Only an excellent writer with a superb set of characters and an imagination full of fresh ideas can fuel a series to last more than maybe 4 or 5 books in a series. The fact that Tabula Rasa is book 6 in Ruth Downie’s series, then, is telling. The fact that, yet again, it is an absolutely cracking tale is even better.
I figure I’m past having to explain why I love Ruth’s books at this point, but to recap my view over the whole series, this is it in a nutshell:
- Truly believable, very sympathetic and engaging characters
- Intricate, carefully-crafted plots
- Deep, realistic, historically accurate portrayal of the ancient world
- Fascinating details that add colour and realism
- Quirky sense of humour that always hits the spot
- True historical mysteries, shot through with shrewd social observations
So there you go. That’s why I love the Ruso books. This book, in particular, brings in some of my favourite characters in the whole series. Some returning, some new. Tribune Accius, Valens, Albanus, Virana… and in particular Pertinax and Fabius. Oh, boy but Fabius is one of my fabourite supporting characters of any book I’ve read.
Tabula Rasa (‘Clean Slate’) is set in the forts on the Stanegate during the building of Hadrian’s wall. Ruso is back with the army, along with his better half, Tilla. He is serving as the medic in a tiny fort in the middle of nowhere that happens (much to his chagrin) to be close to the farm of one of Tilla’s relatives. Essentially the root of the tale is a case of ‘missing person’. Well, missing persons, at least. Ruso’s clerk has vanished, while his uncle Albinus is coming north to see him. And a local boy has vanished. As if the tension between locals and Roman invaders were not enough, the medicus pulls what I am coming to think of as ‘a Ruso’ and exacerbates the situation completely by accident. What follows is an excellent investigation that roams across the Stanegate forts and even beyond the wall, searching for the boy and trying to piece together why he was taken.
This area is somewhat home turf for me, so it was fascinating to read about places I know well. And I have to say I’d not twigged what was going on until Ruth revealed the truth towards the end of the book, so kudos there.
As usual, Tabula Rasa is pacy, clever, witty, thought-provoking and fascinating. I am starting to twitch at the thought that I now only have one Ruso book left before I will have to wait like everyone else.
Highly recommended as always. Ruth Downie’s books sell themselves.
Like history? Need a good book to read? Well here’s a selection of some of my favourites. I’ve chosen one book by one author for each century, showcasing the very best of that era in my opinion. A few of those centuries are empty, mind, clearly telling me where I need to concentrate my reading, so I’ve skipped about 5. And needless to say, I’ve ignored my own humble scribblings. These are all from other writers, and of the ones I’ve met, they are not onlys skillful storytellers, but also most excellent people.
5th Century BC
To be honest, I was going to make this list much shorter, but there was simply no way I could ignore this novel, so I had to extend the timeframe to include the best book I’ve read by one of the very best authors ever to put finger to keyboard. Christian Cameron’s ‘Killer of Men’ brings to life the world of ancient Greece in a way no other writer can. It is like climbing into the skin of the character and living through him
3rd Century BC
Few writers have tackled the world of early Rome and done it well. One is the tremendous Ben Kane. He has rapidly risen to become one of the pillars of the Historical Fiction world, famed for several series spanning quite some timeframe. But my favourite of Ben’s novels is still ‘Hannibal: Enemy of Rome’. It is a story of friendship, family and sundered cultures in a time which even to many of us Roman-o-philes is still a fairly hazy world. Hannibal brings the Punic Wars to life.
1st Century BC
Alongside Ben Kane, one of the acknowledged giants of Historical Fiction is the great Conn Iggulden. It all started for Conn with ‘Emperor: The Gates of Rome.’ A novel of the early life of Julius Caesar, it is immersive and gripping and set the standard for many authors to follow. And best of all, it triggered a series of four more excellent novels.
1st Century AD
Huge selection to choose from here, and some astoundingly good books from great writers, so the competition is fierce. But for my money, the prize for the 1st century just has to go to Douglas Jackson for his superb opus ‘Hero of Rome.’ Simply the best, most harrowing, most breathtaking scene imaginable as Boudicca’s rebellion hits Colchester. Every now and then I re-read it to remind myself what I need to try and live up to.
