Steampunk meets Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the brilliant page-turning debut All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen. Violet and dandyish Ashton Adams are twins. Both are extremely intelligent, but where Ashton excels at poetry, Violet is an inventor, and gifted in the sciences. They live in a steampunk version of Victorian London, but as in the actual version, women are not allowed to attend college in the pursuit of a more advanced education. Violet desperately desires to attend Illyria College, whose dean is the Duke of Illyria’s son. It has been compared to Hogwarts, but instead of being a school for wizards, it’s a college for young inventors, men of genius. Violet hatches a scheme to gain admittance to Illyria by disguising herself as her brother, but will she be able to keep the ruse up for the entire year she plans to attend the college without being exposed? Exposure could mean public humiliation, jail time, and possibly even death for her.
Just as in Twelfth Night and other plays by Shakespeare, twins play a major role in Rosen’s book, as do the switching of identities and sexual roles. Violet fills out the admittance papers as if she were Ashton and appears before a board of Illyria’s professors, who question her about two inventions she brings. She eventually wins admittance and becomes Illyria’s star pupil, though if her secret is exposed, Violet could end up bringing disgrace upon her family.
Cross-dressing heroines have been the main characters in other steampunk novels, like Ekaterina Sedia’s Heart of Iron and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. In All Men of Genius, Violet Adams wants to prove that women are just as intelligent and capable as men, and as deserving of a higher education. She is willing to risk everything, including her and her family’s reputation and name, to achieve her goal and show how unjust the social disparity in the treatment of the sexes.
With her openly gay (as far as the standards of the era allow) brother Ashton’s help, they trick their father (who plans to be in America on business) into allowing them both to spend a year in London under the pretense of attending social functions and searching for a suitable husband for Violet. Complications arise when Duke Ernest of Illyria begins to fall in love with the undisguised Violet, despite their age difference—he is a decade older than she—and social class differences. He also finds himself attracted to the person he believes is Violet’s brother, Ashton. The Duke finds “him” intellectually stimulating—if only Violet’s looks could be combined with her brother’s genius....
Rosen displays a bawdy Shakespearean sense of humor, and he combines it with a plot involving an actual romance developing between Violet and Duke Ernest of Illyria. Besides the wit and humor both Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde are famous for, Rosen has plenty of action and intrigue in his novel to interest fans of the steampunk genre. The villain is perhaps a tad predictable, but his scheme involving killer automatons is devilish enough to infuse the novel with several thrilling and suspenseful moments.
One highlight of the novel is, when, inspired by his courtship of Violet, the Duke decides to build an “aethercraft” that will fly him to the moon. It takes what cogs, cranks, chains, and steam can accomplish to the limit, perhaps, but he is driven by this idea enough (a metaphor for his growing love for Violet) to strive to bring his idea to fruition.
All Men of Genius is itself an inspired work of genius. Operating within the plot parameters of Shakespeare’s comedies—even borrowing names of characters from Twelfth Night—Rosen manages to work this tried-and-true “clay” into a masterpiece of his own. Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde themselves both borrowed from previous plays, myths, and legends, and even used Biblical references. It’s what an author does with the “clay” that is important, and with All Men of Genius, Rosen sculpts a novel of genius.