Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction):
Florence, Italy – 1533: An orphan named René le Florentin is plucked from poverty to become Catherine de Medici’s perfumer. Traveling with the young duchessina from Italy to France, René brings with him a cache of secret documents from the monastery where he was trained: recipes for exotic fragrances and potent medicines – and a formula for an alchemic process said to have the potential to reanimate the dead.
In France, René becomes not only the greatest perfumer in the country, but also the most dangerous, creating deadly poisons for his Queen to use against her rivals. But while mixing herbs and essences under the light of flickering candles, René doesn’t begin to imagine the tragic and personal consequences for which his lethal potions will be responsible.
Paris, France – The Present: A renowned mythologist, Jac L’Etoile – trying to recover from personal heartache by throwing herself into her work – learns of the sixteenth-century perfumer who may have been working on an elixir that would unlock the secret to immortality. She becomes obsessed with René le Florentin’s work – particularly when she discovers the dying breaths he had collected during his lifetime.
Jac’s efforts put her in the path of her estranged lover, Griffin North, a linguist who has already begun translating René le Florentin’s mysterious formula. Together they confront an eccentric heiress in possession of a world-class art collection, a woman who has her own dark purpose for the elixir . . . for which she believes the ends will justify her deadly means.
When writing across two very different time periods, there is always a risk of confusing the plots and, consequently, the reader, and if takes the deft skills of a practiced writer to get it just right. Such is the case with The Collector of Dying Breaths – M J Rose manages to blend the two seamlessly to superb effect.
Both time periods are written in such a way that all the senses are excited in a visceral manner, and the characters, both the actual historical figures and the fictional ones, seem to leap off the page to lead lives of their own outside of the words written there. One can imagine Melinoe wandering round the halls of her luxurious home, caressing her collections of art, while René, in another time, is concocting his perfumes for Catherine de Medici, and at the same time, Jac and Griffin are wandering the back streets of Paris to find a small, romantic cafe.
Although this is the sixth book in the series, it is the first one I have read. However, it is so well written that it works just as well as a stand alone novel (at present, I do not know exactly how it ties in with the rest of the series, but it will be fun finding out when I go back to read the rest of them!).
Rose has a way with words that grips the reader and won’t let go till exhaustion forces one to lay down the book or risk dropping it – it’s one of those books that one simply cannot put down unless absolutely forced, bu one is so caught up in the mystery that it simply does not matter. Indeed, nothing matters but finishing the next chapter. And the next. And the next, until the exciting conclusion is reached at last.
A word to the wise – don’t read this one in bed unless you can afford to be up all night and cancel your morning meetings!