Terra Incognito: A Novel of the Roman Empire
by Ruth Downie

Bloomsbury USA (Macmillan), 2008. ISBN 1-59691-232-4.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 04/02/2008

Fiction: Mystery

Sounds familiar. It's a wild border tale, like the ones I read growing up out on the high plains of Texas.

All is well. The natives are happy, tranquil—almost. Okay, sometimes they fight among themselves, but overall it's the good, unspoiled life—until the intruders appear. Their army takes over, builds a wooden fort, messes with the local girls, skirmishes with the guys.

Sounds familiar, yes, except that the border is in Britannia and the time is almost 2,000 years ago when Emperor Hadrian was just coming to power. (Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire from 117 to 138.)

The medico Doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso leaves the relative safety of the more established South to travel with the army alleviating pain, sawing off limbs, and doing what he can. They are headed to Coria where a few years later Hardrian's Wall will rise in a Roman attempt to exclude the unwanted Northerners from Rome's civilized ways. (Talk about contemporary parallels!)

The good doctor does not travel alone, although sometimes he wishes he were. Tilla, his native slave-turned-companion (in her language her name is Darlugdacha) seems to seek out trouble. By being in the wrong place at the wrong time (or was she?) she leads Ruso into this adventure.

Felix the trumpeter has been brutally murdered. Who did it? Tilla's former intended, Rianorix the baker, or was it Thesssalus, the fort medico who has taken leave of his senses and is confessing? Confusion abounds.

An impending visit from the Governor of Britannia looms over all decisions. "We've got to look good" is a truth through all ages. Ruso is persuaded to take over the infirmary from the ailing Tessalus (and to tend to him). That's a challenge itself, but still, there is plenty of time for the good doctor to immerse himself in the communities both inside the fort and in the nearby village, and to have a go at solving the mystery and setting things straight. He has his own brush with death—not exactly a burning-at-the-stake, but the outcome would have been the same.

Who will enjoy this adventure? Anyone who took Latin in high school or college, anyone who has visited northern England (for real or vicariously), anyone who enjoys a good American western novel or merely a good yarn—just about everyone.

Don't let the strange names and terrain stand in your way. A map (a must) and a cleverly anotated cast of characters both appear at the book's beginning. For even more information about the geography and history of the times visit the Hadrians Wall Country website. The author also provides a brief but complete bibliography in her "Afterward."

This book is author Ruth Downie's second about Dr. Ruso (the first: Medico). A librarian, she lives with her husband and two sons in Milton Keynes, England. There is no author website, but if you would like to read more by Downie, her 2004 first place entry in English novelist Fay Weldon's section of BBC3's End of Story competition appears here.

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