What if you were a young and gifted scientist/inventor who dreamed of attending the best college for sciences in the world, but you knew that your application would never be accepted? What would you do to make your dream a reality? These are the questions explored by Lev AC Rosen in All Men of Genius, a wonderful steampunk-infused comedy of manners.
Violet Adams spends her days tinkering in her laboratory instead of learning those things expected of a proper young lady in Victorian England. What Violet desires more than anything else is to attend Illyria College, a school dedicated to the pursuit of scientific endeavors, but Illyria enrollments are limited to male applicants. In fact, no women are even allowed inside the building, with the exception of the Duke of Illyria’s ward, Cecily, her governess, Miriam, and the Countess Lovelace.
So, Violet and her twin brother, Ashton, with the help of their childhood friend, Jack, hatch a mad scheme that, if it works, will allow Violet to attend Illyria for a year. All she has to do is convince the Duke of Illyria, and all of Illyria’s professors and students, that she is a young man. If she is discovered, it could mean irreparable damage to her father’s reputation as an astronomer, and to their family's name. It also means that Violet could be subjected to “horrors” of a much more personal (possibly carnal) nature. But despite these dangers, Violet enrolls, using her brother’s identity. While many of the situations in which she finds herself are rife with humor, the fear of discovery is ever-present. And when Cecily begins to take a romantic interest in “Ashton,” and Jack decides that he loves Cecily himself, things seem like they can’t get any more complicated. Or can they?
By setting his story in the Victorian era, Rosen is not only able to illustrate the prejudices of a highly romanticized era, but also highlights a few that continue in our own. The characters are nicely drawn, and the situations are improbable but enjoyable. The conflict between the societal expectations of men and women range from humorous to troubling. From the steampunk perspective, the descriptions of Illyria College—with its bronze halls, a marvelous clock with statues of scientific masters that parade every hour on the hour, and huge walls of continually moving gears that seem like the heartbeat of the building— are particularly inspired, making the school into another character in the story.
Utilizing elements from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and—to a much lesser degree—Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rosen has crafted a story about mistaken identity that not only helps the characters gain much-needed insight into their world, but may also help the reader have a greater understanding of our own. As the story progresses, Violet turns out to be only one of several characters who are not entirely honest about their identity or the secrets they are hiding. Discovering the answers to these secrets, and the answer to whether or not Violet is successful in disguising her identity for a year, are reasons enough to pick up All Men of Genius.