all the preternaturally modern-sounding Bluestockings that end up running around; I don’t want to read super-misogynistic things that make me feel terrible, of course, but ignoring the reality of times and places that weren’t so hot for women (and POC, of course) and pretending everything was hunky-dorey doesn’t seem like the way to go either? To that end, I appreciated the way that Ruso slowly comes to an understanding of how shitty life is for a large number of women in his time and place, but doesn’t end up acting on that realization in a way that seems unrealistic. Plus, you know, many of the supporting characters in the story work as prostitutes and they are (for the most part) not slut-shamed by the main character or the internal narration! Yay!
Bad Things: Although I generally felt comfortable with the line between historical accuracy and blatant misogyny that the book walks, I wasn’t comfortable with the moments when Ruso reminisces about his ex-wife Claudia. These memories don’t seem to serve any purpose other than to remind us oh yeah, what a shallow bitch she obviously was and give us a reason that Ruso doesn’t want to get involved with another woman, which–what’s the point? Now, this is the first book in a series, and this may be setting the stage for something that happens later down the line, but I didn’t feel great about the inclusion. There were also a couple moments of fat-shaming and other things that made me unhappy, and which didn’t really build towards my seeing Ruso as a sympathetic main character. Actually, he’s kind of a curmudgeon, and while he’s got that soft spot that keeps him doing good things–doctoring, helping the helpless, financially supporting his brother’s family–his grouchy view of the rest of the world as taking advantage of his good nature got a little tiresome. I also didn’t feel super-strongly about Tilla one way or another, which isn’t great since she’s supposed to be the (eventual) love interest. On the other hand, some of the other female characters were pretty rad (holla, Chloe!), so that made up for it a little bit.
Overall: I’ll probably pick up the second book at the library since I bought the third one as a Kindle Daily Deal a while back. (Those Daily Deals, they get me sometimes!) Pretty interesting, although it didn’t leave a strong lasting impression–for historical murder mystery, I’d be more inclined to recommend The Unquiet Bones, by Mel Starr.