Book Review: Semper Fidelis: A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire by Ruth Downie

Semper Fidelis is the fifth book in Ruth Downie’s Medicus Novels series. It’s set in England (formerly known as Britannia) during the Roman occupation somewhere around 122 AD. The time period, setting, characters, and plot make it a light and entertaining read.

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I read Semper Fidelis as part of the 2023 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. March’s challenge was to read a book about or set in ancient Rome. (As a side note, most books in this category are really, really long.)

The main character in Semper Fidelis, and the Medicus Novels series, is Ruso. Ruso is a doctor (a medicus) in the Roman army who is married to a native of Britannia named Tilla. Since I jumped into the series on the fifth novel, I missed the story of how they met, but I’m sure it’s interesting.

The story takes place in what is now York during Hadrian’s rule and while the Roman’s are building Hadrian’s Wall. The wall is mentioned several times, but it’s north of York and not the subject of the story.

Ruso gets entangled in troubles with the new recruits at the Roman fort in York. Several of the recruits have been killed or injured under suspicious circumstances. As the Twentieth Legion’s doctor, Ruso feels responsible for the health and safety of the native recruits, so he starts informally investigating. It’s clear something is not right, but the recruits are too scared to talk, and the officers are stonewalling Ruso.

Ruso’s wife, Tilla, who is also a prominent character, starts digging for answers, too. Because she’s a native of Britannia, the locals are more willing to share gossip. Together with what Ruso discovers, a dark story begins to emerge.

But the two of them draw the ire of those in charge and they’re in danger of punishment. The information they discovered falls on deaf ears. And when a centurion is murdered, it’s a race against time to prove Ruso’s innocence and find the real killer.

I liked Semper Fidelis. As I said in the intro, it’s light and entertaining, similar to a cozy mystery. The setting and subject matter make it unique. The characters, including an appearance by the Empress Sabina, are interesting. While not completely immersive, there’s just enough detail to get a hint of what life might have been like in the Roman army that occupied England. Additionally, the ending had a nice plot twist.

If you’re familiar with Semper Fidelis or the Medicus Novels series, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And, if you read a book about or set in ancient Rome, please tell us all about it in the comments section.

**Reminder – April’s challenge is to read a funny book. Any suggestions?

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