Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Persona non Grata

As a Latin teacher, I find myself drawn to historical fiction about the ancient world more than any other period.  Even if I never use it to enrich my teaching, I figure it's always worthwhile seeing what other classically-minded people come up with.  There seems to be a boatload of ancient Roman inspired fiction out there right now.  If the fiction produced by all the classically-educated Britons alone were actually true... for one thing, there would have been so many murders in the country houses and villages of Britain that it would be depopulated by now, and for another, you could be virtually assured, if you happened to be transported back in time, of meeting numerous fascinating and eccentric characters with enough subtle modern sensibilities that you would not feel too out of place -- presuming you could speak the language, of course.  (Okay, whew, really long sentence.  Promise I won't make you diagram it!)

Such a character is the endearingly cynical Gaius Petreius Ruso, created by Ruth Downie in Medicus.  An army doctor stationed in desolate Britain during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, Ruso just can't seem to get ahead in life's dormouse-race, and isn't really sure why he's trying.  He accidentally finds himself involved in a murder mystery and the owner of Tilla, a slave girl he rescues from her abusive master.  Neither of these developments will help him in his attempts to restore his family's fortunes.

Ruso's adventures are continued in Terra Incognita, set in the remote northern frontier of Britain; and in my most recently finished book and favorite so far, Persona Non Grata, in which Ruso returns to his family in southern Gaul to deal with looming bankruptcy.  The eccentricities of the characters are more believable in this installment than in previous ones, and Ruso's wry internal commentary is delightful.  It's believable and enjoyable both as historical fiction and as a whodunit with modern sensibilities.  I haven't read many of the other authors this is compared to, but find it hard to imagine finding an equivalent book with characters I enjoy more.

Highly recommended.  Cautions: adult situations, violence.  Of interest to: people like me, I guess.

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