Semper Fidelis - Ruth Downie

~~Moved from GR~~


Semper Fidelis (Gaius Petreius Ruso #5)

by Ruth Downie


Recommended for: fans of Elizabeth Peters, historical mystery readers


I'm still not exactly sure how Roman army medicus Gaius Petreius Ruso made it out of the last book's frying pan, but in Semper Fidelis, with a little prodding from his British wife Tilla, he plummets right back into the fire. Travelling back from his hometown in Gaul with Tilla in tow, Ruso is briefly posted as medicus to the 20th legion, which is already gaining a reputation for unluckiness--and that's before it is landed with the hapless Ruso. Ruso quickly discovers that luck is the least of the 20th's problems: the native British recruits of the novice legion are being subjected to atrocities by their sadistic leaders. To make issues even more complex, the emperor Hadrian's planned visit to Deva takes an abrupt side excursion through the 20th's camp. Galvanized by his wife's reproaches, Ruso tries to help the beleaguered legion, but when his efforts are interrupted by a murder, the circumstances of both Ruso and the rest of the legion are about to get infinitely worse.

Ruth Downie's historical mysteries are some of my favorite detective books and definitely my favorite historical Roman series. I find Ruso a remarkably sympathetic and entertaining character. Maybe I've encountered too many of the Nietzchean he-who-hunts-monsters protagonists lately, but it was extremely refreshing to encounter a protagonist who has absolutely no struggles with that particular personality flaw. Ruso certainly has his faults, but his temptation will always be passivity, not power. Ruso is phlegmatic and rather pessimistic, but in the face of adversity, he demonstrates a dark and quiet enjoyment in gallows humour and a tendency towards understatement. Both his personality and position in the legion make silence, inaction, and obedience his constant temptations. Without the acerbic, self-assured proddings of his wife Tilla, Ruso would most likely leave the issues that confront him unchallenged. Ruso has a tendency to always expect the worst--granted, it might just be sound logic at this point--but he also tends to adapt readily and stoically to any adversity he faces, leading to unexpected hilarity. Only Ruso would be able to sit locked and chained and facing a military trial for murder and have a polite conversation with an acquaintance about the acquaintance's wife and prospects. Only Tilla can really rouse Ruso from his general imperturbability.

Tilla herself is beginning to grow on me. Possibly because she acts as Ruso's foil, I have always found her irritating, caustic, and self-righteous. In this story, perhaps because she finally admits to fault, I found myself empathizing more and more with her. My increased sympathy might also be due to the introduction of an even more irritating character than Tilla or Tilla's improved diction. Tilla has apparently finally learned Latin, so Downie has stopped presenting her conversation in ungrammatical pidgin. Other favourite characters, including the smooth, shallow, womanizing Valens and the snaky Metellus--who I finally realized is basically an evil version of Pratchett's Lord Vetinari--make enjoyable cameos. As always, Downie's vibrant characters and skilled depiction of scenes bring her world to life.

One of the aspects I always love about these books is the portrayal of everyday mundanities and the relative unimportance of the protagonist when compared to his literary peers (e.g. Marcus Didius Falco, who is so close to the aristocracy that Vespasian actually hits on his girlfriend.) In this book, Downie varies her approach, bringing Hadrian and his wife in as major characters, and I was pleasantly surprised by the result. Hadrian and Sabina are fascinating historical characters, and Downie does a marvellous job capturing Hadrian's powerful and problematic personality and his wife's more enigmatic life. Like all great historical novelists, Downie has definitely done her research and grounds her plot in as much historical detail that is available. Hadrian's inclusion brings an added richness to her depiction of Roman Britain.

Overall, this was a great addition to the series and I just can't wait for more. If you enjoy a harmonious mixture of humour, romance, and mystery, please give Downie's series a try--the first book is Medicus.