2nd Century AD
Again, a time well covered by some excellent writers, and with so many memorable names, but for sheer personal reading pleasure I have to go with Ruth Downie’s Medicus, a tale about a Roman military doctor and his significant other solving a case of disappearing dancing girls in Chester during the reign of Hadrian. Elegantly written, historically accurate, with flowing prose and the most wonderful sense of humour, it sort of exemplifies the most widely accessible of all historical fiction. I’ve yet to find someone who doesn’t love it. For the record, I very nearly subdivided this century to include Anthony Riches, but rules are rules, and I can only select one. But if you’re after extra reads, launch in Riches’ direction.
3rd Century AD
Long professed on this blog as one of my favourite series, Agent of Rome by Nick Brown takes us into the troubled world of 3rd Century Rome with a member of the Imperial Security service. By turns funny, thought-provoking and gripping, the book is guarenteed to drag you along and the series never fails to disappoint. Makes me weep for the sites often mentioned in these books that I would love to visit, but are in the troubled lands of the Middle East.
4th Century AD
Ian Ross introduces us to the Constantinian era in his debut ‘War at the Edge of the World’, showing us where the world of that most famous emperor began through the eyes of a grizzled centurion. An unusual era for Roman fiction, and a welcome addition. Gordon and I have tackled Constantine too, but Ian got there first and did a damn fine job, I must say.
5th Century AD
‘Eagle in the Snow’ by Wallace Breem has long been considered one of the seminal works on the Roman world. Most Roman fiction authors will cite this as one of the best books written. Set at the very end of the Western empire, it is a somewhat sad and heart-wrenching view of the decline of a glorious world, and has certainly influenced my own opinions on the genre.
6th Century AD
Alright, I know Guy Gavriel Kay writes fantasy, or at least Historical Fantasy, but his books are so heavily researched and so closely based on real events and people that sometimes they are more historical than some of the theoretical historical fiction based on the time. Such is ‘Sailing to Sarantium’, a fantasy twist on the world of Justinian and Belisarius. It is simply one of the best books (along with its sequel, being a dualogy) I have ever read in any genre. It deserves to be in this list
9th Century AD
‘Raven: Blood Eye’ by Giles Kristian. Kristian has written a series set in the English civil war, and a new series of viking novels that are something of a prequel to this and more epic in scale. But there is something about Raven, and its sequels, that just grab me. They are adventure incarnate as Vikings seek fame and fortune across Europe. It is hard to deny the value of these books as works of great historical fiction.
10th Century AD
And while we’re in the Viking era, though a little later, I’ll offer you ‘The Whale Road’ by Robert Low. Low’s books are very different to Kristian’s. They lack some of the ease of adventurous style of the Raven series, but they hit a new sweet spot in being very much ‘of their time’. They feel like great Scandinavian epics, and the world they explore, being Eastern Europe and the Russian steppes, is fascinating and unusual.
11th Century AD
One could potentially accuse me of nepotism by adding Gordon Doherty. He is a good friend and we are working together on a series. However, I am drawn time and again to cite him as the very best of what the Indie publishing world can offer. ‘Strategos: Born in the Borderlands’ is a tale of the early medieval Byzantine world and is simply breathtaking in its atmosphere and colour. I defy you to disagree.
12th Century AD
Robin Hood has been done quite a bit. In both literature and on screen. But ‘Outlaw’ by Angus Donald takes an approach I’d never considered, treating him as something of a mafioso crime lord. Seen through the eyes of Alan a Dale, this book is something new in a very old hat world. And better still, the following 7 books take Robin Hood through the whole world of the 12th and then 13th centuries. This book is simply a ‘belter’. For the record, Outlaw pipped Prue Batten’s Gisborne to the post by the width of a shadow.
13th Century AD
Narrowly squeaking in at the end of this century I’d place Robyn Young’s ‘Insurrection’. I enjoyed Robyn’s Templar series, despite my fear of all things Templar (writers seem incapable of touching the subject without getting mystical and creepy). But this tackling of the Scottish wars of Independence under Robert de Brus takes us in unexpected directions and earns its place as a fascinating read.
