Author: Lev A.C. Rosen
Genre: Comedy, Steampunk, Speculative Fiction
Publication date: September 2011
Hardcover: 416 pages
Inspired by two of the most beloved works by literary masters, All Men of Genius takes place in an alternate Steampunk Victorian London, where science makes the impossible possible.
Violet Adams wants to attend Illyria College, a widely renowned school for the most brilliant up-and-coming scientific minds, founded by the late Duke Illyria, the greatest scientist of the Victorian Age. The school is run by his son, Ernest, who has held to his father’s policy that the small, exclusive college remain male-only. Violet sees her opportunity when her father departs for America. She disguises herself as her twin brother, Ashton, and gains entry.
But keeping the secret of her sex won’t be easy, not with her friend Jack’s constant habit of pulling pranks, and especially not when the duke’s young ward, Cecily, starts to develop feelings for Violet’s alter ego, “Ashton.” Not to mention blackmail, mysterious killer automata, and the way Violet’s pulse quickens whenever the young duke, Ernest (who has a secret past of his own), speaks to her. She soon realizes that it’s not just keeping her secret until the end of the year faire she has to worry about: it’s surviving that long.
Stand alone or series: It can be read as a stand alone novel as the story is self-contained, but it seems that there is another book set in the same world in the works. HOORAY!
How did we get this book: We both got signed review copies at BEA
Why did we read this book: Thea was actually the one to first notice the book when we were planning our BEA schedule and bring it to Ana’s attention. What made us want to read it? Well, it is a Steampunk retelling of Twelfth Night set in Victorian London and with elements of The Importance of Being Earnest so how could we NOT want to read it?
Ana: All Men of Genius has been marketed as a Steampunk retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Well, I love Steampunk (when done well) and the two aforementioned plays are my favourites by their respective authors so I was super excited to read this. At the same time, I was quite wary as there is this really thin line separating great homage from simple reproduction. I need not have worried: Mr Rosen’s book is basically made of awesome and I loved every single second of it.
In fact, you will have to excuse me while I wax poetic all over this review.
Thea: I remember catching wind of this title right before BEA and then excitedly telling Ana that this sounded like an awesome candidate for a joint review – there’s the steampunk goodness PLUS the wonderful literary allusions/inspirations, not to mention the fun cover and clever title. It is, in short, the perfect amalgam of things that we Smugglers love. I went into this book expecting a delightful romantic comedy of errors and a lighthearted romp through a steampunkified Victorian London – and I am happy to report that All Men of Genius delivers exactly that, with some surprising depth to boot.
On the Plot:
Ana: Violet Adams is a brilliant inventor and mechanical genius who would love nothing more than to attend the world-famous Illyria College. Unfortunately for Violet, the College will not accept women, who are regarded by society as the lesser gender. But that will not stop Violet and aided by her twin brother Ashton and their best friend Jack, she comes up with scheme to masquerade as her brother and attend the colleague: her goal is to become the College’s best student and at the end of the year, reveal herself as a woman. Things get a little more complicated when Ernest, the Duke of Illyria and the headmaster of the College, becomes infatuated with Violet-as-Ashton (who reciprocates the feeling much to her own dismay) at the same time that his ward Cecily also develops feelings for the student. Violet has to deal with all of this and attend the lessons and concoct the experiment that will prove her genius amongst serious competition with other students. Meanwhile, there is something afoot in the labyrinth beneath the College where long lost secrets still dwell.
I can’t even begin to express how much I loved this book.
In terms of the plot it follows Violet and her friends during this one year at College and it deals with several different threads. In this alternate universe London, the College is a centre for scientific experiments in a proper Steampunk manner featuring not only automata and steam-powered machines but also biological/medical advancements in genetics that allow (terrible) experimentations with animals and even with human beings.
As an aside, this is probably my only main criticism of the book: that there is little ethical questioning about this (although some of the characters do show some horror to what some of the students are doing) but since learning that there will be a sequel, I hope this will be addressed somehow.
There is also the mystery of what is going on in the basement of the school which may or may not relate to a group of Mad Scientists that wish for World Nomination and that sounds a bit trite because well, not all Science Fiction needs to feature the mad conspiracies. BUT it not only kept me going and what’s the best thing about this, is that the eventual revelation is completely anti-climatic and I totally loved that it was so. It not only fit the story but more to the point it fit its mood and atmosphere.
