Memento Mori by Ruth Downie
I seem to be slipping back into blogging about books, summer does tend to be peak reading time. By getting back involved with challenges I have found myself directed towards great books I might not have found otherwise and that is the thing I really like about reading challenges, they are a great discovery tool. They can help you think outside the box to find a title to match particular criteria and you can stumble across some surprising gems that way, I know I have in the past.
On impulse I signed up for Sam’s When are you reading challenge and had to find a book relating to a pre 1300 setting. I thought about what other books I had read in that time period and wondered if there was anything new by the same authors.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were new titles in a mystery series set in Roman Britian by Ruth Downie, a series I absolutely love, definitely fits the pre 1300 criteria so that has been my first choice for the When are you reading challenge.
Memento Mori is the eighth title in the wonderful Medicus series of mysteries. Downie has created compelling and appealing characters in Gaius Ruso and Tilla, her two main protagonists. Ruso is a medical officer with the legions in Britain, in the first novel Medicus he encountered the local slave Tilla, rescued her from a beating and, against his better judgement, bought her. Tilla an evocation of Boadicea, is anything but slavish, the resulting sparring and clash of cultures drives much of the humour and charm of these books. Tilla might have started out a slave but through the series and a number of dramas she goes from disobedient embarrassment to trusted partner.
Downie has managed to set the books round different locations mainly in Roman Britain but also Ruso’s homeland Gaul. This one is set in Aquae Sulis or what we know today as Bath. Ruso and Tilla travel to Aquae Sulis to defend Ruso’s friend Valens from a murder charge after, Valens wife is found stabbed to death in the sacred spring.
Downie uses great characters and vivid evocation of the historical setting to drive her stories. This novel captures the complex and nuanced nature of the cult of Sulis Minerva and the economic and social importance of the original spa town that becomes Bath. With the local economy relying on the tourist dollar, it is imperative that nothing is revealed to damage the reputation of the spa. Conflict arises due to the competing interests of retired veterans from the legions and the interests of temple priests, into this mix comes Ruso and Tilla with their adopted daughter and their own domestic issues. The history was fascinating and Downie’s view of the coalface of cultural exchange under imperialism is a fascinating study of the milieu of a multicultural empire and the dynamics of imperialism. The cult of Sulis Minerva itself demonstrates the happy blending of cultures, where the local Celtic deity of Sulis blends with the imported Roman deity of Minerva. (For interest the Wikipedia link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulis). Grassroots politics and vested interests become part of the driving force behind this particular mystery.
Overall I really enjoyed this escapist romp into the past of Roman Britain, I always do enjoy these books, but if I am hosnest I did not enjoy this one quite as much as the earlier novels, partly because Tilla seems a slightly more reserved character in this novel. This is a fantastic series of novels though, that in many respects blends a number of genres; historical fiction, mystery, even romance. Downie has transformed one of the big stories of history, Roman conquest of Britain and the very nature of Imperialism into something personal and accessible, she illustrates the negotiation of difference, and the emergence of new identities born of understanding, such a setting is ripe for drama and she has utilised the time period to great effect.