14th Century AD
Michael Jecks’ ‘Fields of Glory’. Well I knew Jecks as a crime writer. I read this entirely by accident, expecting murders and investigations. What I got instead was a saga of military campaign during the Hundred Years War, with some proper villains thrown in to boot. Jecks’ knowledge of his era shows in a tale that is so thoroughly believable and immersive. One of the best.
15th Century AD
‘Into the Fire’ by Manda Scott is one of three books on this list some might argue as not Historical Fiction. But the fact is that it is a dual-timeline novel, and half the book is set in the time of Jeanne d’Arc, the maid of Orleanse, so it qualifies for me. This is a thriller of the very highest calibre, switching back and forth between Joan of Arc and a series of grizzly arson events in modern France. Scott cut her teeth in the ancient orld and has an instinctive knack for bringing the past to life, which she does in spades here.
17th Century AD
‘Hunter’s Rage’ is actually the 3rd book in Michael Arnold’s series of Civil War adventures. And once more, the 17th century for me is an era rich in excellence, so Arnold has really pulled out the stops to surpass the others. Hunter’s Rage for me was the moment in this excellent series when he truly hit his stride, and the prose was effortless, the story gripping, the pace breakneck, the history thorough and the characterisation vivid and astounding.
18th Century AD
The 18th century for me is a largely unplumbed time, but recently I was introduced to the works of Robin Blake, and so I have no problem filling this century.’A Dark Anatomy’ is the first of four books (so far) in a series of historical mysteries that have kept me entertained, researching the events surrounding them, and hungry for more.
19th Century AD
Oh, Paul Fraser Collard, why’d you have to be so damn good? You knocked D.E. Meredith off the top spot by a fraction of a hair’s breadth. The Jack Lark series have been likened to Sharpe. They’re not. They’re better than Sharpe. They are what Shapre should wish to be. ‘The Scarlet Thief’ was the first in the series and a book I didn’t believe could possibly sprout sequels. I was wrong. Collard is at the top of his game from square one, which is incredibly rare. Read this book, set in the time of the Crimean war, and you’ll agree.
20th Century AD
‘Traitor’s Gate’ by Michael Ridpath is fascinating. It’s not quite a historical saga. It’s not quite a thriller or whodunnit. It’s not quite a war story. But in some ways it’s all of those. It is one of the best books I have read in the modern era, showing you the world of Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the war. I felt for the characters, and the premise at times chilled me to the bone. I loved it. So will you.
21st Century AD
Simon Toyne’s ‘Sanctus’ is the third of the ‘not-quite’ hist-fic books on this list. Yes, it’s set in this century, but the themes, culture and alternate history suffusing and surrounding it for me qualify it as Historical Fiction. It is the first of a trilogy of quasi-religious myseries in a similar vein as (though to my mind better than) Dan Brown. As a story it is a unique and fascinating idea, and truly hit the big time in my top books. 21st century meets thousands of years of history in this blinder.
So there you go. A book a century. If you’ve not read them, you can fill your reading llist in advance for winter. Have fun and happy reading.
Book 5 in my tour of the life of Ruso and Tilla. It’s a rollercoaster ride, for sure. I’ve followed Ruso and his slave/housekeeper/girlfriend/wife from Chester to Northumberland, to the south of France, then London, and now to York. It’s like a pit-stop tour of some of my favourite places guided by two of my favourite characters and penned by one of my favourite writers.
If you don’t know how much I love Ruth’s books by now then you’re clearly new to the blog. The Ruso mysteries are at the very top level of their genre – atmospheric, elegantly-plotted, immersively historical and delivered with rich prose. And yet also truly human tales, shot through with a sense of humour that never fails to make me smile and occasionally with deeper pathos. Ruso is not so much hapless as unlucky. He is skilled and clever and full of innovation, and yet regularly makes rather critical mistakes and finds himself in a mess. Tilla is practical and sensible and yet prone to headstrong decisions that show little forethought. Together they should be able to tackle any problem and yet more often than not they cause each other problems and worsen the situation exponentially. It makes for really engaging reading.
