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Vita Brevis

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The seventh novel in Ruth Downie’s Ruso and Tilla series takes us from Roman Britain (the setting for the majority of the books) for our first glimpse of Hadrianic Rome. And what a glimpse it is.

If you follow my reviews at all, you’ll be well aware by now of my opinion of this series and Ruth Downie’s awesome talent for storytelling, so you’ll be unsurprised to know that this is one of my highest rated books.

Following a former commander from Britain, Ruso brings Tilla and their new baby to Rome, seeking the good old ‘streets paved with gold’, only to find out that they are, in fact, paved with charlatans, criminals, gawpers and cockroaches. Oh, and barrels with bodies sealed inside. Yes, Ruso’s getting himself involved once again, entirely through atrocious luck, with a mystery. He receives an offer he cannot refuse: a ready made medical practice with patients, including a rich patron, and accommodation, all just waiting for him. But entirely apart from the delivery of the body in a barrel, he starts to worry that something is wrong because the former doctor has vanished without trace. Cue once again a truly complex, labyrinthine plot. As Ruso and Tilla battle debt collectors, wicked morticians, medical con-men, angry patrons, credulous neighbours, Christians and so many more, Ruso finds his life spiralling once more out of control, his reputation hanging on  knife edge, Tilla trying to hold things together.

As with all Ruth’s plots, Vita Brevis is a masterpiece of subtlety and complexity intertwined. As with all her books, character, colour, detail, pace and humour are prime movers. The characters are so well constructed, and we’ve known that since book 1, but the fact is they have have 6 books to grow, and they are now old friends. Well, the main characters are. The supporting ones are new, obviously, but are instantly dislikeable. Oh, some are likeable, but the majority are unpleasant, oily, corrupt Roman city-folk. And colour? Well, you just won’t believe the colour of the Rome Ruth paints until you read it. Detail? Well there are very few writers I have read who have anything close to Downie’s knowledge of her era. She is skilled as an author but also knowledgeable as a historian and archaeologist. I always feel confident with her work that I am experiencing the closest thing to actually being there. Pace is easy. It is almost impossible to put down a Ruth Downie book. They drag you in and then pull you along until you blink in disbelief that you’re at the end. and finally, humour. Well, there is so little light-hearted or humorous material to be found in the genre, that to see the ongoing quirky humour of Ruso and Tilla is always a heartwarming thing.

Gods, but Vita Brevis (Life is Short) is the latest in the series. This is the first time I’ve finished a Ruso book without there being another one waiting to be read. Come on Ruth. Maybe we can somehow push the calendar forward a year? In short: buy this book. Read this book.

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Written by SJAT

November 22, 2016 at 10:22 pm

Caesar’s Emissary

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You might remember that some time back I reviewed the first short story in this series with mixed feelings due to the heavy use of modern vernacular. Well, recently I have been reading pre-publication manuscripts, my own work for heavy edits and very serious research texts, and so with a couple of days free, I picked up the second book, and thought ‘I’ve done too much heavy stuff recently, so why not?’

I’m glad I did. I cannot be certain whether it was because this time I was prepared for what I was about to read, or possibly that with a second story, Johnston had honed his craft some, but I enjoyed Caesar’s Emissary far more than the first book.

These, by the way, are very much not serious, heavy Historical Fiction. If you are looking for another Ben Kane or Conn Iggulden, you’re looking in the wrong direction. But if you’re looking for an entertaining light read to fill in a few hours, then look no further.

The humour in these books is akin to Ron Gompertz, I would say, if a little more direct. There is an odd undercurrent of the old ‘film noir voiceover’ in the way they are written. In this volume, Mettius is talked into going to Alexandria to sort out the grain shipments there. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Ptolomaic rulers and all sorts. The highlight for me was a scene in a bar with a local comedian doing his skit.Sounds barking mad, but for some reason it worked and was a truly entertaining scene with some real laugh-out-loud lines.

This, for instance, is a joke from the sketch about the Ptolomaic dynasty:

“The other night [my wife] said she wanted to have sex with her brother. I told her I wasn’t in the mood.”

And here’s part of his description of Alexadria, which I love:

“Wild statues of bird gods and those weird animals with human heads they called sphinxes were everywhere. It was as if some deity had grabbed a cauldron and mixed Greek aesthetics, the Egyptian fascination with the afterlife, a pinch of balmy climate and a shitload of money…”

I think I am rapidly warming to these short, humorous episodes. And if you are a student of the era you will find a lot of in-jokes and colour that will sit well with you. Johnston’s stories have become my palate cleanser of choice between larger works.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2016 at 10:35 am

Tabula Rasa

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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.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2016 at 9:02 am

Semper Fidelis

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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.

