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By Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition March 4, 2008 ($14.95)
Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel
Gaius Petreius Ruso, an overworked and underpaid physician in Roman Britain, is having a bad day. All he wants is to get to the baths and have a nice long soak, then go home and relax. Instead, he is presented with the badly abused body of a young female murder victim that he has to deal with, then, on the way to the bath, he reluctantly steps in to help a slave girl with a broken arm and ends up buying her to get her out of the clutches of the uncaring slave dealer. The young woman does not thank him for his kindness - she does not say anything to him at all, despite his attempts to speak to her in several local dialects as well as Latin. In the following days after he tends to her broken arm, she only stares sullenly and refuses to eat.
Ruso wants to be a good guy, but the woman, who he decides to call Tilla, has had little reason to trust anyone, and she does not make it easy for him to get through to her. It doesn't help matters when, unable to keep her in his squalid bachelor quarters, he rents her a room in the local brothel. She does begin to thaw out toward him, until someone in the brothel tells her the doctor is only taking such good care of her so he can sell her to the highest bidder. That was, in truth, his original plan. He's accepted this assignment in the farthest region of the Empire so he can make enough money to send home to his stepmother and siblings. When their father died, they found that he left them a mountain of debt, and the family land was in jeopardy.
Another murder victim is found, and Ruso knows that the two crimes are related. He vows to find the killer and get justice for the young women. At the same time, he is trying to earn the top position at the hospital, in competition with his roommate, and to find better living quarters, preferably without rats.
This is a well-written, well-researched, and thoroughly enjoyable book. The author wisely included a comprehensive cast of characters, along with the roles they play in the story. The setting is so vivid that I almost felt like I was walking the village streets along with Ruso. The mystery is well-done and plausible. This is Ms. Downie's first novel, and she is off to a great start. Ruso is a likable protagonist, and I hope to see him again.
[The above review is based on the hardcover edition.]
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