Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The deed is done.

The deposit's paid. The contract's signed. The lease starts on August 1.

Yep, this little birdie is flying the nest. :)

The admin should be sorted out once and for all by the end of the week. It's a good flat, decent rent and bills, and just a few minutes' walk from the university. And it's going to be four of us sharing. I can't wait.

Should be back later, once I've stopped dancing about with excitement!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Book review: Ruso and the Demented Doctor, by R. S. Downie



Spoiler-free. I wouldn't want to ruin anything.

Yep, I've finished it! :)

Ruso and the Demented Doctor (Terra Incognita in the USA) is the sequel to R. S. Downie's brilliant Roman Britain whodunnit, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, which I reviewed on Monday. I bought the second book at the first opportunity, and fairly raced through it.

This second Medicus Investigation finds army doctor/accidental detective Gaius Petreius Ruso and his slave Tilla travelling north with a detachment of the Twentieth Legion to the fort of Coria (Corbridge). After the mystery of the murdered barmaids in the first book, Ruso, to his annoyance, has gained a bit of a reputation as a sleuth and is being pestered by people wanting him to find out who poisoned their girlfriend's cat. A temporary posting at a frontier fort should get him away from that sort of thing, right?

'Course not.

It doesn't take long before Ruso realises that something's not quite right at Coria. A mysterious antlered figure known as the "Stag Man" causes an accident on the road, and a trumpeter has been found murdered - decapitated. Worse, the head is missing, and the officers in charge at the fort are determined to keep that under wraps from the locals. Thessalus, the fort's resident doctor, has already confessed to the murder, but he's not in complete possession of his marbles. So, Ruso finds himself once again roped into solving a mystery, this time to clear the name of a brother doctor. Or rather, mysteries. There's more than one sinister going-on at Coria, and, as a sign outside the infirmary helpfully reminds everyone, "DAYS TO GOVERNOR'S VISIT IV." As those days are crossed off, Ruso must help Thessalus, unravel the mystery of the murdered trumpeter, the spectre of the Stag Man, and all the other nefarious incidents along the way. Can this nightmare get any worse for him? With Tilla reunited with a former boyfriend, you bet!

If anything, Ruso and the Demented Doctor is even better than its predecessor. Almost immediately, Ruso and the reader find themselves in the thick of the mystery, and what a mystery it is. Darker than the previous one, and even more tantalising. Again, Downie seamlessly weaves her story in with what little known history we have for this particular patch of Romano-British history, conveying very convincingly the tensions of the pre-Hadrian's Wall frontier: the tensions between legionaries and auxiliaries, soldiers and native Britons, traditionalist Britons and more Romanised Britons, tensions which all serve to drive the story. The fantastic sense of time and place from the first book is back, and Downie brings the tense frontier to life as well as she did the fortress of Deva in Dancing Girls. One of the details I really liked was the inclusion of the "Aemilia" ring which was found at Corbridge; it was nice to see something like that, one of those little things you remember reading about, making an appearance. The research is very present, but worn lightly, and splashed liberally through with the dry humour from the first book.

Ultimately, though, what makes the book a success are the characters. Ruso and Tilla are still on top form after their first outing, and the development of their often rocky relationship is the one of the most engaging threads in the book. They're turning into quite the double act! New hints and insights into their backstories also emerge as Tilla meets up with old family, friends and enemies, and as Ruso tries to connect with Doctor Thessalus. Some endearing old favourites from the first book return - there was a moment where I held my breath over the fate of wee Albanus the clerk. I'm sorry Valens, Ruso's colleague from Deva, wasn't in it more, but when he was it was very enjoyable to see the continuation of the saga of him and the Second Spear's daughter! :) You'll be hard-pressed, too, not to feel some affection for gentle, deranged Doctor Thessalus, who swings between comic in his mad talk about fish and blunt triangles, and utterly heartbreaking.

I raced through it (well, so far as coursework allows me to race through a book), and came out the other end utterly satisfied. A vivid, totally absorbing read filled with memorable characters, and my favourite line out of any book I've read in recent months:

'They make a shambles and call it peace,' said Ruso, misquoting a famous historian.


In other words, I'm very much looking forward to further adventures of Ruso and Tilla, and dying now to meet Ruso's stepmother. I just wish I hadn't devoured it so quickly now.

I'll just... wait over here, then.

Waiting patiently. Yeah.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fifty questions for Marcus

A meme I stole from Crystal. I decided to make one of my characters answer it instead of me. Let's face it, they all live more interesting lives than I do. Maybe later I'll post my own answers. Maybe.

