Book reviews, musings and waffle from a British lit addict

Review: ‘The Collector of Dying Breaths’ by M. J. Rose

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

**This is the 6th book in the Reincarnationist series so beware – this synopsis may well have slight spoilers for earlier books in the series**

In 1533, an Italian orphan with an uncanny knack for creating fragrance is plucked from poverty to become Catherine de Medici’s perfumer. To repay his debt, over the years Rene le Florentine is occasionally called upon to put his vast knowledge to a darker purpose: the creation of deadly poisons used to dispatch the Queen’s rivals. But it’s Rene’s other passion, a desire to reanimate a human breath, to bring back the lives of the two people whose deaths have devastated him that incites a dangerous treasure hunt five centuries later. That’s when Jac L’Etoile suffering from a heartache of her own becomes obsessed with the possibility of unlocking Rene’s secret to immortality. Soon Jac’s search reconnects her with Griffin North, a man she’s loved her entire life. Together they confront an eccentric heiress whose art collection rivals many museums and who is determined to keep her treasures close at hand, not just in this life but in her next.


Review

I had originally been intending to post this review as part of a Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour but work became unbelievably busy at around about the same time and I just didn’t manage to finish the book in time, never mind actually get round to reviewing it!  Part of that was owing to the increased workload but part of it was also because the book took me what felt like forever to finish.  Actually, at a little over a month, it really did take me a really long time compared to even what I now am resigned to as my usual reading pace.
It would be unfair to say that the amount of time it took to read was entirely the book’s fault, although the fact that I got a bit disgruntled and broke off from reading it so that I could read Running Like a Girl probably doesn’t speak to its credit.  This is a tricky position because, although I do know that I didn’t actively enjoy the experience of reading The Collector of Dying Breaths, what I can’t tell you is whether I would have enjoyed anything at that particular time.  Reading it just felt like harder work than I wanted it to be. 
I find the concept of reincarnation fascinating and the idea of a former monk pursuing the secret to reanimating the souls of people he has loved and lost by capturing and storing their last breath was one that was also quite morbidly interesting.  Unfortunately, I found the execution lacking and what I had hoped would be an excellent historical fiction was instead just mediocre.  As with so, so many books that are split between a period in history and the modern day, I eventually grew tired of the modern thread and wanted more of the detail and atmosphere of the historical one.  Rene Le Florentin, monk turned perfumer to Catherine de Medici, is a bit of a sorry soul with a rather tragic back story and Rose does a good job of developing his olfactory way of viewing the world so he was a character I was happy to follow through 16th Century France.  If the balance of The Collector of Dying Breaths had tilted towards more Rene and perfumery and plots in the French court, I’d have been much happier.
While Rene searches for the secret to restoring his loves, Jac L’Etoile (member of famed L’Etoile perfumer family dynasty) is grieving and navigating her unexpected return to the world of perfumery. The two stories are rather dubiously tied together by Jac’s ability to experience “flashbacks” of the dim and distant past, which would have been more fun to read about had she not moaned about it for the whole book.  She’s acceptable as a main character but I don’t feel as though I got to know her enough to care about her or what she was going through. 
I think the main issue that I really had was that the book is the 6th book in the Reincartionist series.  Characters and relationships that seemed brittle and lacking in depth to me are really (I think…hope?) just ones that have been developed over the course of a number of books that I haven’t read.  This rings true not just for the romantic tangent but also the familial and platonic relationships, meaning that there were very few interactions in the modern story that I actually cared about.  There are some catch-up details for new readers/readers that are coming back to the series but I couldn’t really get behind a couple whose history was explained to me in a couple of paragraphs or appreciate the nuances of Jac’s feelings about her “gift” to experience former lives in a novel that was trying to carry its own plot rather than welcome newbies.  I wasn’t overly fond of the ending of the modern plot, either, while we’re moaning. 
And has reading The Collector of Dying Breaths has made me want to pick up the first, The Reincarnationist?  Not in the least, unfortunately.  I know where enough of the overarching story is going to know that I don’t really want to go there.  I have enough series on the go without adding another to the pile.  That might be unfair because I’m reading some endings before I’ve read the relevant beginning but (to use a ludicrous ‘management speak’ phrase) we are where we are.  Average, average, average.
Overall:  I knew that there were other books by the same author that were notionally linked as part of a “series” but I didn’t realise how much the later books (or at least, this later book) rely on the ground work in the earlier ones.  You’ll be able to follow the story told in The Collector of Dying Breaths perfectly well if you haven’t read the earlier books by M. J. Rose but you almost certainly won’t enjoy the experience quite as much as if you already “know” the characters and are able to buy into their motives and relationships.  As a standalone, I’d struggle to recommend it unless you’re desperate to read the historical part and don’t mind a fair bit of modern frippery in your historical fiction generally.

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Date finished: 21 April 2014
Format: eBook
Source:  Received via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  by Atria Books in April 2014