Premise: Violet Adams is a great scientist who aspires to attend the illustrious Illyria College, a school for the most promising students of science that was founded by the famous Duke Illyria and now run by his son, Ernest. The biggest obstacle to her attending is not Violet’s abilities as a scientist, but the tradition of being a male only school. When their father goes away to America for a year, Violet’s twin brother, Ashton, helps her pull together the ruse of dressing as a man so she can enter the hallowed halls of Illyria.
Their friend, Jack, is also accepted into the school, so having a roommate who knows her ruse is less of a challenge. The real challenges come when the duke’s ward, Cecily, becomes enamored with Violet, who goes by her brother’s name. Ernest also develops feelings for Violet, but for the real Violet, not her alter ego. She discovers her feelings for the duke may be reciprocal, but to let him know without it destroying her chances for her lifelong dream of becoming a great scientist makes things difficult.
But love and science are not the only things Violet will encounter at Illyria. It is a place full of surprises around every corner, with invisible cats, killer automota, and a mysterious train in the basement. Blackmail and threats come from students and teachers alike. With the end of the year faire to work towards, she must hold up her disguise and her feelings at the same time.
Themes: All Men of Genius is as much a romance novel as it is a fantasy or science fiction novel. There are at least seven love triangles, romantic misunderstandings, or sexual trysts that I can think of, but could be as many as ten to twelve between all the different characters. One of the main plot points is the romantic feelings between Ernest and Violet, both as herself and as her alter ego. We see romance between her brother Ashton and Antony, one of their servants, between Cecily and Violet (as Ashton), Toby and Miriam.
This is definitely a book speaking out on social constraints based on money, social class, gender, sexuality, race, and more. Violet is trying to attend a school for only men, Ashton is a gay male not so covertly expressing his love for another, Miriam is a Jewess standing up for her life while living as a governess for Cecily, while really only upper class people are allowed to attend Illyria.
This is also a book about deception and truth. Violet’s deception about her true identity may end up hurting not only her reputation, but her family’s as well, along with the possibility of hurting Ernest and Cecily along the way. It is the true Violet who the duke falls in love with. Unfortunately, the repercussions of deceit are not necessarily explored completely, as the only deceit that ends in tragedy is that of Volio, our villain. Everyone else seems to turn out happy, but isn’t that how most comedies end? Many who read this will simply give the response, “What is truth?”
Pros: All Men of Genius has everything you could want in a steampunk novel. Not only does it have gears and springs of brass, but it also has something that I haven’t seen much of in other steampunk, and that is an inclusion of other sciences: astronomy, biology, and chemistry, and not just the mechanical sciences. It is funny with compelling characters, each one with great potential and most of them fulfilling that, with a few exceptions. The hat tips to Shakespeare and Wilde inject the story with life, without which it might have fallen totally flat.
Cons: There is entirely too much sex in this book. Ranging from innuendos to bedroom behavior, it goes to the point of ridiculous at times. For such a witty book, throwing in things such as mechanical vibrators is beneath it. It seems like every character’s sexual proclivities are laid out and curiosities are simply commonplace traits for all characters, including Ashton and Antony rolling in the hay, Toby and Miriam’s secret romance, Ernest’s questioning of his sexuality, and Professor Valentine’s love for senior women.
One of the greatest fears for Violet is getting caught travesti, or dressing as a man. This is also one of the biggest problems I had with the book, since Ashton is an invert (gay), but the fear of being caught as a homosexual is inconsistent with this fear of being caught cross-dressing. Violet is afraid she will be caught, embarrassed, put in prison, or even put to death, but Ashton getting caught as an invert is only given a passing glance with little fear of retribution.
My other complaint is that the end felt rushed, as if Rosen was running out of time and space and had to wrap all the character arcs by giving an explanation of everything at the end and he only had a few pages to do so. After the action climax we needed a little more treatment of the characters other than Violet and Ernest to take a breath and soak in what just happened. Even the romantic climax between the duke and Violet seemed bland because it felt rushed and too easy.
Recommendations: All Men of Genius is a witty and socially defiant romp through love and science. It helped to redefine my expectations of not just steampunk, but in most other fiction. While the deviant behaviors of the characters may put people off from reading it, Rosen gives a strong argument for for the importance of being earnest, something which I will heed and respond to with a quote from another famous book: “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”