Anyway, folks, meet Marcus Valerius Laevinus, protagonist of my Flavian novel, The Ancestor Crown, Roman legionary and silversmith, and (fictional) progenitor of the kings of Dál Riata. He's not shown up on this blog very much, mainly because he's a co-operative lad and doesn't give me much cause for headaching, so I suggested he might like to let the nice bloggers meet him. He was a tad reluctant, but I threatened convinced him. >;)

So, Marcus, tell us a bit about yourself...

1. How old will you be in 3 years?


Twenty-two. Huh. Is that all?

2. Do you think you'll be married by then?

Well, actually, I can’t get officially married for another twenty-three years. (shrugs) Maybe I’ll be attached, though. Then again, considering these Caledonian girls... doubt it.

3. What do you look forward to most in the next 2 months?

Conquering the Novantae tribe. All right, I suppose that’ll take a bit longer than two months. So... er... contributing to conquering the Novantae, then. Hopefully if I can help win a bit of glory for the Emperor Titus, I can consider my debt to him fulfilled.

4. Who was the last person you called?

Called? How d’you mean?

5. Have you ever played a team sport?

Er... does formation drill count as a team sport?

6. Who was the last person to text you?

...Text? Is that like writing? If so, Vindobarus’ mother said salve to me in her last letter to him. I’ve not really got anyone left to write to me.

7. Who was the last person you hugged?

My little sister, Secunda.

8. What were you doing at midnight last night?

(grimaces) On sentry duty at the southern gatetower. In the rain. You know... for a change.

9. Parents separated/divorced/married?

(shrugs) Still married, I suppose. Do you think marital status during life applies in the Underworld?

10. Last time you saw your dad?

Two years ago, just before he died.

11. What happened at 9:00 a.m. today?

9.00 am... that’s - what? - about the third hour? Then I’d be on the training ground, having the shit beaten out of me by Centurion Celer. (smiles wanly)

12. How many states have you visited?

Are states provinces? All right, just say they are. Then, as well as my native Italia, I’ve passed through Gaul, and Britannia, of course.

13. If you could be anywhere right now, where would it be?

Anywhere that isn’t Caledonia. Gods, even Viroconium would be better. It’s somewhat civilised, at least. I’d say I’d rather be back home, but that would be a lie.

14. Do you prefer shoes, socks, or bare feet?

In Caledonia? Shoes - army boots, that is - and socks. Thick woollen ones. Vindobarus’ mother knits them for the whole contubernium.

15. Are you a social person?

(shrugs) I muck around with the lads when I’m off-duty, though I tend to stick with my contubernium mates. I think I’m sociable enough, though I’ve heard the odd complaint that I have a tendency to think too much.

16. What was the last thing you drank?

That cheap wine I got from one of the traders outside the fort. No idea what it was supposed to be made out of, but it did the trick.

17. Favorite ice cream?

(blinks) Ice what?

18. What is your favorite dessert?

My mother used to bake these incredible honey cakes with raisins. They were my absolute favourite when I was a boy. I blame her for my sweet tooth. (sighs) I’ve ever tasted anything quite as good since.

19. Whats your favorite color?

Silver, I think. Silver and grey. They’re such subtle colours, I always think.

20. What Jelly do you put on your PBJ?

(blinks) I’ll be honest, I’ve no idea what jelly is, and no idea what PBJ stands for, either. Publius Bruccius Januarius?

21. Do you like coffee?

Do I like what?

22. How many glasses of water a day do you drink on average?

I don’t know... I don’t really drink water by itself, except for the odd swig from a flask when I’m on the march. I water down my wine, though. Honestly, though, I don’t really keep track of how much I drink.

23. What do you drink in the morning?

Well-watered wine. After Celer has sniffed my breath during inspection, of course. I once made the mistake of having a quick drink before. Let’s just say... it wasn’t pretty.

24. Would you rather kiss someone with or without a tongue ring?

Without. Definitely without.

25. Do you sleep on a certain side of the bed?

You're joking, right? Have you seen regulation army bunks? You barely get a side to yourself as it is. You have to sort of scrunch yourself up or lie as thin as possible, and you pay for it in the morning, believe me. Especially when you’re scheduled for route march.

26. Do you know how to play poker?

Nope. Can you play knucklebones?

27. Whats so good about Fridays?

That’s Dies Veneris, right? Nothing, really. (pauses) Or is that some sort of Nazarene code? Sorry, I don’t really go in for these obscure cults.

28. Any plans to visit the green monkeys on GoofyAuctions.com?

...See, this is why I try to stay away from the local beer.

29. Do you eat out or at home more often?

I generally eat in the barracks with my messmates, but the ovens are outside, under the rampart, so I suppose we do have to cook out! When we were still down at the fortress, though, there were a few bars and eating houses we liked. They did some decent Roman-style meals. Don’t think I’ll ever get used to Caledonian cuisine, though. I don’t care what you dress it up with, porridge is still porridge.

30. How big is your TV?

...Tell me that’s not British slang for what I think it is.

31. Ever stolen a street sign?

(sly grin) I might’ve stolen the odd sign or two in my time. And swapped them about in the middle of the night. But that was long before I became a responsible legionary of the Twentieth Valeria Victrix. Honest.

32. Do you keep a piggy bank?

No. All my savings (such as they are) are in the strongbox under the fort shrine. I wonder where that’ll go when we’re on campaign. Hm.

34. Have you ever been in an ambulance?

Don’t know that word, sorry. (squints) Is it something to with walking?

35. Do you prefer an ocean or a pool?

Well, I did like the sea where I lived. You know, the Tyrrhenian. But I’m not overly fond of the sea around Britannia. It’s wild and choppy and I lost count of the times I was seasick on the crossing from Gesoriacum. And I can’t say I like pools in Britannia very much, either. The natives tend to worship every single one, and in Caledonia that usually means there’s a Druid lurking nearby...

36. Do you prefer a window seat or an aisle seat?

(blinks)

38. What is your favorite thing to spend money on?

What happened to number thirty-seven? (shrugs) Anyway, I tend to buy food. Other than equipment and things, there's not much else you can spend a legionary’s wage on, once the various vultures have had their pickings. I’m glad I’m not one of those poor sods who has a family to support.

39. Do you wear any jewelry 24/7?

Do I look like a Caledonian warlord to you?

40. Do you speak any other language?

I speak Oscan, know a few words of Greek, and in my time in Britannia I’ve learned a few words of British dialect. Just enough to get by. You know, the obligatory words for “wine”, “beer”, various swear words, and, of course, the right things to say to the local girls.

41. Can you roll your tongue?

Yes. (demonstrates)

42. Who is the funniest person you know?

(grins) Most intentionally funny: my best friend, Decius. Most unintentionally funny: Tribune Vitulus.

43. Do you sleep with stuffed animals?

(frowns) No...

44. What is the main ring tone on your phone?

The main what on my what?

45. Do you still have clothes from when you were little?

(shakes head)

46. What is the color of your bedroom wall?

Sort of damp clay colour.

47. Do you shut off the water when you brush your teeth?

...Who came up with these questions?

48. Are you crushing on someone right now?

No...

49. Do you currently hate someone?

My centurion, Gaius Manlius Celer. All right, while most centurions get the job due to their ability to be complete bastards, Celer is worse than most. He’s infamous throughout the Twentieth. He once cornered me in the bathhouse and... made me an offer I had to refuse. He’s never missed an opportunity to make me pay for it since. (smiles weakly)

50. Why do you take surveys?

Kirsten made me do it. I think she likes making me suffer.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Book review: Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, by R. S. Downie



Not particularly spoiler-ridden, I don't think.

(A quick note: this book, the first Medicus Investigation, seems to have been operating under several code names. It has also been published in Britain as Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls and in the USA as Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire. Judging from some reviews on Amazon.co.uk, there has been some confusion.)

I'd like to thank Sarah Cuthbertson for introducing me to these books via a post on her blog. Thank you, Sarah!

Britannia, AD 117. Gaius Petreius Ruso is an army doctor newly stationed at Deva (modern Chester), the fortress of the Twentieth Legion, and he's not having the best time. His family is deeply in debt (thanks to his home improvements-happy stepmother) and it's up to him and his brother to get them out of it. Britannia is a cold, miserable corner of the Roman Empire, and Deva is in the middle of refurbishment. Ruso is looking forward to the wage bonus rumoured to be accompanying the ascension of the Emperor Hadrian, a possible promotion, and some peace and quiet to write his Concise Guide to Military First Aid. Not that he's likely to get it. The chief administrator of the fortress hospital is away and his colleague Valens is sick after eating some bad oysters from Merula's bar. As it turns out, the oysters aren't the only sinister things about Merula's. The body of one of the bar's prostitutes is dredged from the river, and another of the girls has gone missing. Ruso is determined to have nothing to do with trouble, but does anyway. In between dealing with Priscus, the megalomaniac chief administrator, a house full of puppies, and - of course - the mysterious slave girl he impulsively bought from her abusive trader, Ruso finds himself inextricably drawn into the mystery of the disappearing dancing girls. It isn't easy, though: if anyone knows anything, they aren't telling, and it's only a matter of time before Ruso's investigations put him in danger...

