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?
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.