30 June, 2015

Semper Fidelis, by Ruth Downie. Book review

Bloomsbury 2013. ISBN 978-1-60819-709-5. 330 pages

Semper Fidelis is the fifth of the Ruso mysteries, following Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (US title Medicus), Ruso and the Demented Doctor (US title Terra Incognita), Ruso and the Root of All Evils (US title Persona Non Grata), and Ruso and the River of Darkness (US title Caveat Emptor).  It is set in 122 AD in Eboracum (modern York) during the visit of Emperor Hadrian to the Roman province of Britannia. Emperor Hadrian and Empress Sabina are historical figures and important secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Roman Army surgeon Gaius Petreius Ruso and his British wife Tilla are visiting the near-deserted legionary fortress of Eboracum, ostensibly to inspect the medical facilities before the fortress is handed over to its new garrison, but in reality to avoid the frantic preparations in Deva (modern Chester) for the Emperor Hadrian’s official visit. Ruso is hoping for an uneventful trip, as Eboracum is currently home only to a few ageing legionaries training a group of about 50 British legionary recruits. But on the day he arrives, one of the recruits commits suicide by jumping from the roof of the headquarters building, and it soon becomes clear that other recruits have died in sinister circumstances. Ruso’s attempt to investigate is met by a wall of official silence and outright lies. Tilla finds some of the answers among the recruits’ civilian wives and girlfriends – answers that no-one in authority wants to hear. As Ruso and Tilla uncover more of the sordid truth, the obstructionism gives way to threats and violence. Will they be able to stay alive, let alone to get justice for the recruits?

Like its predecessors, Semper Fidelis draws on the cultural conflicts between the world of the British tribes, represented by Tilla, and the Roman world, represented by Ruso and the various officials of the Roman army and administration. It maintains the characteristic attractive dry humour of the rest of the series, perhaps with a darker tone, as Ruso, an intelligent and decent man, tries to navigate organisational stupidity, official corruption, the demands of his family in Gaul, and the bewildering behaviour of humanity in general.

For me, the appeal of the Ruso series lies in the characters and their relationships, with the mystery tending to be secondary. Semper Fidelis is no exception; there is a mystery, or two, successfully resolved, but it is not so much a ‘whodunit’ as a ‘what-to-do-about-it’. Ruso and Tilla find out most of what is going on in Eboracum quite quickly. The main dilemmas they face are in trying to decide what actions they can take that might have a chance of improving the situation, preferably without destroying themselves or others in the process. As Tilla says at one point, Ruso is ‘a good man in a bad place’. The easiest and personally safest course would be to shrug and ignore the problem. But both Tilla and Ruso have an active conscience and a strong moral code – remarkably similar, despite their different cultural backgrounds – that will not let them stand idly by without at least trying to get some semblance of justice. This was the core of the novel for me – will they succeed, and what will the attempt cost them?

The secondary characters are vivid and lively. Ruso’s irresponsible and charming colleague Valens makes a brief but important reappearance, as does the sinister secret security officer Metellus. New characters include the aristocratic tribune Accius, who turns out to be more interesting than he first appears, and the vivacious but airheaded Virana, who will probably return in the next book to exasperate Tilla further if the ending is anything to go by.

A brief Author’s Note at the end outlines some of the background of Hadrian’s visit to Britain, and a map at the front is helpful for readers unfamiliar with the geography of Roman Britain. There’s also the usual witty character list at the front, worth reading in its own right although the characters were so distinctive I never needed to refer to it.

Entertaining historical mystery with darker themes of injustice and abuse of power, told with wry humour.