This is the sixth book in M.J. Rose’s Reincarnationist series and although I haven’t read any of the others I think this is the third to feature the character of Jac L’Etoile (the previous two are The Book of Lost Fragrances and Seduction).
The Collector of Dying Breaths is set in two different time periods, one contemporary and one historical. The historical storyline is set in the 1500s and begins with Rene le Florentin, a young apprentice in an Italian monastery, being wrongly accused of murdering his master, the monk and apothecary Dom Serapino. Rescued from prison by Catherine de Medici, who is about to marry into the French royal family, Rene starts a new life in Paris as perfumer to the French court. But while his knowledge of fragrances, potions and poisons makes him indispensable to Catherine, Rene continues to work on a secret project he and Serapino had begun in Italy based on the theory that a person’s dying breath can be captured in a bottle. Rene believes that if he can discover the correct combination of ingredients to mix with the dying breath, he will be able to use the resulting mixture to reanimate the soul.
In present day France, we meet mythologist Jac L’Etoile. Jac comes from a family of perfumers but tries to avoid becoming too closely involved in the perfume industry because certain scents seem to cause her to experience vivid memories of the past – not just her own past, but other people’s too. However, when the rich, eccentric Melinoe Cypros asks her to come to her chateau and continue the work of Rene le Florentin, Jac reluctantly agrees. But as Jac begins to search for the formula needed to reanimate a dying breath, she finds herself haunted by visions of the 16th century perfumer and the woman he loves.
While this is a complete novel in itself and it’s not completely necessary to have read the previous ones, there are frequent references to events from Jac’s past which I’m assuming must have been covered in earlier books and I did feel that I was missing something by coming to the series so late. The author does attempt to give new readers all the backstory we need, but there was too much of this and I found it a bit overwhelming. I did think the historical sections of the novel were well done and I found them more compelling than the contemporary sections. The way Catherine de Medici was portrayed was interesting, if more negative than I’d expected, and I enjoyed the dynamics between Catherine, Rene and Catherine’s astrologer, Ruggieri.
Although it took me a while to get into the present day storyline, once Jac and the others began to work on deciphering lists of ingredients and trying to prepare potions, I became much more interested. I was fascinated by the idea that simply using the same ingredients that Rene used in the 16th century may not work because their properties have altered so much over the centuries. For example, we are told that ambergris (a secretion produced by whales that was commonly used in fragrances) could be slightly different in its modern form because the diet of the whales and the quality of the water in which they live is not the same as five hundred years ago.
This is a very imaginative book, perfect for those readers who like a touch of the paranormal in their historical fiction. I think it was just my unfamiliarity with the series and the characters that prevented me from enjoying it as much as I would have liked to.
I read The Collector of Dying Breaths as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. For more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule.