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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 January 2013
Semper Fidelis is the fifth in Ruth Downie's Roman mystery series featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso, medicus or doctor to the Twentieth Legion in Roman Britain. The year is AD 122 and Ruso, along with his barbarian and suitably feisty Briton wife Tilla, rejoins the Twentieth at Eboracum (York) just in time for the chaos that means the imminent arrival of emperor Hadrian, who is on one of his famous imperial tours, no doubt involving a detour to a certain wall. Unfortunately, Ruso's arrival and the visit of Hadrian and his empress coincide with a spate of mishaps affecting the legion's native recruits. They appear to be dropping like flies. It's not long before word spreads of a curse. While Ruso is put to the task of fixing the recruits, while hearing worrying rumours of their harsh treatment by certain officers, Tilla looks about for clues to the source of the curse. Needless to say, such meddling gets them both into a spot of bother.

I have yet to read the earlier novels in the series and, considering how much I enjoyed Ruso and Tilla's relationship in Semper Fidelis, this is clearly something to put right. If you had read the preceding novels then I think you'd derive extra pleasure from watching the pair as they settle down to marriage with all the ease and confidence that this brings to them both. Relationships are seldom if ever perfect and this one isn't either but despite the less familiar setting of 2nd-century Britannia and the thrills of the murder mystery the portrayal of Ruso and Tilla is very real. I enjoyed getting to know them in this novel, with their little arguments and conflicts, their variable beliefs due to their very different backgrounds, and the security that they bring to each other. Not to mention the laughs.

And then there's Eboracum. Semper Fidelis brings this northern Roman town to life, not only for the streets, houses, inns and barracks but also for the beliefs of the native population, their relationship to their Roman overlords and their effort to fit in and be a part of it while retaining their identity. As the mystery shows, this can't always work out well and there is a real clash of cultures. The army might have much to offer a young Briton after citizenship and land but it's not an easy transition.

The mystery behind Semper Fidelis is an intriguing one and pits Ruso and Tilla against some important local Romans, especially gnarled centurion Geminus and the ambitious tribune Accius. Among the memorable characters is the empress herself Sabina, given (to her satisfaction) a prime role in events, and the young Briton Virana who lives up to her reputation as a Roman soldier groupie. She is full of life, though, and is a fine example of the liveliness that can be found throughout this novel. Ruth Downie not only captures the spirit of Roman Britain, she gives it a humorous edge, not going too far with it, but instead making it feel within reach.

I found the mystery itself rather convoluted and dense compared to the lightness and interest of its context but its impact on Ruso and Tilla is thoroughly unsettling. As a result I now have the treat of reading the other novels in the series while I wait for the next which, this novel suggests, may bring new developments for Ruso and Tilla. I'm grateful for my review copy.
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Ruth Downie appears to be getting into her stride with this series about a Roman army surgeon and his British born wife. In this outing we find our reluctant medicus back in the army and drawn into an intrigue surrounding the mistreatment of British recruits as they prepare to move from their training base in York to their permanent camp. Every investigator, reluctant or not, has to have their Watson and Ruso's is his determined wife Tilla. The fact she's British puts a nice twist on the medicus storylines and provides depth and prospective. Tilla is also developing as a character who is an equal to the medicus and in this story she is centre stage more than in the other books, they're beginning to become a team with mutual respect for the qualities each of them brings to their relationship.

Downie is also showing she has Paul Doherty's flair and ability to write uncanny and believably descriptive backdrops to her stories in such rich detail that you can almost smell, feel and taste 2nd century Brittania as you get drawn into the tale. The storyline is well plotted, has a couple of red herrings and some nice twists, particularly at the end - sorry, no spoilers!

My only concern is that you have to have a degree of familiarity with Ruso and Tilla's backstory as there are references to it throughout the book so it's not really a standalone read - although at a push you could, it's just you'll miss a lot of the background, and some of it is important background that explains what makes the characters interact with each other as they do and their motivation. That said, my recommendation would be to play catch up and read the others first, you won't be disappointed if you're a fan of this genre.

I really enjoyed this outing and I'm looking forward to book six.
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Ruth Downie adds another episode to the saga of Roman army doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso and wife and helpmate Tilla in second century AD/CE Britian. And a good story it is. Characteristically of this series, the historic context feels authentic; the grubbiness of provincial living conditions, lousy weather, medical practices and local cuisine are pitch perfect to the point of occasional reader discomfort (I thought that the Romans had at least introduced the idea of central heating to Britain, but if they did, it apparently didn't get to the provinces (early York) where this story takes place.) The novel's characters seem like real people dealing with credible social/cultural differences (do present day Britons and Italians have the same differences in perspective, I wonder?)

The storyline is familiar and solid; Ruso and wife Tilla are in the north of England (Eboracum) on an inspection of army medical facilities ahead of an unprecedented visit by the Roman Emperor Hadrian and entourage, including the discontented royal wife, Sabina, The garrison at Eboracum has some serious morale problems stemming from the deaths and desertions of several young British recruits, and Ruso, the instinctive investigator and seeker of justice, gets involved. His poking around earns him the emnity of the local commander and his subordinates, and early on Ruso is first worked over physically by man and dog and eventually accused some serious criminal activity.

While the Roman medicus is by definition the center of the book (and series), it is Tilla, his British-born wife and helpmate, who is increasingly at the heart of the book's motivations and actions. As a second-class subject in her own occupied country, she has a markedly different perspective on life and provides a strong moral compass to her often equivocal Roman husband. She is definitely the stronger of the two principals at this point in the series. And Tilla functions increasingly as a kind of feminist heroine, with other female characters in orbit around her as the story progresses. This is especially interesting in "Semper Fidelis" when the Roman Empress Sabina enters the picture and engages Tilla in dialogue.

