This book made me sad because I wanted to love it and I couldn’t so more than like it. The characters were solid and the dialogue wasn’t bad but everything else was lacking. I mean, I enjoyed the plot, but I can’t really give Lev AC Rosen credit for that, since All Men of Genius is a retelling of Twelfth Night. A Victorian era, steampunk retelling of Twelfth Night with a dash of The Importance of Being Earnest* thrown in, to be exact.
Violet and Ashton are the twin children of a a famous astronomer and a dead mother. Their father is going to America for a year for scientific conferences and exploration and feels confident leaving his 17-year-old children at home with the housekeeper, especially after Violet express the intent to spend the year mostly in town, learning to be a “proper” lady in anticipation of coming out (to society, not out of the closet) next year. This delights Violet’s father, who never thought to tear her away from her inventions long enough to see her become a proper lady. What he doesn’t know is that Violet really intends to disguise herself as a man and apply to Illyria College, widely renowned for educating only the most promising of scientific (and male) students.
What follows is what you would expect if you’ve read/seen Twelfth Night. Violet makes it in to Illyria College, confused feelings are had, everybody ends up with who you would expect (well, there’s one swap, but it’s telegraphed pretty early, it’s easy to catch), bing bang boom. Original plot is not why you read a retelling. What you should read this one for is the characters. They’re interesting and fun and diverse and clever. Sir Toby Blech and..er..the other one are vast improvements over the original models and Malvolio is much more deserving of his fate. Cecily (doing double duty as the Olivia stand-in) was fleshed out and given something more to do than be love-struck. Ada Lovelace also makes several appearances and is fucking delightful.
Things that kept me from loving this book. 1) I thought that all the characters were too accepting. Everybody but the bad guy was fine with gay characters/women stepping outside their traditional roles. Or rather, I should say that prejudices at the societal level was dealt with fairly deftly, but at the personal level they were more or less ignored. Not that I in particular want to read books filled with sexist, homophobic asshats, but a little less acceptance would have been more grounded in reality. 2) There were some perspective changes, usually mid-scene, that were very, very jarring. It definitely felt like first novel territory then. 3) When Ada Lovelace is first introduced she is described thus, “Dressed in deep navy, which seemed to bring out her careful, knowing smile.” I’m sorry, what? How does a color do that? Can you help me find the color that brings out my “I’m being really polite because I hate you” smile? That would be a useful one.
All in all, this was definitely an enjoyable book that had some flaws that kept it from being fantastic. But I hear there is talk of a sequel and I hope that Lev AC Rosen will grow as an author and learn from mistakes and deliver a truly awesome book next time!
*I have not read or seen The Importance of Being Earnest, so I could not tell you how big of a dash it is.