Terra Incognita

Terra Incognita by Ruth Downie. The second book in the tales of army doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso is even better than the debut story, Medicus. Ruso has decided to venture to the extreme northern border of Roman rule in Britannia in 118 A.D., following the Twentieth Legion on its assignment there. Upon arrival at the fort in Coria, he finds himself reluctantly sucked in to the turmoil there. A local soldier has been killed; the fort’s medicus has gone crazy and has confessed to the crime, but the prefect would prefer a native man be convicted; the rest of the infirmary staff are lazy do-nothings and the place is a shambles. Outside the fort, there is a mysterious Stag Man waging a guerilla war against any Romans in the area and inciting the natives. Fortunately, Ruso has brought along his diligent clerk, Albanus, who will straighten out the infirmary records to his own peril. Unfortunately, Ruso has also been accompanied by his housekeeper and lover, Tilla, who grew up just outside Coria until her family’s house was burned down by a rival native clan and she was held captive until being sold into slavery. Her natural tendency towards troublemaking only stirs up more problems for Ruso, but eventually he sorts things out and uncovers the murderer.

Tilla really plays a major role in this book as the action takes place on her home turf and she knows all the local characters and their histories. Downie does well in this choice as it gives readers a different perspective of the situation and develops another character more thoroughly for future books. Ruso’s development stagnates a bit, except where it relates to Tilla, but we do see his compassion for his fellow doctors and his patients and the mystery he solves has some nice twists to it.

Some critics have compared these books to Lindsey Davis’ fine series featuring Marcus Didius Falco since they are both set in the Roman Empire and around the same time period. Both series use a bit of humor as well and both main characters struggle in their roles as family patriarchs, but Ruso’s situation and Falco’s are quite different. Ruso is a doctor attached to a legion based in Britain whereas Falco is a freelance private investigator based in Rome (though he does travel to Britain on occasion). Tilla is a native and a slave whereas Helena, Falco’s wife, is a senator’s daughter. We see Ruso’s family only through periodic letters, whereas Falco’s family is an integral part of his many adventures. Unless Ruso and Tilla leave Britain for Rome, these are two distinct and enjoyable series. For another good “Romans in Britain” series, try Jane Finnis and her innkeeper, Aurelia Marcella.

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