Genres: Queer Protagonists, Speculative Fiction
Representation: Pan/bisexual nonbinary MC, queer love interests, NB/F/M, past NB/M
PoV: 1st-person, past-tense
A lasting impression is worth killing for in this intoxicating novel about memories and murder by the author of the Amberlough Dossier series.
In New York City everybody needs a side hustle, and perfumer Vic Fowler has developed a delicate art that has proved to be very lucrative: creating bespoke scents that evoke immersive memories—memories that, for Vic’s clients, are worth killing for. But the city is expensive, and these days even artisanal murder doesn’t pay the bills. When Joseph Eisner, a former client with deep pockets, offers Vic an opportunity to expand the enterprise, the money is too good to turn down. But the job is too intricate—and too dangerous—to attempt alone.
Manipulating fellow struggling artists into acting as accomplices is easy. Like Vic, they too are on the verge of burnout and bankruptcy. But as relationships become more complicated, Vic’s careful plans start to unravel. Hounded by guilt and a tenacious private investigator, Vic grows increasingly desperate to complete Eisner’s commission. Is there anyone—friends, lovers, coconspirators—that Vic won’t sacrifice for art?
~art > people
~fucked-up dynamics all around
~MC = terrible person + fantastic character
~it’s all capitalism’s fault really
Base Notes is not the kind of book I usually read – although the premise is that it’s possible to recreate memories as perfumes (so long as you make the perfume out of people!) it’s only barely speculative fiction. I’ve seen it described as a thriller, as psychological fiction, even as a mystery (how???), but most people probably wouldn’t call it SFF.
But who cares, because it’s Donnelly, and if you aren’t reading Donnelly, why are you even bothering???
Vic is the nonbinary head of Bright House, a perfumery that is struggling to stay afloat amidst bigger, better-funded, and more commercial competitors. Sure, Vic has long-since discovered the secret to capturing a single memory in perfume, but that’s not exactly consumer-friendly, since it requires the corpse of a person who shares that memory and only works for another person who shares the memory. But it might be the key to success after all – all Vic’s struggles will disappear if they can just complete one very impossible memory-scent commission…
Base Notes is sharp and elegant and merciless, bitter and desperate and precise, amoral and horrifyingly hypnotic. It is a book that stings like salt in a wound. Vic is a terrible, fascinating person, simultaneously ruthless and vulnerable – casual about killing, but soft and fragile when it comes to a haircut that fits their gender identity and self-image. That juxtaposition is what makes Vic, if not likeable, then still someone we find ourselves rooting for.
(Well. I was rooting for them. I suppose your mileage may vary.)
Donnelly executes (hah!) the story perfectly, the need and blackmail and resentment, the art and the arrogance, the spiderweb of seductions. We’re on the edge of our seats until the very last pages, breathlessly waiting to see if Vic can pull it off or if it will all come crashing down. Donnelly plays us like puppets, and I enjoyed every second of it. Her prose is crisp and sharp and wicked, and I was hooked long before Vic’s artistic passion, their bitterness and resentment towards the disgustingly wealthy, won me over.
Maybe surprisingly, Base Notes is very much about wealth and poverty, the haves and have-nots, the stranglehold capitalism places on art. It’s not an issues book – we’re never lectured about these things – but they are fundamental to the story; the base notes of the prose-perfume Donnelly’s concocted for us. Honestly, I was pleased; even as it adds bitterness, it brings a lot of depth to a story that would read incredibly differently without it.
And that ending! Wow. I was so impressed that Donnelly pulled it off without turning the whole thing into a caricature! In the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been ridiculous, comical, but Donnelly kept it…kept it real. I don’t know how to put it better than that without going into spoilers.
It’s bleak as fuck, but if you like that sort of thing – or are just here for a nonbinary serial killer, which, valid – then I must recommend Base Notes most strongly.