Saturday, September 01, 2007

Medicius and the Disappearing Dancing Girls by R.S. Downie

Ruso has just taken up a medical post with the Twentieth Legion in Chester. It is a dark, wet settlement on the very outskirts of the Empire, on the outskirts of the world. Driven to this job by desperate personal circumstances, Ruso is merely surviving. He lives with a colleague who is a regular ladies man and handsome to boot. Added to that he doesn't get on with his boss, a penny pinching bureaucrat who is more interested in how quickly they can treat patients than treating them properly. Then on his way back from a quick drink, Ruso comes across a badly injured slave girl. He buys the girl and tends her in the hope that he can sell her on for a huge profit and solve all his problems. This is never a wise idea, particularly if you find their eyes attractive. Meanwhile girls from the very place he enjoys a quiet drink are turning up dead and Ruso is the only one who cares enough to investigate. It seems as though the Gods aren't smiling on Ruso.

For anyone who enjoys Lindsey Davis' Falco series, you really must read 'Medicius and the disappearing dancing girls'. The main character, much like Falco, is a likeable, down-trodden guy with a good heart who somehow manages to get into more scrapes than a club bouncer. The story is well written, undemanding, and easy to read. I couldn't put it down when I'd started and ended up reading it in a day.

Downie's characters are very well written. I particularly like the portrayal of Priscus who is the archetypal bureaucrat you just want to slug. He makes pettiness into a fine art form and puts me in mind of one or two people I've come across in my years of working in local government. I liked Albanus as a character too and hope that he appears in any future instalments. I have a bit of a soft spot for clerks who come good! One character that felt a bit different was that of Tilla. A strong woman who doesn't want to be a slave who to begin with seems not to want to live but her spirit won't let her so she plans to escape instead. Her relationship with Ruso is not a typical slave/master relationship, nor is it overtly romantic either. Although Downie leaves scope for the two to fall for each other properly it doesn't seem to quite happen. To me that is far preferable to happy domesticity.

The setting of the book is fairly well written. Downie has certainly done her research and there doesn't seem to be any glaring factual mistakes. I particularly enjoyed the way she shows how far the Roman medical profession is behind modern medicine. The fact that most people are terrified of the doctors and that they can be a bit ruthless at times. It made the whole thing feel that little bit more real. It can be too tempting to turn your hero into a proper hero, able to cure anyone of anything. Ruso isn't a bad doctor, but nor is he set up as the greatest doctor either.

There are quite a few authors on the market whose books are historical crime stories set in the Roman period, Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, Rosemary Rowe and Marilyn Todd to name but a few. I really feel that Downie deserves to be added to this list and it is my hope that Ruso and Tilla will enjoy another outing in the not too distant future.

*4 stars*

The Kings Last Song by Geoff Ryman

In a field in Cambodia the find of a lifetime is uncovered during an archaeological dig. It is the memoir of Cambodia's greatest king, preserved on sheets of gold for centuries. Cambodia is in turmoil, still reeling from the civil wars that have torn the country apart, and the massacres by Pol Pot. The treasure is stolen and the director of the excavation kidnapped. A young moto-boy and an ex-Khmer Rouge solider, brought together by their concern for the dig director, join forces to try and recover the memoirs. Yet with such opposing backgrounds and in a country on a knife edge their quest is in jeopardy before they even start. They must overcome their pasts and fight for a brighter future for their beloved country.

The book is set in multiple time frames in Cambodia, from the present day, to the 12th century of Jayavarman, to the memories of Luc and Map over the last 40-50 years. The book centres on the violent past of the country, not only in the past century but also in the 12th century. Cambodia is a country still struggling to come to terms with itself and re-build itself. Most of the characters are Cambodian and reflect the different backgrounds, from Map the ex-Khmer Rouge soldier who switched sides to William, a young man orphaned by the fighting, to Pich, one of the leaders of the opposition, ruthless and intelligent but fighting for a better future for Cambodia. There are also the odd Vietnamese characters and of course the French dig director to help show other characteristics of the country.

The inclusion of a story running parallel to the main narrative, centuries before the present day is an interesting device. The violence and turmoil of this story seems to show that the events of the most recent century are not new or indeed unique. It tells the story of a king striving to obtain peace but also, towards the end, yearning for power. It also shows that humans can never be flawless. We can all have good intentions but there will be times when we go against these.

Although the story was readable it didn't grab me as it has done others who recommended the book to me in the first place. I know nothing of this history of Cambodia and although have heard the names 'Pol Pot' and 'Khmer Rouge' I only know they were involved in genocide. I know absolutely nothing beyond that and I think that meant I got far less out of the story than I should have done. I admit I probably know more about Cambodia now that I did before I read the book, but still not enough to appreciate the nuances of the book. It has made me wish to read up a bit more about it though, so perhaps it has served one of Ryman's aims when writing the book!

It is quite clear that Ryman is in love with Cambodia. Despite the misery and the violence in the book there is a strand of hope running throughout it. Hope and desire to make Cambodia a better place. To see the country great once more. By the end of the book you sincerely hope that one day the characters will succeed in their quest.

This is definitely a book for anyone with an interest in Asia, particularly Vietnam & Cambodia. It is a book written in the hope that things will improve. It's certainly not a tourist travel novel, written with the sole intention of getting you to visit and spend money. It is definitely something that should be read if you want to learn about the country and the people who live there. It is meant to highlight the problems that the country faces but it does not suggest that tourism and foreign intervention will cure them.

*3 stars*

The Blackpool Highflyer by Andrew Martin

In the hot summer of 1905 Jim Stringer has work to do. For many the factories and mills of Halifax are closing for a short holiday and it's off to Scarborough and Blackpool. Jim is a fireman and it's his job to man the excursion trains for the summer break. However on one trip to Blackpool the train hits a millstone on the line and is derailed. Not convinced this is an idle act of vandalism, Jim thinks the Hind's Mill excursion train to Blackpool has been targeted specifically. There are several people with motives, but is Jim right or is he just chasing shadows?

This is the second book in the Jim Stringer series and immediately precedes 'The Lost Luggage Porter' and sees Jim still working as a fireman before his career change to the railway police. For those of you who have read 'Lost Luggage Porter' (or even my review of it) you may find this book jars with your knowledge of Jim and how he came to move to York. I for one was scratching my head over it all the way to the end of the book. I think it is definitely a case of reading these books in order. Therefore I recommend to anyone who hasn't tried these books to go and read them in order, starting with 'The Necropolis Railway', to avoid confusion.

Despite the slight lack of continuity between books, this was still and fairly enjoyable romp. In some ways the story reflects the restrained characteristics we think are typical of the Victorian/Edwardian periods. Jim is fairly down to earth, doesn't pick fights, goes to work, enjoys a drink and has a passion for his railway magazines. Often the heroes of crime fiction have awful foibles and depressing lives. They are womanisers, or alcoholics or bad parents. Jim has none of these foibles. He seems a pretty pleasant character with an equally pleasant wife. If anything the fact his wife cannot cook and is veering towards the suffragette cause is perhaps the most controversial thing about Jim and his family. In some ways this makes him a unique character in the crime fiction genre.

There’s not a lot more that can be said about this book. A book to pass the time rather than a 'must read' perhaps.

*3 stars*