In Semper Fidelis (‘Always Faithful’, the motto of the US Marine Corps) we are brought to York as Ruso joins a small unit of the 20th legion who are there training recruits as they await the arrival of the 6th legion, who will be based there shortly. Ruso is back with the army now after his brief foray into the world of fiscal investigation, and the army is the focus of this book. For in York (Eboracum), the largely empty fortress has played host to native British legionary trainees, martinet centurions, beleaguered medics and desperate camp-followers. And a series of accidents and incidents that are believed to be a result of the curse on the unit point- to a clever investigator, anyway – to brutal and unacceptable behaviour on the part of the training officers.
Ruso and Tilla finds their selves delving into the incidents that have taken place and uncovering unpleasant truths within the army and landing their selves in deep trouble, which is only compounded all the more when the emperor Hadrian, his wife Sabina, and a unit of Praetorians arrive rather unexpectedly. Ruso knows Hadrian of old, since long before he came to power. You might think he could count on an old comrade to look after him. You might think that….
Semper Fidelis is yet again a beautiful offering from the pen of Ruth Downie and deserves to be read and enjoyed by all.
Oh, and the dog bite… Heh heh heh.
Go read it folks. It’s a treat.
Caroline Lawrence is an established author of chidren’s historical tales. In fact, there are probably few to match her. She is perhaps even the 21st century’s Rosemary Sutcliffe. There are books that I consider to be children’s books, and there is another section, not quite this whole Young Adult thing, but clearly above the true children’s band. It is an interesting world, where the writing must still be aimed at young readers, but the content and themes can be more adult. Lawrence is the mistress of this style, for me.
I read QOTSA to my kids over a number of nights, and we all enjoyed it. They are a little young in truth for the book, but both mature enought to handle everything within. Callie enjoyed it for the tales of the heroic princesses. Marcus enjoyed it for the battles. I enjoyed it for the history.
QOTSA is a fascinating book. Firstly, though, a word about content. As with most great tales of the classical era, it is filled with a number of darker moments. Death in battle, the killing of animals, parental abandonment and so on. If your son or daughter is old enough to understand these things and not be adversely affected, then this book is pure gold. As I said, mine are still quite young, but we have finished the book without them being troubled by anything. In fact, I laud Caroline for tackling the more adult themes in a sympathetic and readable manner.
But what is Queen of the Silver Arrow, you say? Well, it is one of Lawrence’s current series of reworked classics. Like her other book in the series – The Night Raid – this is a retelling of a tale from Virgil’s Aeneid. This is the tale of the Trojans arriving in Italy and the native peoples rising to meet them, especially the young huntress Camilla, beloved of the Goddess Diana, who with her few companions will attempt to turn the tide against the invader only to learn harsh and unexpected truths in the end.
The final chapter, something of an epilogue, was really quite impressively emotional.
All in all, a great tale, challenging, yet interesting for kids, fascinating and strong for adults too.
I suspect Ruso was my favourite investigator of crimes by the time I’d finished the first book in Ruth Downie’s Medicus series. The second book expanded this world to include darker themes and the wild north. And by the time Ruso went home to Gaul in the third book he was not only my favourite investigator, but one of my favourite characters in any book series. Left with something of an uncertain future at the end of that book, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the fourth book, other than being sure it would be highly entertaining.
Caveat Emptor takes us back to Britain, where Ruso and Tilla (now man and wife) find themselves dragged into problems galore. Tilla becomes a friend and helper to a native woman who has got herself into disastrous trouble, her man the tax collector having disappeared with the money. Ruso finds himself appointed by the province’s assistant procurator to investigate the disappearance of the tax collector and his money.
What follows is a complex and thoroughly engrossing investigation taking us from the docksides of Londinium (London) to the finance offices of Verulamium (St Albans). A plot that involves a fascinating and shady cast of characters from lurking town guards to power-hungry councillors to weaselly clerks to half-blind noblemen and so on. A plot that, I might add, while I grasped parts of the solution half way through, parts kept me guessing to the end. A plot that is not all it seems at any given point.
But once more, the major wins of the book are the main characters and Ruth’s writing. Having met Ruth now, and discovered what a truly nice lady she is, it amazes me how she seems to be able to get into the mindset of hen-pecked males or vicious mysogenists or the like so well that they read as truly authentic. Ruso is at times hapless, at times heroic, mostly beleaguered and often confused. He is a man who tries to do the right thing, even though at times he’d like nothing more than to do the wrong one. Tilla is no barbarian, nor is she a Roman matron. She is not a charicature but a person, with all the complexity that implies. And as always with Ruth’s writing, the threads of gentle quirky humour that run throughout add counterpoint to the seriousness of the situations in which they find themselves and make the books something special and a delight to read.