And then of course, there is the scheme itself and how to keep Violet’s identity a secret from everybody; there is all the falling in love and falling out of love and love returned and love spurned. Most of it is a comedy of manners and a comedy of errors and I am a sucker for both especially when done with such aplomb. I mean, I loved everything about it: the writing, the narrative style which features an almost omniscient narrator, the banter between the characters and their adventures. This is where the novel follows the original plays very closely – if you are familiar with either play, you will know exactly where the story is going and who ends up with each other (well, more or less since Ashton don’t really play his original role, but more on that later). But what fascinated me the most is that even with that, this story was still fresh and original and the author’s own not only because of the Steampunk elements but because of how it developed. For example, it is very common in Shakespearian plays for characters to fall in love at first sight and this happens here when Jack falls in love with Cecily but she totally calls him on that – how is it possible that he can love her at first sight without knowing her?
More than that though, I loved how the story was set in a somewhat similar Victorian London and despite the scientific advancements, it was still a society with prejudices and sexism. I thought the author was at extremely ease with exploring and examining subtly and with compassion those issues, dealing with gender bias, sexism, racism and homophobia really well.
To sum up: All Men of Genius is charming, fun, funny, romantic and as the English would say, totally my cup of tea.
Thea: What Ana said. If you’re familiar with Twelfth Night and The Importance of Being Earnest, you can basically guess how All Men of Genius plays out. I loved the allusions, both obvious and subtle, to each play; Violet’s invention of a mechanical perambulator (in which neither a baby nor a novel can be forgotten or switched); the phonetic similarities between Ashton/Sebastian, Violet/Viola, Miriam/Maria, the delightful “Malcom Volio” for Malvolio; and so on and so forth. But more than the similarities in names and plot devices, I loved that this hybrid version of Wilde’s and the Bard’s comedy of mistaken identities has a much deeper examination of sexism, sexuality, and status. It’s actually incredibly impressive that Mr. Rosen is able to stay so close to the source material while translating it to a context that is both engrossing speculative fiction AND a bitingly relevant societal critique.
Like Ana, I was easily drawn in by the comedic elements of this story – Violet, dressed as a man, heads to Illyria to fulfill her lifelong dream and prove that a woman is just as eligible for a career in the sciences as a man. Like her inspirational Shakespearean counterpoint Viola, Violet defies convention in order to find a place in a society that forces women into set roles – and she’s not the only one to do so. Her twin brother, Ashton, also plays within the niceties towards outward facing society, but is an unapologetic “invert” (the Victorian term for homosexual) that loves as he wills – which is freaking awesome. There’s also Cecily, the sixteen year old ward (the embodiment both her Earnest namesake and Olivia from Twelfth Night) who is beautiful and believes herself to be in love with Violet-as-Ashton. But rather than stunting her character as a love-struck girl, Mr. Rosen gives her a voice beyond that of the blandly naive young ward and shows that part of the reason she falls in love with “Ashton” is because “he” treats her as an equal and admires her scientific skill and know-how. There’s also Miriam, Cecily’s governess, who is so much more than her Twelfth Night counterpart, Maria, with her desire for freedom, both socially and sexually. Long story short – I loved the way that Mr. Rosen managed to pay tribute to the plays that inspired this novel, but managed to make them relevant and thematically brilliant by dealing with sensitive issues of gender, sexuality, and social norms.
But let’s not forget about the Speculative Fiction element! After all, this is a steampunk novel set in an alternate Victorian London. Like Ana says, I think the charm of this book in terms of world/setting is in that Illyria is not a mere college devoted to the creation of dirigibles and automata. While Violet IS a mechanical genius, Illyria allows for other kinds of brilliance – from the genetically/biologically ambitious (Victor Frankenstein would have been gleefully at home here) to those who long to gaze at the stars and divine the meanings of their celestial movements.
The only plot element that I felt was slightly undercooked was that of young Volio and his nefarious schemes. The mystery of the school’s labyrinthine corridors and the secrets they harbor are the underlying impetus for the climax of the novel, and while it works in a wonderfully absurdist Wilde-esque way, it felt a bit of an easy way to pin everything on a main villain. Plus, by the end of the novel we only really learn a tiny bit about the mysterious society of Illyria – but as there’s a sequel in the works, I’m certain more will come to light in a future installment.
On the Characters:
Ana: If I loved the plot because it was so close to the originals, I loved the characters all the more because this is where All Men of Genius deviates from the original stories the most because the author took some of the characters into different paths and gave some of them voices.
A significant difference for example comes with Ashton, Violet’s twin brother who, in this story, is gay and although he is a bit of a secondary character, there is enough exploration of his difficult situation in a society that doesn’t accept queer people. At the same time, I loved how sister and his friends accepted his sexual orientation without any problems whatsoever.
