The irony of the title of ALL MEN OF GENIUS by newcomer Lev A.C. Rosen is that the main character is 17-year-old Violet. While not exactly a tomboy, she's a scientist at heart and isn't afraid of the grime, oil, and dirt involved in her love of making machines. Unfortunately for her, the exclusive London-based science university, Illyria, doesn't accept women. Violet, however, is reckless enough to concoct a scheme that allows her to attend the university--posing as her twin brother Ashton.
ALL MEN OF GENIUS is Rosen's steampunk re-telling combination of Wilde's "The Importance of Being Ernest" and Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." It's more a comedy of manners than anything resembling the conspiracy mystery he prologues the book with. While fun, creative, and entertaining, I can sum up GENIUS with two words: heavy handed.
The ensemble cast revolves around our heroine, Violet. Violet and her brother are the children of a scientist who travels to America for a year, leaving them to their own devices. She enlists the help of her brother and friend Jack to see the scheme through. We meet classmates along the way, romantic interest Duke Ernest Illyria who is the headmaster, various professors, and other tacked on characters who don't seem to have much influence to the story at large. They are often shallow caricatures, with heavy-handed characterization that sometimes bordered on the silly--on purpose, I'm guessing, considering the comedy of manners angle. To me they just seemed odd. Others may find them more charming.
The majority of the story takes place in London and at the school Illyria itself. In its labyrinthine dungeons, the labs, the common areas, the gardens, and all that. I enjoyed London through the seasons, and Rosen paces the passage of time well. But I still had a hard time picturing Illarya itself anything other than a smaller Hogwarts.
The characters all broadcast early in the book their well-laid plans...and then almost everything happens the way they planned. This heavy-handed foreshadowing makes the resolution not very fun. Sure Violet, as the female lead, has her worries. What if people find out what she is before she can finish the year? What are the strange automatons in the basement? Will people still like her as a woman and not a man? There simply wasn't enough at stake and by the end I was skimming pages just to finish the book, since I already knew how everything works out.
The narrator attempts an old-fashioned voice, but it feels self conscious and awkward, with its tell-not-show info-dumps to quickly establish setting and characters. The prose has its quirky moments and is often charming, but stumbles over itself, thereby slowing the flow of the story. While the omniscient PoV focuses on Violet, it switches between characters in a scene and even sometimes within a paragraph. Rosen does get heavy-handed dealing with themes of one's sexual identity and gender expectations. And I can't help making a petty complaint noting that the frequent use of rather/quite/terribly/etc doesn't automatically make prose genteel.
Much of the science is creative and interesting, but sometimes it has issues. Jack, while clearly talented in his particular field, only takes ten minutes to graft snake skin onto a rat. Violet creates an invention that only requires two turns of a key to provide enough torque to run a large device for three days. Is Rosen stretching the laws of physics here a bit? Sometimes it all just seems too easy.
If you aren't the nitpicky type these problems won't affect your enjoyment of a creative story and its sweet yet mixed-up romances. Overall ALL MEN OF GENIUS is an entertaining bit of work, and I probably look too closely at it with a critical eye. But Rosen tries too hard, and it shows.
Recommended Age: 16+, despite the YA looking cover this isn't for younger audiences
Language: Crude language and a fair about of the harsher stuff, including one very profane rabbit
Violence: One violent scene at the end involving death, but little blood and no gore
Sex: Gay teen romancing and several references to 'inverts'; vague references to rape; frequent references to sex
Think you'd like to give it a shot? Here's your link:
ALL MEN OF GENIUS