Having been inspired by a conversation with a friend, I’m going to write a review about All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen, which I read over the winter break. And it’s a wonderful way to discuss writing, by discussing what we read.
Over all, All Men of Genius was an enjoyable vacation read. It was easy to immerse myself in the novel: Rosen paced his debut novel well, filled it with intriguing world-building, included quirky and gruesome scientific steam-punk details, and balanced romance and action well. Despite the fact that the characters and plot were taken from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest I still felt engaged in the text and wanted to keep reading to “see how it all turns out.” Because the interest is in the details. And Rosen reworked the details of these two well-known plays into a delightful romp in steam-punk London.
What I don’t like about All Men of Genius is important enough to keep it in the “good, but…” category.
Perhaps the second half of Wilde’s title points to some of this novel’s problems: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. I think Rosen has trivialized his characters and the plot too much. Throughout the novel everything was too easy for our protagonists: “there’s too much blackmail going on” someone says in the novel. I don’t have the novel in front of me, so that may be a bit of a paraphrase, but the character’s right, black mail seems to be the way to temporarily solve any problem and apparently everybody buys into it. Too easy.
And no one dies or loses what is most precious to them. This in my mind, makes it a kids’ story. Though there are some kids’ stories that do risk a lot, including life: Watership Down, Where the Red Fern Grows, To Kill a Mockingbird, to name a few. But All Men of Genius is like Disney Picture’s Wall-E. That movie could have been great and much more moving if at the end, when the re-booted and personality-free Wall-E unknowingly runs over his friend, the cockroach died and Wall-E never regained his personality. That would have been true tragedy and a very poignant tale. But that doesn’t happen in Wall-E and, similarly, it doesn’t happen in Rosen’s tale either. The ending was really quite pat; it felt uninspired and anticlimactic. It was an action movie ending: flashy, big explosions, but so what?
I had some problems with Rosen’s writing as well. There are a few instances where Rosen uses modern phrasing or idiomatic expressions. (Again, I do not have the book in front of me so I cannot quote anything directly.) One instance, thanks to the discussion with my friend which prompted this review, was when Violet is approached by the Duke’s aunt who lets the young Violet know that she knows Violet is a girl and not a boy, after which Violet tells her friend Jake: “She knows my gender.” In this instance, to be true to the language of the era, Violet would have used the word “sex” and not “gender.” Though Rosen doesn’t write in a true Victorian style, and that’s fine, it isn’t a problem. It is a problem, however, when Rosen employs an idiosyncratic expression or a word choice which breaks the spell of the story and brings my attention to the storytelling itself.
One detail really bothers me: Rosen never mentioned anything about how the seventeen- going on eighteen-year-old Violet hid or stopped or whatever her menstrual cycle. In a steam-punk novel filled with all sorts of zany sciences like grafting lizard skin onto mice, or removing the larynx of a parrot and placing it into the throat of a rabbit about as easily as switching out the heating coils of a couple toasters, all Rosen had to do was mention that Violet snuck into the chemistry lab at night and mixed a potion, that if she drank of it daily, would stop her from menstruating. Or something. Anything. Because even if the maids didn’t see the pads Violet would have had to dispose of, the people around her would have detected the pheromones, the slight odor of blood, she would have had cramping every month, bloating, mood swings, something she would have had a difficult time hiding over the course of a whole year. As someone mentioned, it’s interesting how we can suspend disbelief to such an amazing degree to accept the world-building of a fantasy novel, but if some small detail about how the hair dryer works isn’t right, we won’t buy any of it.
There are other issues worth discussing that I won’t get into (at least not today), but that I’d like to mention: that a novel presenting gender equality should end with the happy marriage of a mixed-gender couple because that’s what girls want, even though I know that most people want to be in a meaningful relationship, this story didn’t need to end with a marriage; that homosexuality, though really only about gay men, should be brought up as not fair in the way that gender inequality is not fair, but then be disregarded for the rest of the novel while the gay relationship included in the story is between the wealthy male heir enjoying sex with the hot young servant and the story does not look at the power dynamics there and does not at all touch on the topic of lesbians seems unfair; that the most interesting characters were the secondary characters; that the bad guy seemed tacked on and not too much of a threat, because crafty and diabolical as he was supposed to be he still bought the fake blackmailing hook, line, and sinker – not too diabolical or crafty, I guess – though you could argue his inflated evil ego was his weakness…
So, an enjoyable read, one that had interesting world-building complete with ornate details of steam-punk London and creepy science and deadly automatons. And well paced! I enjoyed the fun nods to the plays from which it took its plot and characters, and the allusions to other popular culture references. But there were a few too many issues. I hope in his next books Rosen fixes these problems, because all in all, I like what he did here, and I’d like more.