Ruth Downie’s crime series set in Roman Britain is my current favourite comfort read.
Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Roman army doctor, initially stationed in Deva (modern-day Chester). Tilla is a Briton who he rescues from slavery in the first novel, Medicus. He takes her in as a servant but over time their relationship deepens. Together, they find themselves stumbling across crimes, which they investigate and solve.
The plots are deliciously twisty and invariably involve Ruso and Tilla taking on people who are dangerous, or politically connected, or both. Despite the risks to Ruso’s career, their precarious financial situation, and even their lives, they are unable to back down, driven by principle, personal ties or just plain cussedness.
Each book takes place in a different location. These are mostly in Britannia but in Persona Non Grata they visit Ruso’s family in Gaul, and in Vita Brevis they go to Rome. Together, these build up a picture of the diversity and complexity of the Roman world, and in particular its occupation of Britannia.
There’s a lot of humour in the books, much of it character driven. Ruso is committed but cantankerous. He feels hard done by, with responsibilities for his large and feckless family at home in Gaul, left in debt following his father’s death. A number of secondary characters, from soldiers to medics and even an emperor, add to the drama, many of them appearing in multiple books.
Tilla is particularly fascinating, caught as she is between two worlds. She is both naïve and shrewd, impulsive and strategic, driven by what she believes is right, but also, at times, lacking in confidence as an outsider who doesn’t understand the mores of her new life.
Among the Britons she has both strong ties and enemies who have caused her great loss. These play a key part in Terra Incognita. Her observations on the differences between Roman culture and her own undercut the assumption that the Romans are more civilised. The relationship between Ruso and Tilla, with its affection and moments of mutual exasperation, is beautifully observed.
Downie often adds a historical note, saying what is real and what she has changed. Occasionally when I’ve had a doubt (were there really glass windows in Roman Britain?) I’ve found that the detail is correct (yes, but only for the wealthy). She immerses you in their world, not just the monuments and the battles but the textures, sounds and smells of daily life.
The attitudes of Ruso and Tilla at times seem modern, but in that I think Downie has done a good job of balancing realism with the demands of a contemporary audience, for example in the attitude of the Roman characters to slavery. It wouldn’t make sense for Ruso to be an abolitionist, but Tilla’s experience means they always treat slaves with compassion.
These are books you can dive into and forget about real life while you experience another time and place – stories which make you laugh, while also having the virtuous sense that you’re learning about a fascinating period in history.