There is quite a diverse cast of characters, the majority of them beautifully rendered in depth. I even felt that the villain had his reasons (but that might be because I secretly always felt bad for Malvolio in Shakespeare’s play). I loved the bittersweet relationship between another young, Sir Toby and the older Governess Miriam. I loved that Miriam was given a personality separate to what was happening to her ward Cecily, that she is just like Violet, an independent woman who wants to be able to do more with her life and be as free to love and have fun as she wants. There is this beautiful scene where Violet – just like Miriam- muses about the simple pleasure of going out with friends to a tavern to drink and be merry, a pleasure that is denied to her because she is a woman. And I loved that – I loved every single female character in this book because they had personalities and arcs of their own independently of any male counterpart even though all of them were involved in a romantic storyline. This to me, is awesome.
Thea: I completely and wholeheartedly agree. There are many familiar elements and homages paid in All Men of Genius, which makes those differences all the more potent. With his portrayal of Violet, Mr. Rosen gives our heroine not only the pluck and survival instincts of Viola, but also takes into account the context of Victorian England and prevailing sexism. Should Violet be caught in her disguise, she, like other women who dared to pose as men in order to gain an education, would be thrown in prison indefinitely (or worse). I loved that Violet addresses and weighs these possibilities against her own actions and makes the conscious decision to go to Illyria, because the stakes are so high. I also loved that while Violet discovers freedom when she poses as a man, she also discovers her own desire to be and grow as a woman. The balance is wonderfully wrought, and I loved the finesse and skill that Mr. Rosen shows his heroine.
I also have to agree with Ana that all of the female characters in this piece are fantastic and my easy favorites – Cecily grows in her own confidences and becomes a young woman, but it is the widowed Miriam that captured my heart. A governess, a widow, but still a young woman yearning for freedom and life outside of marriage, Miriam’s quest for happiness was completely unexpected (to me) and added a depth and nuance to a novel that was for the large part a sparkling, light comedy. I also adored Ashton and his support for his sister and his resolve to be happy, just as I loved the easygoing prankster Jack, who also grows and learns what it means to truly love someone. Finally, there’s the Duke of Illyria himself, the Ernest of this piece (who is also equal parts Orsino). Ernest is a sympathetic hero that one can’t help but feel for – romantic and soft-spoken, his romance with Viola-as-Ashton (and as Viola) is hilarious and heartfelt. There’s a kiss that literally comes out of nowhere that had me gleefully laughing, and I’m kind of glad that Lev Rosen goes there (I always wondered about the attraction between Orsino and “Sebastian” in Twelfth Night, and I think the way it is handled here, with much introspection, is very clever indeed).
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: As you can see, I loved this book with all my heart to the point I can hardly contain myself. It’s been a while since I had so much unreserved fun reading a book. All I can say now is that All Men of Genius is an Ana-Book through and through and I hugged it when I finished reading it. It has a secure spot on my top 10 this year.
Thea: I also truly loved the book, and like Ana, had a very fun time reading it. Absolutely recommended to all, and a Notable Read of 2011.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: From Chapter 1:
VIOLET and Ashton’s father was leaving for America to help decide where time should begin. It was Violet’s duty to retrieve her brother and bring him to the door to say good-bye, but he was not paying her any attention. Instead, he was absorbed in his piano playing. If she had been luckier, she thought, her twin brother would have inherited her father’s obsession with time, at least insofar as learning to play the piano with some sense of it.
“Ashton!” she shouted. He ignored her. “Ashton!” she shouted more loudly. She was standing by his shoulder. He could clearly hear her, but was pretending not to.
“If music be the food of love, play on!” Ashton yelled over his rackety playing. Then he attempted to sing the same lines along with the music—to think of it as “in tune with the music” would imply that the music had a tune. Violet, impatient, tapped him on the shoulder with a little force.
Ashton finally stopped playing and turned to look at his sister. “I think I play the piano rather well. Perhaps not technically well . . .”
“Or well at all,” Violet said, smiling.
“If I were speaking to someone who was about to do me a very large favor—indeed, who was about to assist me in a most unorthodox scheme—I think perhaps I’d be a little nicer.”
Violet narrowed her eyes. She did need his help, so she forced a falsely cheerful smile. “Anyone can play technically well, brother,” she said sweetly. “But you play with real feeling.”
“Thank you,” Ashton said with a large grin. “Your compliments mean ever so much to me.”
Lev Rosen has also provided some juicy extras in the form of deleted scenes on his website HERE – but in order to access them, you need passwords. And passwords can only be got by playing Viola’s lockpicking game HERE, through twitter contests, or by somehow making Lev smile.
Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Thea: 8 – Excellent
We have one autographed (!) copy of All Men of Genius to giveaway to one lucky winner. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post, and let us know what YOUR favorite comedy of errors is. The contest is open to US and CANADA ONLY and will run till Saturday October 8 11:59PM (PST). Only one entry per person, please! Multiple comments will be automatically disqualified. Good luck!
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