Ruso, a doctor, and Tilla, a midwife, are the protagonists of this crime series set in Ancient Rome. They are at first glance a mismatched couple, he being a Roman from Gaul (France), she being a Celt from northern Britain, a relatively recent addition to the Roman Empire at the time of the stories. But in this couple's case, appearances are very deceiving. They are perfect together.
Rough-edged military doctor Ruso barely manages to hide his weakness: a deep sense of humanity and justice. In the sadistic world of the Ancient Roman Empire, those are not considered assets. His “foreign” wife values his character and shares his burdens in a way a traditional Roman wife would not. In fact, Ruso once had a very traditional Roman wife but she, fed up with his good nature, sought a divorce. To date, this very entertaining series follows the couple's meeting through to their start of their own family.
I enjoy the books very much for their quality writing, deep humanity, realistic portrayal of couple and family life, complex protagonists, and the camaraderie of military life portrayed around Ruso. The accurate historical background to the stories is a bonus, since I enjoy historical novels. Being a fan of mystery and crime novels, the central crime plot is entertaining as well. If you have similar interests, you should enjoy the series too. Another aspect I appreciate is that the slavery of Ancient Rome is shown for what it was (and still is): evil.
Vita Brevis, book 7 in the series, begins in the empire's capital city, Rome, in our year counting 123 a.d. under the Emperor Hadrian. Ruso and Tilla are out of their native Gaul and Britain, and out of their depths much of the time when the provincials attempt to set up life in the big city. That adds some fun to this book, seeing the two trying to cope with new challenges. They are not city people, especially not in such a harsh city as Rome at that time, which was probably in many ways comparable to India's Mumbai today.
Crime and Ruso always find each other, and his well-developed conscience makes him feel compelled to get involved. He fights that feeling because the city of Rome is so full of vice that if he tried to fix it all, he would never have a life! But he is ordered by his patron, the man who vouched for him to come to Rome, to investigate more than one death. Doctoring in that era is always part of the story, since Ruso and Tilla are both medical practitioners, and there is plenty of that in Vita Brevis (Brief Life), too, but it never overshadows the story.
Ruso is a fascinating character. He is cursed to be a deeply human and moral man living in a deeply sadistic and amoral society. Tilla's love and presence gives him a reason to carry on. With a child now, the need to make a decent living is a feeling other parents will recognize.
The joy of parenthood pared with the enormous weight of responsibility for another human life, besides the lives of their patients, weighs on both Ruso and Tilla. When they make the decision to purchase slaves to help them cope with their hectic life, it is fascinating to see how they quickly understand that in exchange for the labor, they have taken on responsibility for even more lives, the lives of people who have nothing to live for.
Reading Vita Brevis felt like catching up with old friends. I got to see how they got on in the Empire's capital. I got to see how they dealt with the stresses of new parenthood and trying to set up life in a new place. I got to see if their humanity and decency remained intact in the face of Rome's great evils. I got to step back in time to see the new, despised Christians living side by side with the Empire's respected pagans. I spent several hours being entertained by a quality novel.
The books in the Ruso Medicus Roman Crime Series:
- Medicus (reviewed on this site)
- Terra Incognita
- Persona Non Grata
- Caveat Emptor
- Semper Fidelis
- Tabula Rasa (reviewed on this site)
- Vita Brevis (reviewed on this site)
- Memento Mori (reviewed on this site)
From the book's description:
Ruso and Tilla's excitement at arriving in Rome with their new baby daughter is soon dulled by their discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements. There are also far too many doctors--some skilled--but others positively dangerous.Ruso thinks he has been offered a reputable medical practice only to find that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep and the warning, “Be careful who you trust.” Distracted by the body and his efforts to help a friend win the hand of a rich young heiress, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question both his competence and his integrity.With Ruso's reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family from Doctor Kleitos's debt collectors and find allies in their new home while they track down the vanished doctor and find out the truth about the heiress's dead father--Ruso's patient--and the unfortunate man in the barrel.
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