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*

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