I was intrigued by the premise of The Collector of Dying Breaths from the moment I read the description: a gothic tale about perfume and poison that blended two stories, one past and one present. As someone who appreciates scent the opportunity to learn a little about old perfumery drew me in, and to my delight, the publisher quickly approved my NetGalley request to view the novel. This ended up being one of those rare fictional accounts that inspired me to research the historical figure that starred in the 16th century portion of the narrative, and overall, I finished the read feeling a little educated as well as heartily entertained.
The Collector of Dying Breaths tells the story of Jac L’Etoile, the daughter of a Paris perfume house who has the ability to perceive other people’s past lives due to the trauma of losing her mother at a young age. When her beloved brother, Robbie, dies from a mysterious illness that baffles doctors and pathologists she gets sucked back into the world of perfume to complete his final work, trying to recreate Italian perfumer Rene le Florentin’s elixir to reanimate souls via the person’s dying breath. The task takes Jac away from her job as a mythologist who tries to debunk the mystical in local legends and sends her to a creepy 16th century villa in Barbizon and the orbit of Melinoe Cypros, an eccentric mega-millionaire collector who wants nothing more than eternal life. The villa belonged to legendary perfumer/poisoner for Catherine de Medici, Rene le Florentin, and Jac’s natural receptiveness to spiritual energy allows her to experience his life and guides her through the process of reanimating dying breaths. However, all things come at a price, and in the end, is the truest way to immortality through eternal life?
While I found it a little difficult to immerse myself in the plot once I found my bearings I was hooked. Both Rene and Jac are compelling characters, and I was curious to see how each of their stories would play out and intertwine. Rene historically is credited with bringing perfume to Paris when young Catherine de Medici included him in her retinue upon her marriage to the future Henry II. Allegedly he also used his skills with natural essences to provide his monarch with poisons and was known for eliminating his own rivals without compunction. Because Rene’s personal life and death
are shrouded in mystery M.J. Rose had ample room to weave a detailed narrative to fill in the gaps. Jac was purely the author’s creation, but she does not suffer with comparison to Rene. Personally I found Jac a little more enjoyable since I better understood her motivations as a modern woman. I also have a brother, although we are not nearly so close as Jac and Robbie, so I sympathized deeply with her grief over his death.
The story line also kept me guessing as I whipped through the pages on my Kindle. I genuinely was uncertain how things would play out between Jac, Melinoe, and Melinoe’s step-brother, Serge. The fragile balance of power was so unstable I could sense the slightest breeze could send it toppling down. The final chapters were so tense that I had a hard time pulling myself away to take care of household tasks, and while the ending was a little cliche, I appreciated it as the necessary ending for the tale.
The only thing that pulled me out of the story was the numerous sex scenes. I don’t mind explicit sex and read romance novels and erotica, but in a mystery/thriller I need the sex to actually move the plot forward. Unfortunately, in most cases in The Collector of Dying Breaths it just wasn’t the case. I didn’t need multiple descriptions of how Rene liked to give oral sex or how many times he and Isabeau had passionate, sweaty encounters. A few of the scenes were vital to the plot (the final sex scene between Isabeau and Rene is vital to their story), but I didn’t need nearly as many described in explicit detail. Hints or closing the scene before everything was spelled out would have been ideal for me as a reader. Ironically, the one scene between Jac and her ex-lover, Griffin, seemed short and relatively low key. It didn’t seem necessary to the plot, but it wasn’t as extravagant as Rene’s scenes, so it jolted me out of the flow a little less.
Overall, The Collector of Dying Breaths by M.J. Rose is a good read for people who like darker tales of intrigue with a historical flair. I was heartily entertained, learned a little about perfume, and got inspired to a little research in the process.
4 Rare Essences for Perfuming out of 5
The Collector of Dying Breaths will be available on April 8, 2014 wherever books are sold.