Source: Review copy
Semper Fidelis is the fifth in Ruth Downie’s Roman mystery series featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso, medicus or doctor to the Twentieth Legion in Roman Britain. The year is AD 122 and Ruso, along with his barbarian and suitably feisty Briton wife Tilla, rejoins the Twentieth at Eboracum (York) just in time for the chaos that means the imminent arrival of emperor Hadrian, who is on one of his famous imperial tours, no doubt involving a detour to a certain wall. Unfortunately, Ruso’s arrival and the visit of Hadrian and his empress coincide with a spate of mishaps affecting the legion’s native recruits. They appear to be dropping like flies. It’s not long before word spreads of a curse. While Ruso is put to the task of fixing the recruits, while hearing worrying rumours of their harsh treatment by certain officers, Tilla looks about for clues to the source of the curse. Needless to say, such meddling gets them both into a spot of bother.
I have yet to read the earlier novels in the series and, considering how much I enjoyed Ruso and Tilla’s relationship in Semper Fidelis, this is clearly something to put right. If you had read the preceding novels then I think you’d derive extra pleasure from watching the pair as they settle down to marriage with all the ease and confidence that this brings to them both. Relationships are seldom if ever perfect and this one isn’t either but despite the less familiar setting of 2nd-century Britannia and the thrills of the murder mystery the portrayal of Ruso and Tilla is very real. I enjoyed getting to know them in this novel, with their little arguments and conflicts, their variable beliefs due to their very different backgrounds, and the security that they bring to each other. Not to mention the laughs.
And then there’s Eboracum. Semper Fidelis brings this northern Roman town to life, not only for the streets, houses, inns and barracks but also for the beliefs of the native population, their relationship to their Roman overlords and their effort to fit in and be a part of it while retaining their identity. As the mystery shows, this can’t always work out well and there is a real clash of cultures. The army might have much to offer a young Briton after citizenship and land but it’s not an easy transition.
The mystery behind Semper Fidelis is an intriguing one and pits Ruso and Tilla against some important local Romans, especially gnarled centurion Geminus and the ambitious tribune Accius. Among the memorable characters is the empress herself Sabina, given (to her satisfaction) a prime role in events, and the young Briton Virana who lives up to her reputation as a Roman soldier groupie. She is full of life, though, and is a fine example of the liveliness that can be found throughout this novel. Ruth Downie not only captures the spirit of Roman Britain, she gives it a humorous edge, not going too far with it, but instead making it feel within reach.
I found the mystery itself rather convoluted and dense compared to the lightness and interest of its context but its impact on Ruso and Tilla is thoroughly unsettling. As a result I now have the treat of reading the other novels in the series while I wait for the next which, this novel suggests, may bring new developments for Ruso and Tilla.