by Stephen Leigh
Cover Artist: Tim O'Brien
Review by Drew Bittner
DAW Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780756409562
Date: 04 March 2014 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /
Hundreds of years past, in Paris, Perenelle unlocks the mysteries of alchemy while her famous husband, Nicolas Flamel, masters the power of magic. A chance discovery will set these two on an improbable destiny across centuries, continents and lifetimes--to a reckoning in the streets of New York.
In Immortal Muse, author Stephen Leigh has created a masterpiece of historical fantasy. Widowed at an early age, Perenelle is wooed and won by the earnest young scribe Nicolas Flamel. As she comes to know her new husband, however, Perenelle realizes Flamel is a brute and a ruthless opportunist; he sought her out to gain her dead father's trove of papers, not her love.
Fueled by disappointment, Perenelle seeks knowledge as Nicolas gains power and influence. She is elderly when she makes an important breakthrough, one that promises a vastly extended life...only to be attacked and forced to flee her own home, leaving her work in Nicolas' hands.
Her restoration comes with a price, however. She must seek out and interact with people who are singularly creative, those who possess a greenish aura. Being around them enacts a symbiosis, feeding the creator's gift even as Perenelle is nourished in turn. She becomes a muse to great artists, wandering from France to Italy and beyond.
In Florence, her tryst with the master sculptor Bernini comes to a shattering end when a stranger intrudes--and poisons Bernini against her. It is Nicolas, similarly restored by Perenelle's own concoction, yet where she gains strength from inspiring, he gains strength through vastly darker means.
Thus begins a battle across history, as the hunter becomes the hunted and each tries to destroy the other. Perenelle and Nicolas interact with greats of history, including Vivaldi, Robespierre, William Blake, Gustav Klimt, and finally David Treadway, a photographer with great promise in New York.
Perenelle--now known as Camille Kenny--knows this battle cannot continue, claiming lives, destroying talent. It must end...and whatever the cost, it will end in this final fight, winner take all.
Leigh constructs the story with masterful intricacy, establishing "Camille" in her modern life before spinning away to long-ago Paris and its fourteenth-century realities. The research is prodigious, as he recreates the sights, sounds and smells of this Middle Ages city; at the same time, he makes use of political realities to establish how Nicolas Flamel (an actual historic personage, as is Perenelle) acquired such influence.
Each segment of the story is named for one of the Greek muses, an ingenious touch, and each highlights an aspect of the mortal struggle between muse and maniac. Flamel cannot tolerate the existence of his ex-wife, who unlocked a secret he could not (he often blames her for withholding knowledge from him, never reckoning on his own petty cruelties and one spectacular betrayal and how they turned Perenelle against him). Rather than allow her to live, he relentlessly hunts her as she hunts him.
With many colorful personalities (most of them certifiably real people) introduced in this narrative, it never sprawls. Leigh keeps the focus on his muse and her life, including the introduction of Treadway into this perilous situation. Although it is risky to love, as Nicolas has an uncanny talent for knowing when she is fulfilled emotionally, she nevertheless cannot stay away from David, whose marriage is crumbling even as his professional fortunes falter. She can help him, but the price might be too high.
The end game is taut with suspense as the two draw ever closer, lives pulled into their orbit ground up and spat out, until the two are finally face to face. It is a thrilling rollercoaster ride reaching that moment, and the climax does not disappoint.
Those looking for a sure-footed, exciting and thoroughly rewarding race through the history of creativity in the past several centuries--and who doesn't want that?--will not be alone in finding this a book to thrill the passions and mind alike. It is a terrific fantasy, a superlative historical read and a tragic romance all in one.