: Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire
Author: Ruth Downie
Strange book. It mixes genres in a way that’s both intriguing and incomplete. For instance, despite its historical setting, it’s not really a historical novel, and the bulk of the story seems to be a mystery, with our hero, a Roman physician (Medicus), acting as a detective, searching for who has been killing several prostitutes.
The problem is that he’s a terrible detective, the mystery takes forever to solve, and in the end seems to be resolved on its own, not by anything he did in particular. It’s also not a mystery the reader is very interested in solving, since the dead girls are already dead at the start of the novel and no one we knew and cared about. Their deaths also seem trivial in light of life in Roman times, where much worse things are happening all the time.
Most of the book is about the man’s financial problems as he juggles debts, and his rebellious new slave girl, Tilla, who keeps running off on her own and disobeying him. I really didn’t care about his finances, and there really was very little about his supposed medical skills.
Also, the tone of the book is very modern. Except for a few bits of Roman jargon and some missing technology, it could have set today. Some aspects of Roman life portrayed surprised me, such as the detailed ledgers and accounting books that were kept, and how a doctor’s pay was calculated and distributed (with deductions that sound remarkably like the way it works today). I would have liked more of an explanation for that kind of thing (the same goes for the medical practices, which aren’t explained at all).
But a bigger issue is that the main character has such modern sensibilities that the whole novel feels preachy and forced. There’s no explanation for the man’s beliefs, no reason he should be that way, or defense of him being that way. He’s basically considered normal except that he doesn’t think like any of the other Romans. For instance, he seems to think slavery is bad, despite being an upper class citizen in a society dependent upon slave labor. I’m find with him being anti-slavery — but for his character to be complete, we need to understand what makes him that other. Since we’re not told that, he feels out of place, as though he’s a time traveler from our day.
Ultimately, the novel’s mildly interesting, but the “mystery” is both weak and too convoluted, and the story rambles all over without any real focus. The author has potential, but this definitely feels like a first try.