Gaius Ruso Mystery #7: Vita Brevis by Ruth Downie

Read: 15 October, 2017

Ruso and Tilla head to Rome, their new baby in tow.

I like that Downie changes up the scenery every now and then. Britain is great, but it was nice to see Gaul in Persona Non Grata, and it’s lovely to see Rome here. And while Downie doesn’t exactly do vivid detail, the city certainly managed to come across satisfyingly noisy, dirty, and smelly.

As usual, the mystery is something of an afterthought. The main attraction is Tilla and Ruso, and now their expanded household. Adding Mara and the two slaves creates a whole new dynamic – not to mention nearly tripling the number of people Ruso has to support… somehow.

Narina has a lot of potential as a character, particularly with her tribal background. In Rome, Tilla seemed willing to ignore the traditional dislike between their tribes because Narina was, at least, from Britain. By the end of the book, the two women seem to have formed something of a friendship as they co-parent and face the dangers of Rome together. But I imagine that going back to Britain will highlight their tribal differences, and perhaps put a strain on their relationship. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

The series is still going strong, and I can already see the threads of many new interesting plotlines starting, so I don’t see me losing interest any time soon.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #6: Tabula Rasa by Ruth Downie

Read: 3 June, 2016

Ruso and Tilla are back up in northern Britannia where a rumour has it that there’s a body buried in Hadrian’s wall-in-progress.

Downie’s writing is consistently solid, and I really enjoyed this latest addition to the series. It follows the familiar format of Ruso stumbling into the middle of a mystery – helped along by Tilla’s meddling. He then proceeds to bumble around for 200 pages until, in the final few pages of the book, the mystery largely solves itself. It makes the series a little less than satisfying as a procedural because there’s little to follow on – when I can’t guess the answer, it’s because all the salient information is being withheld.

There’s humour in this format, though. Ruso is building a reputation as a crime solver, and yet he actually does very little. Tilla is the more active agent, and much of the most important comes through her investigations. Beyond that, it is Ruso’s reputation that positions him to receive the information he needs for the mystery to be resolved.

The real appeal of the series is the setting, and how beautifully Downie is able to bring it to life. The world of these novels feels populated, and even background characters have tangibility. The world also plays out in our two main characters and how they interact and negotiate each other’s cultural differences (and the differences really are cultural, because both are as stubborn and curmudgeonly as each other, much as they might protest otherwise).

SPOILERS: I was concerned about how the couple’s infertility would play out, and had some concerns that Tilla would suddenly find herself pregnant after receiving the marriage blessing. I shouldn’t have worried, not after how deftly Downie handled the issue of religion in Persona Non Grata. She is very deft at navigating fraught themes. Getting a replacement baby from Virana skirted the groaning border, though. The choice to give up her baby isn’t contrary to Virana’s established character, but it still would have been nice to see a little more build up. As it was, there was really only the mirroring with Conn’s fiancée’s refusal to do the same. Still, it’s easy enough to see how the decision would have made sense to Virana, so I’ll accept it. And it’ll be interesting to see how the addition of a baby to the family changes the dynamic between Ruso and Tilla.

Overall, I found this to be a fine addition to the series. I actually bought Tabula Rasa when it first came out, but was afraid to read it and no longer have it to look forward to! But with Vita Brevis coming out soon, I took a chance and was not disappointed.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #5: Semper Fidelis by Ruth Downie

Read: 13 May, 2013

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the next Ruso mystery for quite a while new. So when I heard about Semper Fidelis, I ordered it as soon as I was done with my patented Happy Dance ™. Unfortunately, it seems that Amazon.ca once again underestimated the selling power of any book that doesn’t feature a teenager marrying a sparkly vampire and, as with The Fault In Our Stars, I got my copy quite late (though, to be fair, I didn’t pre-order this time).

I really enjoyed Semper Fildelis. It followed a similar pattern to the other novels in that Ruso isn’t really a good investigator, he’s just bumbling about knocking stuff over and ends up “solving the case” simply by making the guilty parties nervous enough that they start to make mistakes. Or, in this case, by making the victims riled up enough that clues starts to fall together. It’s a really interesting (albeit sometimes frustrating) take on the detective model!

As in several of the other books in the series, much time is spend exploring the relationship between the Roman occupiers and the Briton natives, and how that relationship impacts a “mixed” couple like Ruso and Tilla.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there is a new character added to Ruso’s retinue and s/he hints at a very interesting story arc to come. So, once again, I eagerly await the next instalment!

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #4: Caveat Emptor by Ruth Downie

Read: 22 June, 2011

A pregnant Iceni woman, a descendent of the fearsome Boudica, bursts into Britain’s procurator’s office claiming that her husband has been murdered and did not steal the tax money. Ruso, freshly back from Gaul and in need of work – any work – takes on the job of investigator. What he uncovers exposes the delicate peace between Rome and even the most “civilized” British tribes.