Overall, this is a smart and entertaining novel with a satisfying conclusion. I think that there are places when it gets a little too dense in conspiracy and in its zig-zagging enmeshment of Ruso and Tilla in some confusing questions of whodunit. This all settles down at the end and finishes with wit and the promise of more to the story to come. Bravo for that.
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on 29 April 2013
I am a fan of Ruth Downie's series, having read them from the first on recommendation of a friend. She was right, they're excellent. Downie's style is softer than that of some other authors, in that her characters may go through horrendous experiences but she presents the situation skillfully without unnecessary exposition on the amount of blood pulsing from veins or the degradation suffered by a victim of an assault. It's not easy to express such things without going overboard, but she manages beautifully.

I have read all her books and have watched each one grow from the previous work. Her writing is assured, clear and doesn't rely on the same sort of cliche that often intrudes into works based in the past. Her research is excellent, there are no jarring intrusions into the book of modern attitudes or expressions. Her main characters are sympathetic and likeable, without being squeaky clean. It helps the storylines when the people involved in the story are not clear cut, one or the other types.

This most recent story takes us to the north, not all the way to Hadrian's wall, but to a York that is miles away from the modern city. Her descriptions of the conditions in Eboracum are clear and relevant, without dressing up the residents in the obligatory 'mud of Yore' that seems to afflict so many poor participants in historic novels. The variety of characters allow us to grasp just how good and how bad it was back then, the relationships are well-written and give us a feel for the time without indulging in pedantry. Ruso and Tilla are an excellent couple, their problems are believable and the situations they find themselves involved in are also very probable.

The Imperial couple, Hadrian and Sabina, make an appearance in the novel, and are treated as people rather than icons, which makes for interesting reading when there are exchanges between them and our heroes. Again, Downie skillfully inserts historic personae into a work of fiction with excellent results. She also has a great sense of humour, there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in the story.

The plot kept me guessing far more than other writers works do, the solution is neat and tidy, and the writing is tight and enjoyable. I look forward to the next book in the series.
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on 17 June 2013
I first came across Ruth Downie's books about Ruso, the Roman Medicus, and his British wife Tilla last year. I enjoyed the first novel (Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls) so much that I immediately bought the other three novels available at the time and devoured them in short order. I then had a seemingly interminable wait until this, the fifth instalment of the story of Ruso and Tilla, was published.

The wait was well worth it. Ms Downie has not disappointed with Semper Fidelis. She presents us with her usual well-crafted mystery, full of enough layers, twists and turns, clues and red herrings to satisfy the most pernickety of mystery buffs. Interspersed throughout the story we learn more about Tilla and Ruso's relationship and watch it develop further. And of course, it wouldn't be a Medicus story without being shot through with humour as well:

"Accius reclined on one of the rather worn couches that graced his private dining suite in the mansio, and Ruso congratulated himself on his mature lack of jealousy as he noted that this room alone was three times the size of the space he was sharing with his wife."

I've had a soft spot for Ancient Rome since doing Latin at school (more years ago than I care to count!) and later watching the BBC's adaptation of I, Claudius and Ruth Downie's books make me feel as if I'm right there. Having read Suetonius' Twelve Caesars it was a joy to "meet" him within the pages of Semper Fidelis as well as Emperor Hadrian and his wife Sabina, all of whom came across as believable characters within the context of the story.

I don't want to give any spoilers, and you can read the plot summary elsewhere, but in short, if you enjoyed the other Ruso books, don't miss this one! And if you haven't read any of the others yet, I recommend you do. Although this book can be enjoyed as a "stand alone" I think you will enjoy it far more in the context of the previous 4 books.

I hope Ruth Downie writes more about the adventures of Ruso and Tilla, because I for one can't wait for the next one!
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on 27 June 2013
I have read all of the Ruso books by Ruth Downie and have thoroughly enjoyed each and everyone one of them, this one included, maybe even more than usual. The author manages to create an atmosphere filled with engaging characters and story lines that are geographically accurate to the time and period where the protagonists find themselves.

Along with good humour and good story lines and the hard done to Ruso, the books are always extremely comfortable and nice 'places' to find yourself and provide situations where you can escape and spend many hours, not wanting to put the book down as I found with this until I realised I had read past page 100.

Whilst not the sword and sandals war epics of a Ben Kane or Simon Scarrow, these stories are equally as good in their own right and provide a pause between battle and limb slashing books that I also enjoy reading. If you like historical fiction that mirrors historical fact I can't recommend these books highly enough.

Ruth Downie provides the reader with stories and characters akin to your favourite and most comfortable chair, keep up the excellent work Ruth, I look forward to the next book.
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on 1 February 2013
Avid readers of the Ruso and Tilla series will need no recommendation to 'devour' this next version of the story. A clever plot with all the usual coincidences and mistakes told with the lovely humour, which makes the whole scenario and its characters so believable and enjoyable
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on 16 May 2016
This is one of the most entertaining books I've read recently, a story that had me happily absorbed from the first page. Great characters, an authentic atmosphere and meticulous detailing along with some very fine writing had me laughing as well as keeping me on the edge of my seat. I don't usually pick up historical novels, but I will be taking another book in the Ruso series on holiday with me for sheer enjoyment.
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on 7 February 2013
The Russo & Tilla novels get better and better. i loved this. I tried reading it slowly to make it last. They are characters you care about. Well written, and enthralling.
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on 14 April 2013
Annual event the new Medicus. Semper Fidelis did not let me down. Now looking forward to the next instalment. Hope Ms Downie is already busy.
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