I can hear you all thinking, Not another Roman detective series!. But don't worry, Ruso isn't a simple Didius Falco clone, and this is a strong debut from Downie, which bodes well for further books in the series. In her hands, the fortress of Deva becomes a lively army base populated by a whole cast of colourful and memorable characters; from reluctant detective Ruso - world-weary, humane and exasperated with just about everything, and Tilla, Ruso's slave and patient with high British ideals and a penchant for brewing up potions and placing curses, to good-humoured Valens and the oh-so-literal clerk Albanus.

Downie deftly weaves the historical details into the story without making them overbearing, handling the themes with both humour and empathy. The Roman slave trade is a main thread in the story, laying the foundation for the mystery and Ruso's fraught relationship with Tilla. I also liked the incidental details concerning Ruso's medical career. Too often I read books where a character has a potentially interesting job but it never really becomes a part of the story. Ruso, however, is very much a Medicus, and fascinating little snippets of Roman medical procedures (including cataract surgery!) abound without ever having to resort to info-dump. Downie's sense of place is brilliant, too: she brings Deva and its inhabitants to life, especially the fortress hospital, realm of the overweening penpusher Priscus, a place humorously reminiscent of any NHS hospital today! :) The Britannia of Ruso has a distinctly frontier feel to it, too, and the many relationships and tensions between the Roman soldiers and the British tribespeople are also vividly portrayed.

If I have a criticism of the book, it's that the mystery itself took a while to take off. But even then, I can't really complain, as Ruso's other myriad woes, which mostly take up the first part of the book, are engaging enough for me not to mind. When Ruso is increasingly entangled in the sinister goings-on, the pace picks up and the story hurtles towards a gripping climax, which ties up the mystery thread nicely but promises the reader they haven't yet found out all there is to know about Ruso and Tilla.

I'll be honest, I'm not much of a murder mystery reader, but the Roman Britain setting and, above all, the characters of the book reeled me in. Ruso is my favourite kind of protagonist: the hero-despite-himself, and I'll be looking forward to seeing how he and Tilla fare in further investigations. The strong characters, vivid setting and lively mystery all combine to make a thoroughly enjoyable read. In fact, I finished it just this morning and then went straight to buy the sequel, Ruso and the Demented Doctor (US Terra Incognita), as soon as my lectures were over for the day. I'm only on chapter nine so far, but already it's promising to be even better than the first. :)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Back to life, back to reality.

Holy moly, it's been a while, hasn't it? Been a rather unsettled week or so over here, what with the holidays ending and uni starting again. Only a month and a half till I finish first year. Where has the time gone? It feels like yesterday I could barely wait for it to start.

'Course, that means that it's only a month till my first exam omgwtf.

Ahem.

I spent the last few days of the hols doing work that I really shouldn't have put off for so long but did anyway, and the end result was me having to pull yet another all-nighter on Monday in order to get my Archaeology essay finished off. I will be seeing the Loch Glashan crannog in my nightmares for many months to come. >.<

Anyway, I must have fallen asleep mid-bibliography, 'cause the next thing I knew, it was eight in the morning, and I hadn't had my bath, or got the essay polished off (heh!) or printed. By the time I'd got all that done, I'd missed my bus so I had to fork out for a taxi. Now, I don't like doing that at the best of times, since a taxi into town from my bit usually costs me a wad o' money I don't really have. Ah, the joys of being a jobless student. :) But I shell out and book it anyway.

After my rather draining morning (the printer naturally decided to play up when I was trying to get the essay printed), I actually got a nice surprise. I'm sitting in the back of the taxi, numbering the pages of my essay, and the driver asks me what I'm doing at uni. So I tell him I'm doing archaeology, and also mention I'm going down to Vindolanda (less than two months now!!). "Aaw," he says, "I'd love to do something like that." He says he loves watching all the archaeology programmes, and I agree, saying I'm in it for the Roman stuff. From there, we had a long, long, geeky natter about the Antonine Wall, the invasions of Scotland in general, Mons Graupius and Agricola, the Teutoburg Forest, the siege of Masada, Roman army tactics vs. Caledonian downhill charging, redcoat tactics at Culloden vs. Scottish downhill charging, the Roman army in Britain, the Ninth Legion, and David Gemmell. It was great, and he seemed as glad as me to have someone to talk to about it all. :)

That kept me in a good mood for the rest of the day, which is just as well, as I might well have been in a terrible one otherwise. Aside from general essay-related stress, I was expecting a message which never came. I'd met a friend from school on the bus home on Monday, who's at college in Wales, and we got talking. He mentioned he was meeting up with another friend on Tuesday night, and invited me along too, said he'd give me a call later that evening. Well, he never did. Not on Monday night, and not on Tuesday either. By the time I came out of my Archaeology lab at four, I decided it obviously wasn't happening. I got a bit annoyed - honestly, if you don't want me there, don't invite me in the first place - but I shrugged it off and decided I wasn't going to lose any sleep over it.

