Rating: 4 stars
Virago is the son of the Royal Tailor and his best friend growing up is Duir, the heir apparent to the throne of King Killian. When Virago’s father dies in an accident, King Killian appoints Virago to take his father’s place as the Royal Tailor, a position which will exalt him into near royalty status, making friends with others close to the crown prince. This leaves his blind brother Sylvain to spend his time alone with his animals in their father’s house. When King Killian is killed in battle, Duir goes about a personality change and becomes a cruel and capricious ruler. But Virago continues to support Duir no matter the atrocities he commits until he meets a musician and his world turns upside down in the most dangerous manner.
Seton wants nothing more than to play his lyre for the King’s coronation and he knows that the Royal Tailor has the ear of the future King. He manages a meeting with Virago in order to play for him so he can hear for himself how fine a musician he is. And while he accomplishes his goal, he also finds true love as soon as he lays eyes on Virago. But homosexuality is considered a high crime and brings the penalty of death with it. And Virago does not want to accept the fact that he is falling in love with a man. As Duir becomes more unstable, he asks Virago to make a coronation outfit unlike any ever seen and a mysterious package containing a material worth a kings ransom appears at Virago’s shop. These events help catapult Virago’s normally reserved, careful manner into flights of obsessive behavior about the material called velvet that seems to whisper strange things in his head and the musician he can’t get out of his mind.
As the coronation draws near, a malignancy is in the air, bringing with it an edge of madness. His brother warns Virago of a coming plague and tells him that Duir is violent and mad, the kingdom corrupt. So Virago must decide where his loyalties and future lie, with his friend and future King or with his brother and the prospect of forbidden love with Seton the musician.
I always look forward to a new story from Xavier Axelson. The author’s lyrical language, beautiful imagery and intriguing metaphors contained within Axelson’s tales have been hallmarks of this author’s writing. All those elements are present in Velvet and are the strength of this unusual story. Axelson always seems to include a mystical component or two within his stories, and the material velvet with its sumptuous qualities is a perfect vehicle to use to upset a tailor’s mien. Virago is a complacent, overly amiable sort of a man, one easily self deluded. He has been that way all his life, blinded to the truth of the man who will be king and the corruption that is the kingdom where he and his brother live. Virago blithely disregards both his brother’s warnings and the manner in which his “friends” have abused his blind brother all his life. So it must take someting momentus to dislodge Virago from his complacency. First, it comes in the form of Seton, a young lyre player seeking to play for the King to be. Seton makes Virago think “depraved” thoughts of homosexual passion, and while he tries to suppress his feelings towards the musician, they keep coming back every time he is in Seton’s presence. The second thing to ignite his passion is a strange, never before seen material that was delivered to his father but the package never opened until now. The wondrous material calls to him, the sensuality of the cloth and the vibrancy of the colors overwhelm his senses, including common sense. Both the velvet and Seton become obsessions in Virago’s mind and heart, a wonderful detail by Axelson to mingle the two together for a tailor deeply involved in his craft.
And I can always count in birds and bird imagery to figure large in any Axelson story. Here is a sample:
“Would I never know peace? Or would memories chase me like the gulls chase one another, endlessly hungry and insistent?”
Or this one,
“Behind my eyes, I saw white peacocks, heard their shrieks, and felt the crawl of disease.”
All powerful images that linger after the book is done. This is one of the reasons I look forward to each new story from this author. There is a magic in his touch with his narrative and the flow of his language.
I also admire the way he builds a foreboding feeling of awful events to come. There is a subplot that swirls around a whore/theatre player named Therese. The fact that I figured out early on what her intentions were in no way negates the power of anticipation that builds the closer it gets to the coronation, and yes, there are peacocks involved. In fact there are so many fine qualities to this story that I wished the main character was worthy of them. Unfortunately, Virago is not.
In fact I found Virago unworthy of just about everything that occurs. It would have made more sense if his hubris, his self deception lead to his downfall instead of a voyage to freedom. No spoilers here as this is the opening paragraph and the story is being related from the deck of a ship. I actually found him to be a despicable person. Virago let others abuse his brother, ignoring his brother’s torment at the hands of his friends. He hears and sees the cruel actions of Duir, the murders and the torture and dismisses them as the acts of a grief stricken son even as others tell him that this is Duir’s true nature. Not until he himself is the victim of a member of the court, does “everything become clear”. And even then it is not due to the victimization of others but of himself. To my complete amazement, he continues with bouts of self delusion right to the end, weeping when action is needed, wanting to warn Duir who no longer deserves it and as it imperils his brother and lover. One happenstance after another just demonstrates what a clod Virago is, instead of the hero he is needed to be. If there is a hero, it is Seton to rises to do what’s necessary when they are threatened or his brother Sylvain, who has lived as the object of scorn and bullying his entire life and yet still has made a life for himself and cares for the animals that he rescues. I would have preferred this story to be about Sylvain instead of the less appealing brother, the narrator.
And of course, there is the instantaneous love Virago feels for Seton and that Seton returns. In a story of obsession, where the feelings he has for both Seton and Velvet are comparable, it would have felt more realistic or authentic to leave it as an obsession instead of true love. I never really understood that Virago was capable of such feelings. Sexual obsession yes, love not really.
Ruth Marcus stated in her article “Hubris meets high tech“* that “classic tragedy, indeed classic literature, hinges on imperfect knowledge.” and that “ego tends to trump intelligence when sex is involved”. That describes Virago beautifully as his ignorance and his ego blinded him for years right up until the very end. Had Velvet turned out to be the cautionary tale of Virago’s downfall rather than his successful flight from the disease ridden kingdom, it would have rated 5 stars. But as a romance between two ill suited lovers? That is one illusion I cannot make myself believe.
*The Washington Post, Nov. 13, 2012
Cover: Very simple yet elegant.