Written by SJAT

October 6, 2016 at 8:51 am

Ruth Downie on the journey to Rome

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I am fortunate indeed today to play host to a guest post by the marvellous Ruth Downie as part of her Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest masterpiece ‘Vita Brevis’. As you may be aware, I’m currently reviewing the whole series of Ruth’s books, which will continue this week with Semper Fidelis, followed by Tabula Rasa and then the new book. But that can all wait for now while I let Ruth inform and entertain you in her own words. Over to you, Ruth…

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Travelling to Rome – the long way

Medicus, the first book in the series that features legionary medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla, has this printed at the front:

O diva…

serves iturum Caesarem

in ultimos orbis Britannos.

Which roughly means,

Oh Goddess…

safeguard Caesar as he sets off

for the remotest regions of the Earth—Britain.

(Horace)

Most of the stories in the series are set in those “remotest regions:” the Wild West of the Roman empire.

“Are Ruso and Tilla going to Rome?” the editor would ask from time to time, and I would keep very quiet. Anything was better than admitting, “I don’t dare, because other writers do Rome so well.” Besides, there was plenty to write about here.

What drives the first half-dozen books is the tension between Roman and Briton, occupier and occupied—all the clashes, compromises and misunderstandings that ensue when foreign boots land on native soil. All, in some way, connected to the attempts of Ruso and Tilla to forge a life together.

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We come in peace…

Even in times of relative peace, there was plenty of drama going on in Roman Britain without me having to make it up. The sale of people into the sex trade isn’t new – it’s something Hadrian tried to restrict. The use of religion to whip up violence goes back at least as far as the Druids.  The connection between power and greed comes out in a hundred subtle ways: the official traveller who bullies the innkeeper into giving him a horse he isn’t entitled to; the tax collector who demands that payments in wheat be delivered so far away that it’s impossible to avoid paying him exorbitant fees to transport them; the town councillor who tries to vote for a contract knowing one of his relatives will rake in the profit that follows. Then there’s the casual violence of soldier on civilian, and the use of false measures, loaded dice and fake coinage, some of which is on display in the British Museum.

Add in the splendid locations on offer—Chester, York, Verulamium, Hadrian’s Wall, Roman London and a brief trip to the South of France so Tilla could shock Ruso’s family—and there didn’t seem much reason to send anyone to Italy. Besides, how would the story work without the Roman-vs-Briton tension?  I’d already painted myself into enough of a corner by giving them a baby to look after.

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Ah, the family pile…

But… there are stories you can tell in cities that don’t work as well in a rural society. Stories about slum landlords with horrible agents (at last, revenge for that gruesome student flat!). Stories about arriving as an immigrant and an outsider. Stories about vast buildings that reach up to trap the sky. Stories about watching your fellow-countrymen offered up for auction in a slave market. In a city of a million people it’s quite possible that an abandoned body could remain anonymous, whereas in Britannia it’s hard not to believe that somebody would know somebody else who knew the dead person’s cousin. And then there’s Pliny’s assertion that doctors are “sharks using medical practice to prey on people” and that “only a doctor can kill a man with impunity.”

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There’s no shortage of material. So when Ruso’s former commanding officer invited him back to Rome at the end of book six, it felt as though it was time to take the plunge. Never mind what other writers had done. Rome was a massive city, and there would be plenty for Ruso and Tilla to get their teeth into in “Vita Brevis”. Provided, of course, they could find a babysitter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, and Tabula Rasa. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon.

Follow her at ruthdownie.com and on Twitter @ruthsdownie.

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Vita BREVIS

A Gaius Ruso Mystery

By Ruth Downie

22nd September 2016
hardback – £16.99

Bringing both the majesty and depravity of ancient Rome to life, Ruth Downie concocts a delicious mix of crime novel, mystery, and history lesson in the latest novel in her bestselling Medicus series, VITA BREVIS.

 “Downie writes with her usual humor and depth . . . Perfect for fans of the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, this entertaining New York Times best-selling series and its endearing characters deserve as long a run” —Booklist

“A deftly crafted and consistently compelling read from beginning to end, ‘Vita Brevis’ clearly establishes author Ruth Downie as a consummate and accomplished master of historical crime fiction” —Midwest Book Review

*****

Ruso and Tilla’s excitement at arriving in Rome with their baby daughter is soon dulled by their discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements.

