All Men of Genius
You may be surprised to find this out, but I’m a Shakespeare addict. I go to the local productions whenever I can, I’ve seen several movie variations, and of course I’ve read a good chunk of the plays. When I saw that a novel was coming out that was based on Twelfth Night, I was really excited. And All Men of Genius does not disappoint.
(Description nicked from the book jacket.)
“Violet Adams wants to attend Illyria College, a renowned school for the most brilliant up-and-coming scientific minds, founded by the late Duke Illyria, the greatest scientist of the Victorian Age. The school is run by his son, Ernest, who has held to his father’s policy that the exclusive college only admit males. Violet sees her opportunity when her father departs for America. She disguises herself as her twin brother, Ashton, and gains entry.
But keeping the secret of her sex won’t be easy, not with her friend Jack’s constant pranks, and especially not when the duke’s young ward, Cecily, starts to develop feelings for Violet’s alter ego, ‘Ashton’. Not to mention blackmail, mysterious killer automata, a deadly legacy left by Ernest’s father, and the way Violet’s pulse quickens whenever the young duke speaks to her. She soon realizes that it’s not just keeping her secret until the end-of-the-year faire she has to worry about: it’s surviving that long.”
Not only is this novel based in a Shakespeare play, but it also draws inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I haven’t read that play and knew little about it going into this book. I waited until after finishing it to go and look up the details on Wilde’s play, and I found that Rosen had integrated its major elements so well that my lack of prior knowledge wasn’t an issue. In fact, the two plays fit together rather well, especially given the setting that the author chose.
As a result, this novel is very character driven. The large ensemble cast spans a wide variety of people and personalities and gives the story a well rounded feel. Even with so much competition, Violet still shines, in both of her personas. In a time period when women are subservient to men, she manages to be both feminine and strong and always a definite individual. Her struggles to pass as a man, and her subsequent appreciation for her feminine side as a result, are all exquisitely portrayed.
This novel may work on the strength of its characters, but the setting is just as much of a presence as any of the people wandering its halls. Part steampunk, part Hogwarts, Illyria College seems to send its tendrils into everything that happens. I almost wish that the college had been explored even further, because it’s such a magical place. To do so would have slowed down a story that already has moments of dreamlike leisure, but I can’t help the desire to have seen just a bit more.
I will admit that the novel is a slower read than most others that I pick up, but that’s not a bad thing. This is a story that forces you to slow down and take in the details, to appreciate the author’s craft. This may not be to the taste of some, but rest assured that this novel is well worth the effort. Having combined two such well known plays, there’s a lot of material to chew on.
Because of my love of Shakespeare, I was predisposed to like this novel, but I assure you that my trust wasn’t misplaced. Rosen has written a novel that deserves to become a classic, one that crosses genres (and genders) with gleeful and childlike abandon. At once lyrical and playful, dreamlike and firmly realistic, All Men of Genius now has a permanent home on my bookshelves. I’ll be watching for Rosen’s next novel with great interest!
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on November 17, 2011.