All Men of Genius, out on September 27th from Tor Books, is Lev AC Rosen’s first novel. A steampunk romp inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the book tells a fast-paced story of (fantastical) science and adventure that also engages with gender performance, feminism and sexuality. Violet, the lead character, adopts a masculine identity to attend the foremost scientific college in the country with the intention of revealing herself and her brilliance at the end of the schoolyear — she’s going to make a point about women and science, women and society. Of course, the expected hijinks ensue; not just the gender-crossing friendships and romances, but the webs of blackmail and manipulation that inevitably arise from such a secret.
Rosen balances the action of an intrigue plot with the fun of an academy-story, the sensibilities of Victorian or Elizabethan London present in his inspirational materials with modern queer/feminist theory, and the development of his protagonist, Violet, with the development of the rest of a fairly large cast of characters.
First and foremost, All Men of Genius is a comedy — unsurprising, given that its source materials include two of the most-loved comedies in the English language. The humor varies from the slapstick to the satirical and adds a sense of lightness to the text that’s further supported by the whimsical, fantastical “science” practiced at Illyria and the antics involved with a group of university schoolmates having adventures together as they develop into adults. Many characters are presented as caricatures for comedic purposes (though several of those are further developed into well-rounded individuals later on).
This is a fun book, designed to amuse and entertain; the narrative voice is appropriately playful and direct, often speaking on behalf of character motivations and thoughts instead of using implication or oblique reference. The third-person moveable narrator also allows for a level of commentary on the characters that the characters themselves would not make, often at their expense, but that’s an extremely useful tool when it comes to those balancing acts I previously mentioned — the characters are Victorians, after all, and that limits what they can say. The narrative voice, on the other hand, can imply quite a lot about the characters’ opinions and behaviors towards each other. The moveable nature of the narrative voice, though it usually focuses on Violet, provides insight into characters who I suspect will become important in later books — her brother Ashton, for example, is utilized and well-developed, but is implied to be inhabiting a whole different world than Violet, a world which we don’t see in this book.
That voice also pushes the book along at a fast clip; when the adventures at the school are on hold for family holidays, the pressure of the interpersonal stories takes over, and the tension never abates. I called it a romp, and I meant that — fast, fun, engaging storytelling has a definite value.
Despite the comical, lighthearted nature of All Men of Genius, Rosen also spends thought and text exploring the problems of his setting — it is Victorian Britain, juggernaut of colonialism, bastion of misogyny, homophobia and racism, et cetera. Steampunk stories have an unpleasant tendency to focus on romanticism at the cost of social commentary, but Rosen engages with both his inspirational texts and his setting to tease out a balance between the era and a modern understanding of feminism, gender and sexuality, to name a few things.
That challenge of balance is especially obvious in updating and managing the gender and sexuality plots inherent to any mashup with Twelfth Night, but Rosen manages to do so in a way that I found satisfying. For example — Twelfth Night de-legitimizes and “makes safe” the queer desire in the text by ending with heterosexual marriages all around, taking the male twin away from his male lover to marry the woman who is in love with his sister, so his sister can marry a man as well. Rosen is aware of this de-legitimization and avoids it soundly by switching up the courtship plots: the male twin, Ashton, is gay (in the terms of the time, an invert) and retains a steady relationship with his lover Antony throughout the book. Positive queer attraction and eroticism are not erased but are kept as a constant presence in the narrative. Additionally, Cecily’s erotic longing for Violet-as-Ashton has begun to defuse long before Violet’s revelation of her gender, which has very little to do with it at all.
Plus, the text introduces the duke to Violet as a woman first, which does not happen in Twelfth Night — so, while he is attracted to “Ashton,” he is attracted first and foremost to the woman who he thinks is his student’s twin. It soothes some of the sex-essentialism of Twelfth Night and allows for a more nuanced exploration of gender-performance. I find it key to note also that Violet does not identify as a man — she is a straight woman temporarily adopting a masculine performance for social mobility; she is not transgender. Her identification as a woman is always a part of the narrative, and so again, the potential problems of sex-essentialism are dealt with.
Speaking of sex and gender, the balance between Violet’s received notions of women’s performance and womanhood from her culture clash regularly with her experience of performing masculinity; it can be a challenge to present a feminism in which Violet at once loves the freedom the male performance gives her but also still identifies as a woman and misses the gender performance that feels right to her. Considering that it is anachronistic for her to even think of sex and gender as separate concepts, Rosen’s exploration of the issue requires deftness and care — often, Violet thinks things that are common to feminists today, but those thoughts are framed in the terms of her time. What does it mean to want to be a powerful woman? What am I allowed to embrace of conventional femininity? What must I discard? These questions are prominent for Violet as she decides what sort of woman she wants to be, and the changes she wants to make in her society through her work — because she never falls victim to the myth of the “exceptional” woman. She knows it’s not just her who’s awesome, and the text supports this with a cast of women working both within and without of their social frame to accomplish plenty.
Mrs. Wilks, at first a comical over-protective figure who seems a subscriber to the patriarchy, is revealed to be a creative individual with passions and interests of her own. (The subplot of her inventing a massager for women and selling it with Fiona — entrepreneurship! — is hilarious, by the way.) Miriam, a woman of color and a Jew, exploits the racism and exoticism of her society to achieve more freedom of movement than many of her other female counterparts, and she also insists on remaining an independent woman in her relationship with Toby, refusing to marry him or give up her employment for him, which he accepts. Ada Byron is a foremost inventor, a cigar smoker, a card player and a drinker, who is fiercely independent while still a figure of maternal affection for Ernest and Cecily.
As you may have guessed by this point, Rosen tries to avoid the tendency to romanticize Victoriana without examining its extreme prejudices and problems. While the fantastical mad science and the academy-story and the intrigue plot are all rip-roaring fun, and are certainly romantic in nature, the cast of characters injects a social critique into the narrative that I appreciate. Violet, especially, provides useful commentary about her own position and that of her brother in their society.
As All Men of Genius is a first novel, it is not without flaws, such as an occasional abundance of adverbs, particularly in the prologue, and a few other minor craft-level wobbles. However, it remains a consistently engaging novel that kept my attention well through its ending — despite the fact that I, as a reader of the inspirational texts, had a pretty clear idea of exactly where the plot was going. That’s a fine accomplishment on Rosen’s part: making a familiar plot interesting by introducing fresh, personable characters and an entertaining narrative voice.
I look forward to seeing more work in Rosen’s particular socially aware steampunk universe — it’s always nice when a fun read also gives me queer characters, play with gender, and explorations of proto-feminism. All Men of Genius has a comedic sensibility, a light-hearted cast of characters, and a satisfying conclusion wherein the romances come to fruition and a set of women & friends save the day. Fan of steampunk or not, a reader looking for a good story with adventure, intrigue, and humor would be well-served to pick this book up.