Ruso finds that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep with the warning, ‘Be careful who you trust’. Distracted, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question his own competence and integrity.

With Ruso’s reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family by tracking down the vanished doctor – and discovering the truth behind the man in the barrel.

VITA BREVIS is brimming with humor, clever plot twists, and evocative historical details, as Ruth Downie follows her beloved characters in their next adventure.

 *****

And check out the next stop on her blog tour: A Fantastical Librarian

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Caesar’s Ambassador

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Caesar’s Ambassador is a short story I picked up at random somewhere along the line and has just sat there on my kindle. Recently, I had a day free in my reading schedule, so I decided to give it a read.

The story is set in a very familiar milieu for me, being the first year of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (the setting for Marius’ Mules I) and takes as its main character one Marcus Mettius, who is a minor supporting character in Caesar’s book. Mettius is one of two men the general sends to negotiate with the German king Ariovistus and who are captured and held by the man. That’s pretty much his run in history apart from minting coins the year of Caesar’s death. Virgin ground to work with then for a storyteller.

This is only a short story, but if you like it, there are a run now of about six shorts in the series, which probably adds up to a good sized novel between them. As you may know, my policy on reviewing books is to only review those I consider at least 3* books, since poor reviews can damage an author’s livelihood and it seems unfair to do that simply because I don’t like it. For me, Caesar’s Ambassador was really hard to rate. In the end I’ve given it 3 stars, but it could have gone up or down from there because there are so many things about it I like and, while there’s only one thing I don’t, it’s pretty crucial.

So on the positive side, this is a truly fresh and interesting angle on the events of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, an interesting, bold and inventive choice. Mettius himself is an interesting character with an intriguingly uncharted history, and Johnston has done a sterling job of bringing him to life, giving him real personality and filling in history’s blanks. He’s also done an excellent job of depicting the times and the locations, with some of the detail being exquisite (a scene in a tavern particularly stands out.) Better still, given Mettius’ history, Johnston has chosen a character he can take on from there, and I know he covers quite a few years in subsequent books. The story is pacey, the characters vivid, the descriptive excellent. Additionally, there is a quirky humour throughout that really hits the spot, reminiscent for me of Ron Gompertz’s novels.

So what didn’t I like about it then? Quite simply the heavy anachronisms. I’m hardly free of blame for that myself, though I have gradually ironed out such things as I progress. But even at my strongest, I was nothing to this. Johnston’s idiom and terminology are almost entirely modern American in the tale, and some of the phrases used in an ancient setting just had me wincing. I’ll hold my hands up and say that as a Brit, perhaps I’m not the target audience and that for all I know this is a standard in the American market, but I don’t think that’s the case. For me the idioms and modern, anachronistic terms marred what could have been an excellent tale.

I still enjoyed Caesar’s Ambassador, and I will read the second in the series when I have the time, and so I leave it up to you whether this is a story for you, as I cannot doubt that what damaged it for me will certainly appeal to some readers, and I’m not so arrogant as to think I am right all the time. To be honest, at $0.99 it’ll hardly be breaking the bank to take a punt on it and see what you think.

Written by SJAT

July 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

Welcome to Blackpoo

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Every now and then you read a bit of a game changer. I read a lot of historical fiction, and most of that is quite sombre and takes itself very seriously. So it’s nice once in a while to read something light-hearted. And that’s what this book is… in spades.

The story of one man’s first couple of years in teaching, this tale is told as a retrospective from the completion of his degree and his initial excitement at landing a job in teaching through disillusionment, pain and discomfort, practical joking, humour, alcohol, idiocy, madness and heroic stands against THE MAN (who in this case is ‘the woman’).

The story is a gentle, insightful, personal, and humorous look at the early days of a career. It is a beautifully written homage to that noble profession. And given the fact that this man is a science teacher, and my own interactions with science have been less than successful, it has to have been written well enough to keep my attention.

Back in the day, I read a number of excellent humorous books that were written in diary form. The prime one for me, which I read annually and never failed to make me laugh, was ‘The Art of Course Moving’ by Michael Green. This book reminded me of it. It is the first book in a year, I think, to make me laugh out loud, and even bring tears to my eyes. There is no better recommendation for a humorous book than that.

In short, this was a cracking read. Funny, touching, and easily readable, it is well worth less than the price of a pint for the kindle copy. Not currently available on paperback, but perhaps will be soon. Buy it, sit back with your feet up, and chuckle away a few hours.

Written by SJAT

March 31, 2016 at 10:18 am