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CAVEAT EMPTOR
by Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury USA, January 2011
352 pages
$25.00
ISBN: 1596916087


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In his fourth appearance, Gaius Petreius Ruso, the army surgeon, has returned from the relative ease of Gaul to Britannia, still a rough outpost of the Roman Empire. He is accompanied by his new (second) wife, Tilla, or, more formally, Darlughdacha of the Corionotate among the Brigantes, and several heavy boxes of wedding crockery. While Tilla may be pleased to be home, Ruso is just happy to be somewhere that his wife is not considered a dangerous barbarian.

He's come to Londinium in the hopes that his old friend Valens will find him a job. Indeed he has, but not as a physician. Instead, he talks Ruso into acting as a special investigator for the procurator, to find out what has happened to Julius Asper, a tax collector, Julius Bericus, his brother, and a rather large amount of collected taxes, all of which seem to have disappeared.

Though very reluctant, Ruso has no other immediate prospects, so off he goes to Verulamium (present-day St Albans), where memories of being sacked and burnt by Boudica are still fresh, even though it all happened some sixty years ago. The local officials are generous and helpful; Ruso is put up in considerable luxury and given free rein to carry out his investigations. Why does he suspect that the wool is being pulled over his eyes? And who is it that is so anxious to see him out of town that he writes threatening messages and assaults Tilla?

Ruso is an extremely attractive protagonist. He is, as his wife declares, a man "who tries to do the right thing, even when it is foolish." In morally dubious Verulamium, doing the right thing can get you killed, so Ruso tries quite hard to avoid it, but cannot quite accomplish the feat.

Ruth Downie's approach to historical fiction is also very attractive. The characters, Romans and Britons alike, could easily populate a modern novel, but never seem anachronistic. She produces a convincing cast of strong female characters, as we might expect in a land that still uses Boudica to scare the kiddies. She offers a strong sense of what life might have been like in a society that was trying to work out some sort of balance between "civilized" and progressive Rome and the deep pull of the old ways and the old gods. Londinium has more than a little in common with a British outpost in India in the 19th century, Downie slyly suggests. Yet none of this is laid on with a trowel - the Ruso series is less a history lesson than an enormously entertaining bit of time travel and an awfully good excuse for a trip to St Albans to see what's left of Verulamium to see what's left of the projects that all that tax was being collected for.

CAVEAT EMPTOR is published in the UK as RUSO AND THE RIVER OF DARKNESS.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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