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.