Book Review: Ruth Downie’s Tabula Rasa

Posted November 8, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Ruth Downie’s Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa


Ruth Downie

historical mystery that was published by Bloomsbury Publishing USA on August 5, 2014 and has 352 pages.

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Sixth in the Gaius Petreius Ruso historical mystery series revolving around a Roman army medic and his British wife. This story is set in the fort at Parva in Britain.

My Take

I like this one better than the last, Semper Fidelis, 5, and it seems to be heading back towards what I enjoyed about Downie’s earlier stories, even if that landslide is the introduction and a metaphor for how things progress in this story, all downhill.

For all the worry rebellion seems to cause the Romans, they don’t do much to be nice. They want to build a wall? No problem. Throw people’s furnishings and household goods out of their homes and tell them they can’t have their farm anymore. Looking for a missing soldier? No problem. Invade people’s homes and burn those homes down if the Romans think they’re lying. Conn certainly has a lot to say about Roman actions, and you can’t help but laugh and agree.

We’ll help you round up all your men and beat them … You always think it works on us.

Poor Ruso. He’s got all these entanglements because of Tilla, and he’s starting to see the British side of things. He loves her, I still can’t see why. But he sure does jump through the hoops for her. It doesn’t help that he sends troops hunting for his lost clerk, and they have no care for local sensibilities. Worse, he’s still thinking with his heart instead of his brain, although it is what makes him the man he is.

It’s interesting to note what the Roman army will punish and what it accepts. In some ways it seems very civilized, and in others, oh boy. Makes ya grateful for the Bill of Rights and the Geneva Convention. It’s disheartening as well to see how much we haven’t changed. Abusive men, trigger-quick tongues, leaping to conclusions, gossip… We still refuse to acknowledge the culture of others as Rome does when faced with a British poet.

Senecio being a poet is not what it seems. He’s more bard, librarian, and the memories of his people. And one of the first people the Romans should have spoken with when they arrived. Instead, they dismissed him as crazy.

It’s an eye-opening time for Tilla as she learns the negative side of being a mother, learns more than she could imagine about her family, sees the rightness on both sides, and finally realizes the harm she’s been doing. Those medical books Tilla is reading are eye-opening as well as they haven’t much basis in normal people’s lives, and they make me think of those meal-planning diet guides that tell you to have a different juice or drink and bread for each breakfast and lunch. How can you expect to store all those different foods and use ‘em up fast enough?

Why would Ruso think his discovery could possibly clear Daminius? It does just the opposite!

Why don’t Piso and Lupus just tell the truth? They’ve already been caught in lies that will mean trouble for them?

I don’t get it. Ruso has been given a level of authority in looking for the boy by the tribune himself. Why hasn’t he taken advantage of this? He could have ordered up a few men to go with him?

At the end, what started up the ruckus? Why did they think Ruso was the child snatcher?

The natives will be celebrating Samain in this story, and Downie includes a few of its myths and legends.

The Story

It starts with an amputation dangling on dangerous ground and continues to slide downwards with rumors of a body in the wall, kidnapped children, and local anger over that wall being built across farmsteads.

A man who knew Tilla’s mother offers to bless their union, which gives Tilla a brief warmth of family until a young boy goes missing in a most disruptive way, fanning the embers of rebellion.

The Characters

Medical Officer Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Roman medicus for the Twentieth and has gained a reputation for solving mysteries. He’s recently married the outspoken Tilla, a.k.a., Darlughdacha, a British native who received her Roman citizenship in Semper Fidelis, 5. She’s been learning the medical arts and practices on the natives. The tactless, clueless Virana is a pregnant native Tilla took in and is currently working for Ria to pay the rent. Another tactless one with a mouth that won’t stop, Aemilia is Tilla’s cousin and married to a brewer, Rianorix, whom Tilla should have married.

Albanus is a friend and his former clerk, does Ruso ever miss him! He’s sent his annoying nephew, Legionary Candidus, a.k.a., Perky, to Ruso to aid him in a career. Grata was the woman Albanus was going to marry.

The British natives
Senecio of the Corionotatae is the head of a native family who are incredibly angry at the Romans. He’s also a poet who sings to trees. Enica is his wife. Branan is his youngest son. Conn is his oldest, a hothead, and a leader during the troubles. The Romans have a thick file on him. Dubnus was the middle son, killed during the last rebellion by a legion from the Twentieth.

Aedic is a young boy whose life has changed too much, leaving him with a sore heart. Petta is his uncaring stepmother, the woman who threw Conn aside. Lucano and Matto are brothers and bullies. Inam is a neighbor and friend of Branan’s. Cata is a local girl seeing an abusive Roman soldier.

Ria is Ruso and Tilla’s landlady and part owner of the local snack bar. Her husband is a baker and not averse to slipping Tilla free pastries in thanks.

The Twentieth Legion

Accius is the tribune and in overall command. Fabius is the local centurion, Ruso’s superior (in name only, sigh), an absolute joke with an obsession for his health. It does pander to his need for drink, sleep, and laziness, *eye roll* Regulus is a plumber attacked by natives. Mallius is one of the quarrymen. Optio Daminius is a very honorable junior officer and Fabius’ deputy — he’s the only reason the camp runs as well as it does — with his hand in the cookie jar.

Peregrinus is a century of Fabius’ and causing a ruckus at Regulus’ door. Olennius is a builder who’s found something.

The hospital
Doctor Valens is an old friend and a medicus as well; Serena is his wife. Prefect Pertinax is Serena’s father, was a mentor to Ruso, and now simply terrifies them all. Gallús is Ruso’s deputy. Nisus is the closemouthed pharmacist. Gracilis is the huge clerk come to take Candidus’ place.

Larentia is a girl with that mole in the right place. Lupus is a slave dealer; Piso is his agent. Susanna is an old friend of Ruso’s in Coria. Centurion Silvanus is in the next fort up the line, Magnis. The kitchen maid is the problem, as she belongs in every way to Fabius. Agelastus was a slave falsely accused of rape, he says.

Deva is where the legion will winter. The threefold death is a ritual sacrifice involving breath, blood, and food.

The Cover and Title

The cover is odd. I do associate the grays and reds with Rome, but I’m not sure what the stone sculpture of a man’s back, his head tilted down, and his hands clasped behind his back means in relation to this story. Unless it’s meant to portray Ruso with all his worries.

The title is what Hadrian’s Wall becomes, a Tabula Rasa, in memoriam.