As a last treat, here’s just a taster of the sort of writing that makes me love Ruth’s work:
As the ostler had promised, the ginger mare was keen to go – but not necessarily forward. After winning the argument over which of them was steering, Ruso urged it out under the archway and onto the wide expanse of the North road.
If that kind of writing doesn’t make you want to read, then I reckon nothing will.
Caveat Emptor. A beautifully constructed mystery. And now I go on to read the next book – Semper Fidelis.
I used to sit, cocooned in my own little Roman world, reading Roman books and not straying beyond that. In fairness, there’s so much good Roman fiction out there you can actually do that. But then new names, books and series pop up here and there and make me leave my comfort zone. Recently I’ve been rather getting into my historical mysteries, everything from Roman to cold war and the whole gamut of eras in between. I was surprised at how immersive I found Robin Blake’s mysteries set in 1740s Preston. In fact, I loved them so much that when the publishers offered me a new title set in the 1660s I simply had to say yes. I’m very glad that I did.
I’d not previously been aware of L.C. Tyler and assumed that he was a new writer. Boy was I wrong. Turns out this is the third in a series, and the author has many other mysteries out besides. In fact, he’s the chair of the Crime Writers Association, which gives you some idea of his pedigree.
Excited at the prospect, I opened the cover and began. I almost put it down straight away. The book is written in first person, present tense, a tense that I find hard work and has put me off numerous novels in the past. I persevered. It took only a page and I got over it. I still don’t like that tense in books, but Tyler’s easy style completely negates any issues I ever have with it.
Then I hit the second of my two snags. The protagonist is a lawyer in plague-struck London, 1665. He is propositioned by a powerful politician and drawn into a mission to retrieve a stolen document. At first the hook for the character seemed to me rather spurious. Why a lawyer would get himself involved in such things seemed unlikely. But once again, I was taking things at face value. You see, this is, as I said, the third volume in a series, and so I have clearly missed out on much character development (something I will be going back to remedy, by the way, as soon as I have time.) And as I ignored my problem with the hook (the maguffin if you will), and read on, the reasons gradually became clear as I came to understand the history of the various people involved.
So that’s my intro. Two reasons I should have stopped reading by my usual standards. And yet I didn’t. Why? Well, for four reasons, I think.
Firstly, there’s Tyler’s prose. It is a mark of just how good he is that I not only overcame my almost pathological dislike of that writing tense and even came to enjoy it! That’s a first. The style is easy while being elegant, direct and pacy without undue brevity, descriptive without being cumbersome. This is clearly the skill of an author who has long since honed his craft.
Secondly, there’s the setting. I know a little about the restoration period, the plague and the great fire, but not a great deal, so exploring this world through the eyes of a clearly very knowledgeable man was new and fascinating.
Thirdly, there’s the plot. In some ways this is a murder mystery, but it is so much more. It includes political shenanigans with far-reaching, country-threatening effects. It reminds me a little of ‘The Four Musketeers’, or possibly a restoration ‘Where Eagles Dare’. Complex and elegant.
But for me very much the biggest win is the protagonist. He has a dry wit in very much the manner that I particularly enjoy. There are moments when John Grey is talking that he is so satisfyingly, hilariously cutting that even Edmund Blackadder would be cursing and wishing he’d thought of saying that. He has shot up the list to become one of my very favourite characters. There are many great lines in the books, but here’s a nice example:
“There are good lies and bad lies. We told some good lies to rescue you. This will be a good lie too. And it will be a very small one. Not big enough to go to Hell for. Just big enough to go to Salisbury.”
I wont immediately say ‘go and buy this book’ despite the fact that it’s published on the 6th. And I’m reviewing it early for a very good reason. Because what I am saying is that this book makes it worth reading the first two volumes in the series, and now you’ve got chance to get them and read them before this one comes out.
John Grey is a new hero of mine. He will be for you too. Check out the series and do it soon.