Friday, October 22, 2010

Review: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Persona Non Grata is Ruth Downie's third book in her series of mysteries set in the farflung the Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian that features the medicus Gaius Petraeus Ruso and his slave/girlfriend/partner-in-detecting Tilla (who's British name is unpronounceable and translates to "Daughter of Lugh").

In the first two books of the series, the action takes place in Roman Britain, but in this one Ruso has been granted leave from the legion and has brought Tilla to his home in Gaul where he has come to sort out some family problems, most of them having to do with money ~ or rather the lack thereof. The first third of the novel was a bit long and consisted mostly of introducing the cast of characters and highlighting their unusually unpleasant idiosyncracies. Then someone dies right in front of Ruso, and it looks like he was done in by poison. The fact that the dead guy was Ruso's main creditor who was in the process of ruining him legal and turning his family off the family farm to become homeless and destitute makes Ruso look pretty good for the murderer, at first glance anyway.  After that, the story gets really good, and I ended up liking it far more than the first two. For one thing, there were some really amusing bits.  Also, Tilla is beginning to be more likeable and Ruso not to irritating in his thick-headedness.  I also liked the way the author developes even the unlikeable characters so that in the end I had begun to understand them, if not outright like them.

Oh, and the mystery? It was okay, if just a tad too facile. But I just love Downie's way with characters and her ability to evoke the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the ancient Roman world, so the mystery is secondary for me.

This series lies somewhere between Lindsey Davis's Falco and Wishart's Marcus Corvinus mysteries and the more serious SPQR and Gordianus the Finder mysteries by John Maddox Roberts and Steven Saylor, respectively. 

CAVEAT:  This was a LibraryThing Early Review book that I received gratis in exchange for a review.  (Notice the Latin terms in a review of a Roman mystery? Pretty classy, huh?)  The opinions expressed are strictly my own and were in no way influenced by the fact the book was free.

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