Hahaha. I don't know what the hell happened, but I didn't lose any sleep on Tuesday night. I dozed off about half six when I got home - naturally enough, seeing as I'd had - what? - about two hours sleep the previous night. But somehow I still managed to sleep all evening - with a barely remembered half hour up for tea, all night, and well into the next morning. I think it was about nine when I woke up on Wednesday. And the thing is, I did it again on Thursday. Not quite on the same scale, but I still managed to oversleep. It's a bit odd, seeing as I'm usually the sort of person who can function perfectly on about three hours of sleep. I think I might book myself in for a blood test; I was quite anaemic in school, and as a result constantly exhausted. Can't be bothered with that again.

Of course, however, Mum and Dad got all worried, asking me constantly if I was all right. I felt a bit blegh on Thursday night and mentioned this to my dad. Big mistake. I love my dad and we're close as anything, but having a father-daughter chat with him is often a frustrating experience. Suffice it to say, he's a psychoanalyst, and Freudian at that, so even when I say truthfully that nothing's bothering me, he's convinced I'm repressing something. And he keeps picking at it - "Are you sure?" - in this not-convinced-at-all voice, until I get exasperated, which just encourages him to pick at it all the more. (headdesk)

But enough of my moaning. Good news is, Tuesday's archaeology lab was great - it involved reconstructing a hunting scene from Palaeolithic Germany based on the deer bones and the topography. And in Latin we've moved on to Catullus' poetry. We've been told we're not actually doing any of the ahem invective (even though we've already translated part of Number 16, heheheh), so we got our first sparrow poem. Yaaaay. Me and my friends had a laugh trying to work out whether his girlfriend kept her pet sparrow in her lap, her bosom, her "inmost part", or her asylum. We decided "lap" was probably the most likely. ;)

And this Tuesday I have my last Celtic essay to hand in, and my last Latin test. Then it's the best part of a month just to study for the exams, which should be fairly straightforward, if I start at a reasonable time.

Oh, and btw, watch The Last Legion, all of you! I got it out of Blockbusters purely for the MST3K value, which is the only way to go. I couldn't even work up any righteous geeky indignance at the myriad historical inaccuracies because I was too busy "lol"ing. Still can't quite get my head around the thought of Excalibur, sword of the just, being kept safe in Emperor Tiberius' playboy villa on Capri! Or the fact that you find Excalibur in said playboy villa by poking Julius Caesar in the eyes. Roflol.

Credit where credit's due, though. There was a lovely little moment where the filmmakers tried to pretend they'd actually done some research by having the "legionaries" form testudo during the final battle. (gigglesnort)

Well, I'd better go. Hopefully normal blogging services will be resumed this week. I'm missing you all.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Oh dear. This is just too tempting to pass up.

For a while now, I've been playing about with the idea of including a subplot dealing with the foundation of the kingdom of Dál Riata, as well as the emergence of the Pictish "nation", in my books. After all, the surviving records are dubious, the genealogies heavily manipulated. What's one more piece of fiction thrown in there?

The plotbunnies suggested that in my universe the first kings of Dál Riata could be descended from my Marcus and Gairea, whose stories are centred around Argyll in The Ancestor Crown. After all, what on earth is that boar doing carved on the rock at Dunadd when the totem of the Iron Age Argyll-folk seems, etymologically, to have been the horse?

It just so happens that my Marcus is a soldier of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix, whose emblem was a boar.

Then, while I was checking over my OS map of mid-Argyll for Iron Age settlements, I came across the most interesting little place name on the isle of Seil, just off the coast of Argyll. Rubha mhic Mharcuis: "Headland of the son of Mharcuis". Mharcuis is a Gaelic rendering of - you guessed it - Marcus. (It's also the Gaelic for "marquis", but with the mhic in there I think here it probably means "son of Mark").

I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable, non-Roman-related origin to the name. Nevertheless, it gave me a slight chill.

Something else to play with, I think. :)