All Men of Genius, Lev A. C. Rosen's debut novel, takes its inspiration from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, leading to cross-dressing capers in a steampunk alternate London. Most of the action takes place at Illyria College, a prestigious school for science packed with eccentric professors and more than a little reminiscent of Hogwarts. Violet Adams, a seventeen-year-old engineering genius, impersonates her twin brother Ashton in order to get into Illyria, where girls are not allowed. She falls in love with the duke who runs the school, the duke's ward Cecily falls in love with Violet-as-Ashton, Violet's roommate falls in love with Cecily, and a political conspiracy with killer automata completes the mayhem.
Those familiar with Twelfth Night and The Importance of Being Earnest will enjoy the references to those plays, which run from the characters' names—Violet/Viola; Ashton/Sebastian; Malcolm Volio/Malvolio, etc.—to sly reworkings of famous quotes: "Often, when bored, [Cecily] found the sensationalism of her diary to be a great diversion" (p. 279). The cleverest bit of recycling is certainly Rosen's Professor Bunburry: his dangerous experiments result in so many accidents that he's constantly ailing, like Algernon's imaginary friend Bunbury in Wilde's play, and must constantly devise new prosthetic body parts for himself. But All Men is not a mash-up—it's not necessary to know the "parent" works to enjoy it. It makes use of the spirit of Wilde, rather than the letter. At its best, it throws out roguish lines Wilde would have appreciated: on the way to London Violet observes her artistic brother Ashton, who is gay, "gazing out the window, probably composing odes to the fields, or to the field hands" (p. 34).
Violet enters Illyria College in disguise, but she doesn't intend to stay that way. She plans to make a project for the end-of-the-year Science Faire so amazing that she'll be allowed to continue at Illyria even after revealing that she's female. Complications arise in the form of the Duke of Illyria, who runs the College, and his ward Cecily, the only girl allowed into the place. Both of them fall in love with Violet: Cecily because she thinks Violet is a boy, and the duke in spite of the fact that he thinks Violet is a boy. Cecily's love is merely an awkward predicament for Violet, but the duke's is intriguingly complex, since he is not, as he reflects to himself, an "invert." The duke's desire and confusion when he thinks Violet is a boy give their love story its most surprising turns.
There's also a plot going on to overthrow the duke, because Malcolm Volio, a student at Illyria and sadly one-dimensional villain, thinks smart people should rule stupid ones, and of course he thinks he's smarter than the duke. Volio got his "philosophy" from his creepy family, who were once involved in a seditious secret society, now defunct. Volio is carrying on the society's work alone. Why? Because he is Evil. Why is he Evil? Who cares? Volio is so unflaggingly bent on world domination that everyone and everything in the book is more interesting than he is, making it nearly impossible to feel anything when he appears, even pity when our heroes play a pretty nasty trick on him with some fake letters. Volio exists only to provide tension and bring in some steampunk firepower toward the end of the book. His homicidal automata, like the invisible cats which also haunt the school basement, are devices to create a spooky atmosphere conducive to panting and hand-clasping in the dark. Again: who cares? The spookiness is fun, and so is the panting. All the large events in All Men—historical processes, attacks on unarmed civilians, Christmas—are secondary to the individual stories of passion, either for lovers or for work. This will disappoint people who are looking for meaning or surprises in the whole political conspiracy subplot, but it fits the general orientation of the book. Rosen is interested in the small events: getting accepted to your dream school, choosing what to wear, first love. And he is interested in the small players of Victorian times: women, servants, unknown scientists in basements. Perhaps for this reason, the most interesting characters in All Men are minor ones: Mrs. Wilks, Violet and Ashton's housekeeper; Fiona, the outspoken actress Violet hires to impersonate her maid; and above all Cecily's governess, Miriam Isaacs.
Miriam is a widow, and a Persian Jew. Lacking wealth and family connections, she lives by her wits. She first appears in somber black, with her hair pulled back into a forbidding bun, but soon reveals another side: at night she lets her hair down, puts on bright and daring gowns, and escapes the school to go drinking with the students of Illyria, one of whom is her lover. Miriam's transformation into a devil-may-care hedonist mirrors Violet's transformation into a boy: both women are seeking what will make their lives complete, and they have to sneak in order to get it. The presence of Miriam enables All Men to avoid outright condemnation of the girly clothes and flirtation that Violet finds so tiresome: Miriam revels in all that stuff, and she's at least as likable as Violet. In fact, she's a show-stealer. Miriam's backstory, a tale of loss and exile, is the most moving part of the novel, and the sections that focus on her have an emotional weight that contrasts with the generally airy tone of the book:
She remembered that as she walked away from [her husband's] funeral, from the East End, from the mere outline of a life she had there, that it had begun to rain, and she had walked through London in a wet and torn black dress, with a black handkerchief in her hand, and had felt her chest open like wings. (p. 176)
The London of All Men of Genius is not the historical Victorian London. There are steam-powered coaches, and young women don't mind if their relatives are gay. The language, however, approximates Victorian (or at least Edwardian) English most of the time, so when it falls out of that register, the results are jarring. When the shrewd Ada Byron, who puts in a cameo appearance as the duke's godmother, sees through Violet's disguise and tells her so, Violet tells her friend Jack, who is in on the secret: "She recognized my gender" (p. 92). Considering the language Violet uses most of the time, it seems almost certain that she wouldn't have used the word "gender" in the modern sense. There are other awkward language moments: "knackered" is used to mean drunk rather than exhausted (p.201), and "pants" is consistently used for trousers, which in a linguistic universe where thieves "nick" things and people go home to visit their "mum" had me picturing the characters running around in their underwear. This makes the atmosphere of All Men less consistently absorbing than that of a book like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and weakens the illusion, which hovers delightfully close at times, that one is reading the lost steampunk novel by Oscar Wilde.
On his website, Rosen cautions readers that All Men of Genius is not intended as YA, noting that the book contains bad language and sexual content. The kisses and sexual references aren't very graphic, however, and most of the f-bombs are dropped by a talking rabbit. It's easy to see why readers would think of the book as YA: its protagonist is seventeen years old, and it has the lightness and quick pace of many YA novels. In fact, what it feels like is the sort of teen novel that grownups used to consume in secret during the drab days before it became okay to read J. K. Rowling on the subway. It's a novel of pleasure, in which it would be shocking if anything truly awful happened (which is why it resembles a certain type of YA novel, and not by any means the genre as a whole). Its rattling of gender stereotypes, while worthy, is not ultimately subversive: Ashton's fling with his servant remains a traditional lord-of-the-manor-meets-adoring-maid story, except that here the maid is a handsome young coachman, while Violet's desire to improve the lot of women is clearly weaker, and therefore less memorable, than her desire for the duke. If All Men of Genius has a message, it is that everyone, male and female, old and young, is entitled to meaningful work and lots and lots of fun. This mischievous exuberance is where Rosen really does take after Wilde, and it goes a long way toward making up for slips in language and a fairly predictable plot. All Men provides plenty of energy, a colorful cast of characters and something sensational to read in the train. It's a literary confection presented with panache; if it's come out a little uneven here and there, it's still sweet all the way through.
Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in twentieth century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. Her poetry has appeared in Stone Telling, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2012. She blogs about books and other wonders at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.