Crossposted at The BiblioSanctum
This story follows military medicus (doctor) Gaius Petreius Ruso who is a Roman man living in Brittania (England). He's escaped to the Brittania to heal from a disaster of a marriage that ended in divorce and the death of his father that left the family with many undue debts to pay. Brittania is considered a backwater town but important nonetheless. It's too small to be considered grand, but too large to be ignored by the Romans. As if going from everything to having nothing wasn't bad enough, women continue to bring trouble for Ruso after he examines a dead woman found in the river and rescues a slave from her callous owner.
This story takes place during a time when modern medicine was just beginning to emerge. Doctors were regarded as suspicious conmen and "healers" still ruled surpreme. I loved how Downie weaved that into the story, showing how doctors began to record treatment and discover new ways to deal with various medical ailments and conditions. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Ruso ushered around the new doctors in training and reveled in their naïveté after one fainted (and the others just barely made it out) when Ruso showed them a particular gruesome case. The description made me chuckle because it was just so Ruso-like.
Ruso is a bit cynical and serious, but he does have a little bit of a dry comedic side. He's very sure of his abilities as a medicus almost to the point of cockiness, but unlike his friend and fellow medicus, Valens, he keeps to himself in a world where knowing the right people means everything. He often feels awkward in social situations and almost always says the wrong things in his mind, so he tends to keep to himself. His bedside manners are cool because he's a man of logic, even by his own admission, but Ruso cares more about people more than he shows. This care extends beyond mere medical interest, but he's not sure how to "fix" people beyond what physically ails them.
Ruso complains that he shouldn't get involved in certain matters, but still he finds that his underlying compassion and concern causes him to do the exact opposite, which is how he ends up "investigating" a murder that he insists he's not investigating. He's also terrible at being a hard ass as shown when he became Tilla's "master." Tilla is just one of a group of ragtag friends he picks up during the course of the story which includes the charming Valens who thinks that Ruso needs a new wife, an overenthusiastic scribe named Albanus, and a dog he claims not to care for. He complains about them, of course, but I don't think he'd know what to do without them.
Despite all the elements that could make this a complicated story to listen to, it was very easy to follow. Nothing really went beyond my grasp or caused me to pause and rewind just to make sure I was understanding what I'd heard. Downie didn't use language that was too complicated, and the things that seemed a little unfamiliar she was able to explain in the simplest terms, even when it didn't really seem necessary. However, this was a surprisingly light listen. I was afraid that I would get partway in and decide that I need to read the book rather than listen to the audiobook.
One of the chief complaints I'd heard about this book was that the language was "too modern," but that's the usual complaint of many historical fiction settings ranging from books to television. I wasn't surprised to hear the complaint, but it just seems like old news now since many shows and books take this approach. I think that's because it makes it easier on the reader and the writer. How many people would really be interested in reading this if written in the style of that time? What writer would stick to writing a story in such a style? It would be tedious for both the reader and the writer. I agree that maybe some word choices absolutely were too modern, but that's such a nitpicky thing. However, I can only say that it doesn't bother me. Your mileage may vary.
My chief complaint is that, while I liked Ruso, he could be a bit annoying at times. I'd get mad at him for how he tried to treat Tilla, calling her property and trying to force her to call him master, even though he was terrible at being bossy--at least to Tilla. He does show a surprising amount of sexism that can be a bit annoying, too. Not because it's sexism, however. This is ancient Rome era we're talking about. It's annoying because it's obvious that he's not as sexist as most, but has defaulted to sexism because of his general disillusionment due to a bad marriage, which is understandable but so frustrating. Some of his actions were so obtuse to the point that I had to wonder if Ruso was okay mentally at times. An example being how he wanted the rumors about him investigating the murder to stop since he "wasn't investigating," but he made it his business to ask every person around if they'd heard he was investigating the murders. Really, Ruso?
As far as the narration goes, Simon Vance is quickly becoming one of my favorite narrators. He has a voice that is perfect for reading. This will be the third book I've listened to with him as the narrator and he never fails to impress me with his read. He's remarkable; his narration is always so impeccable. I have never encountered a narrator with such clean narration skills. Also, he understands that timbre not pitch determines how realistically a female voice will come across when reading, and even when faced with multiple female speakers in one scene, he gives them all their own personality that makes them easily discernible one from another.
The only real complaint I have is that he's a fast talker. I tend to speed up my audiobooks between 1.25 to 2.0 times faster than normal. With him, I have to get used to the pace he's keeping before I can speed it up, but that's really a trivial complaint when compared to how extraordinary he is as a narrator.
This was a great opening for the series, and I look forward to following more of Ruso's misadventures as narrated by Simon Vance.