The Ruso series is written in a fairly straightforward and often humorous style. Ruso’s (and occasionally Tilla’s) commentary is injected into the narrative to give the series a sort of deadpan comedic element that is just so very British. But despite its similarity to other series, such as Ellis Peters’s Cadfael, Caveat Emptor lacks much of the innocence. There is a hopelessness to the series, a reminder that justice is not always served and that desired outcomes are not always possible.

Caveat Emptor is similar enough to the rest of the series to satisfy the fan, while different enough to stand on its own merits. Downie has proven that she is not to be a “one hit wonder,” and is more than capable of creating a sustainable series.

The mystery itself is good enough, but the best part of Downie’s work is the characterisations. Main characters, like Ruso and Tilla (and even Valens) are complex and distinctive, likeable despite their many flaws. Side characters are similar enough to archetypes to be recognizable, but they provide a lovely illusion of unexplored depth.

This is another great addition to the series and I look forward to reading the next one!

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #3: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Read: 4 October, 2009

When Gaius Petreius Ruso receives a strange letter from his brother, he has no choice but to return to Gaul. Once there, however, he discovers that he has been tricked and he’s about to find out just how dangerous “civilization” can be.

We’ve seen quite a bit of Roman-occupied Britain, but now we get a glimpse of Ruso in his own environment; and this presents its own whole set of dangers. Once again, Downie is able to stay faithful to everything I love about the series without making it seem like just another replica.

I was a bit concerned when Christianity was introduced to the story, as Tilla spends time with Christian slaves. Books with Christian subplots so often devolve into apologetics either for or against the religion. I was practically holding my breath through the whole novel! But Downie manages to handle it with great finesse, simply including it as she does other historical details, and remains blessedly non-partisan.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #2: Terra Incognita by Ruth Downie

Read: 2 July, 2009

Britannia’s Twentieth Legion is heading north, to the very edges of civilization, and taking Gaius Petreius Ruso and his slave, Tilla, along with it. As in Medicus, he soon finds himself pulled into a murder investigation. Only this time, Tilla may be connected.

Terra Incognita is a wonderful sequel, capturing much of what made Medicus such a great novel while simultaneously finding its own unique value. As with the first book in the series, the murder comes almost secondary to the comedy and drama of the characters as Ruso and Tilla explore their growing relationship.

One of my favourite things about this series is how well Downie is able to balance making the characters true to life and yet also ridiculous. It’s that subtle, deadpan British humour – and Ruso certainly does come off as the proto-typical old school Brit!

Funny, interesting, and  suspenseful, all at the same time!

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #1: Medicus by Ruth Downie

Read: 15 June, 2009

Ruso has just bought a slave. He didn’t mean to, of course, but her master was treating her so roughly and she looked half-dead. Her arm is shattered and he doubts that she will live much longer, but still he bought her. Meanwhile, a woman’s body has been found and ,whether he likes it or not, Ruso must solve the mystery of her murder.

It is difficult to call Medicus a detective novel because Ruso really doesn’t do any investigating. Mostly, he just fumbles around in the dark, hopelessly inept in every area other than medicine, until the culprit is so unnerved by Ruso’s questions that he reveals himself. Those clues that Ruso does take credit for tend to be uncovered by his slave, Tilla, or openly confided to him. This bumbling detective style makes Medicus a delightfully whimsical and ironically funny story. It’s a novel only a Brit could have written.

I’m really not sure what attracts me so much to Medicus, but something certainly does. I couldn’t put it down and I ordered the next book in the series within minutes of finishing the last page. I loved that while the setting was so exotic, the issues dealt with in the novel are completely relevant today.

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Druids by Morgan Llywelyn

Read: 12 March, 2009

When Ainvar’s grandmother gives her life to save her tribe from starvation, he begins his journey to learn the true meaning of sacrifice. Along with his “soul friend,” the warrior Vercingetorix, Ainvar must find a way to end Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.

POSITIVE: Great plot and a fantastic pace. After a painful beginning, this novel quickly became an exciting page-turner.

NEGATIVE: Unfortunately, this great story was burdened with several narrative issues. Right from the start, the reader is met with page after page of unnecessary exposition. Exciting scenes would be broken up by dull interludes explaining the meaning of this or that ritual or detail. The choice of the first person narrative may also have been a mistake as there is no clear perspective or reason for the telling of the story (at one point, Ainvar says “I must remember to ask Menua,” despite the fact that Menua has already died from the narrator’s perspective). Finally, I have to mention the scene where Ainvar looks into a mirror. He describes the “young man staring back at me” as:

“He had an elegant narrow head with a long skull suitable for storing knowledge. The eye sockets were deeply carved, the cheekbones high, the nose prominent and thrusting. It was a strong clear timeless face full of contradictions, brooding yet mischievous, reserved yet involved. Fathomless eyes and curving lips spoke of intense passions carefully suppressed, concentrated in stillness.”

Who, I ask, would ever write in this way about themselves? It’s just silly.

Overall, I would say that this book is worth the read, especially for people with an interest in historical battles or the history of Gaul. That being said, readers should be prepared for a less-than-fabulous writing style and an incomplete mastery of the first person narrative.

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