To be published: October 2011
“What’s so funny?”
“That all you would see in flowers are scientific principles,” he said, “even when a man tried to show you their beauty.”
“But that is their beauty,” Violet said, pursing her lips. “Really, I don’t know what it is with your gender, that they must divide science and beauty into separate fields. As if the stars and planets themselves are lovely, but to map the way they turn takes that away from them. In my opinion, the way a planet spins only adds to its beauty.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Jack said.
“Of course I’m right,” Violet said.
Violet Adams is a genius. She is also a woman. In Lev AC Rosen’s variant steampunk-inspired Victorian-era London, this caries with it certain limitations—chief among them, the ability to gain entry into one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions, Illyria College. Thus, with aid from her brother Ashton, an “invert” with a penchant for their carriage driver, Antony, and their mutual, lustful companion, Jack, Violet embarks on a year-long scheme to not only gain entry into the college of Illyria by becoming a young man in both dress and mannerisms, but to take the school, its faculty, and her fellow students by storm. She aims to cement herself in their eyes as one of the greatest inventors of their age, and then to reveal herself to them as a member of the supposedly weaker sex—one that, for a variety of reasons (not limited to the distraction a woman would be suspected of causing for the other male students), has never before been allowed entry into the student populace.
Claiming inspiration from both The Importance of Being Earnest and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, All Men of Genius wears its social and aesthetic trappings with pride. Rosen writes his characters with extreme delicacy, constructing a cast of characters that at once is familiar yet unique unto itself. Throughout the book, hints to other literary venues reveal themselves in tiny increments: the individual professors and their marked, Harry Potter-esque mannerisms (the stuttering, cowardly Curio; the brusque and abusive Bracknell; the slightly dim-witted, partially mechanized Bunburry); the partially developed subplot of Curio’s chemically-induced Jekyll and Hyde personality conflict. Though some of these elements bear a resemblance to the works of others, Rosen is adept at skewing their personalities enough to stand on their own, strong and wholly realized within the world he has crafted.
The world itself is another accomplishment. Rather than embrace the full spectrum of clichés that has dogged the steampunk genre in recent years, Rosen peppers his world with modest accoutrements—essentials, here and there, to enforce the revisionist history of his vision of London (airships, a proliferation of clockwork configurations and contraptions, automata that are capable of functioning and mimicking human actions). The end result is a more accessible variation of the steampunk genre, one that offers a missing link of accessibility—elements of this world can be traced to our own with considerably less effort and suspension of disbelief than others of its ilk.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the story is the relaxed way in which Rosen discusses homosexuality, or “invert” status. Through several relationships, including a rather complicated love triangle between Ernest, the Duke of Illyria, and both of Violet’s gendered personas, Rosen introduces but never lingers on the discussion of homosexuality and the social mistrust it entails in his alternate Victorian-era London. Instead of approaching the subject with a limited, predictable hand, one that could be used to mirror the issue of sexuality with the struggle for acceptance it still faces today, Rosen uses it more as a tool for further dismantling the highly stratified existence of his world and Violet’s actions to cross such barriers.
Though creative and engaging on several levels, All Men of Genius does have a few flaws. The book’s primary antagonist, the bullish and manipulative Malcolm Volio, feels somewhat underdeveloped, which makes his murderous intentions in the novel’s climax feel a little more vicious than he was seemingly capable of. Additionally, the Society that is alluded to on several occasions, which seeks to overthrow the Queen and establish the dominance of intellectual, scientific men over all others, remains largely in the shadows, implying a larger plot that, one hopes, will reveal itself in further entries in this series. Lastly, and this is a very minor complaint, some of the book’s relationships feel too tightly and unrealistically resolved by the conclusion, leading me to feel as if Rosen wanted to clear his slate of all detritus should he decide to write a follow-up. That being said, my criticisms do not detract from the wonderment of Illyria, nor do they misrepresent the playfulness of the characters and the conflicted game of identity transposition Violet has chosen to engage in.
While All Men of Genius occasionally suffers from its inspirations, Rosen’s novel remains sure-footed and confident enough to stand on its own as a welcome entry into the steampunk genre—one that uses the conventions of its genre to its advantage through restraint, offering a strong, character-focused narrative that does not suffocate under the weight of its own aesthetic ambitions.