Scent of Lilies is a story of four young men living in eleventh century Byzantium. They include Gabriel and Amyntas, a student and tutor living in the kastel of a Bulgarian lord, and Damian and Alastor, two artists in Blachernae working on the frescoes and mosaic panels of the newly built Church of Saint Thekla. A curse haunts both couples and death follows them in the form of a young man whose eyes are the green of a stagnant pool and whose kiss promises a cold and lingering death.
Amyntas and Gabriel meet when Gabriel’s father sends for a tutor from Constantinople, one who can teach his second, wayward son how to survive the Byzantine court, and to keep Gabriel from following his ridiculous dreams of joining a monastery. Amyntas, fresh from the most civilized empire in the world, finds many things to dislike about his new home in Bulgaria, but Gabriel is the one shining light. The young man possesses an artistic gift, a clever mind, and a lovely face, and Amyntas knows he should be strong enough to keep their love strictly platonic, but he can’t. Embracing one another by the haunted pool, Amyntas and Gabriel find love in stolen moments.
Damian is a gifted young artist who comes to Blachernae to serve the talented painter, Alastor, both as an apprentice and as a junior artist who is given the task of helping to paint the dome of the church. He is tasked with painting Mary and with painting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he does so with both talent and passion. While his days are spent working hard and seeking Alastor’s approval, his nights are spent tossing and turning as he remembers the touch of a woman’s lips upon his own. While Damian dreams and Alastor paints, the city is haunted by a mysterious woman and a rash of sudden deaths.
There are twists to this story that I don’t want to give away, so I shall be as vague as possible when talking about the plot. The thread tying the two relationships together is the story of the Ninufar, the evil spirit of a girl who killed herself in order to place a curse upon Gabriel’s ancestor, whom she loved, but who chose to marry someone else. She is said to laugh when death is near, and Gabriel could swear he’s heard her laugh before, such as at his mother’s funeral and on the day his older brother was injured in a fall. Hers is the lingering smell of the water lily on a summer night, the same smell that haunts Damian in the city of Blachernae.
Gabriel is a young man full of tightly controlled anger at his father. He doesn’t hate the man, but he’s learned that all his anger does nothing. Instead, he gives Petar nothing. Passive aggressiveness has become his shield, and it’s become a thick and sturdy wall he keeps between himself and his family. Gabriel loves to draw, but his father forbids it, and when the new tutor comes, Gabriel’s certain the man will do as his father has said and forbid Gabriel from drawing.
Amyntas is a mystery. The name he gives is obviously false, and his manner and bearing are more cultured than a mere tutor ought to have, but he answers no questions regarding his past. What he does do is support Gabriel, sneaking him paints and vellum so that Gabriel can do more than just draw. Amyntas is careful to keep from influencing the young man, but it doesn’t take much before Gabriel makes the first move and the two become lovers.
Amyntas is Gabriel’s only friend, a friend who — despite his greater years (by maybe 7 or so) — doesn’t talk down to him or try to control him. Amyntas is there to teach Gabriel, and he does, gently, cleverly. He doesn’t lead Gabriel to the well of knowledge … he just happens to sit both of them down next to it and waits for Gabriel to want to drink. The two of them are so happy together and so well paired. They are friends, as well as lovers.
Damian was the eldest son of his father, standing to inherit the house and the business. He even had a bride. He also had a stepmother who hated him and a horrible stutter. Damian, while on a trip for his father, ended up tossed into the sea and was presumed dead. When he heard this, he decided to let it go, finding a new path for himself and wishing his brother, stepmother, and father every happiness as he decided to follow his own joy and become an artist.
Alastor is a bit of an enigma. A skilled artist with fine manners and the arrogance of a lord, he has recently lost his powerful protector and is behind schedule with the temple. He’s been through a pair of assistants already, and his lover — a young man, and another artist — took ill and died. Alastor is convinced he is cursed, that there is something in his blood that causes all of those he loves to die. Even so, he can’t resist when Damian comes to his bed.
With Damian and Alastor there is far less equality and far less friendship. It’s a student half in love with his master, and a man who is so lonely, so deprived of touch and love that he finds it hard to say now when Damian kisses him. Their relationship is less developed as much of the plot happens during their time, and there are more scenes of painting and paint mixing than passion.
Overall, I enjoyed the first third of this book and didn’t mind the second third, but the ending didn’t work for me. At the beginning, it’s an historical romance, well-researched and well-written. When we reach Damian and Alastor, the research is still there, and the writing, but the characterization has less to do with romance and becomes more a slice-of-life in the eleventh century. However, towards the end the story tries to shift over to a paranormal ghost story/monster story and it just doesn’t hold up. The Ninufarim was vague and unformed; it couldn’t decide if it was a vampire, a water spirit, or a ghost and so was an unsatisfying mash of all three.
If the book had continued as it began, I would have given this five stars. Gabriel and Amyntas felt like real people and their relationship felt real, too. Damian and Alastor could have been interesting, but they spent so little time together before falling instantly in love that — especially compared to Gabriel and Amyntas — it felt a bit rushed and cheap, to me. Lust I get, hero worship I get, but they hadn’t really spent enough time together as people for me to buy love. The ending, though, just killed it for me. I don’t think it works, and it took this historical romance into fluffy fantasy. I’m afraid I can’t really recommend it.