Lev Grossman’s The Magicians grabbed attention two years ago due to its intentional resemblance to the Harry Potter series. Lev AC Rosen’s All Men Of Genius owes a similar debt to J.K. Rowling, but the parallels seem less deliberate. In Rosen’s debut novel, precocious adolescents attend an illustrious school in a steampunk version of Victorian London. Rosen’s surrogate for Hogwarts is Illyria College, which teaches brilliant young inventors. There, students grapple with intrigue, imminent adulthood, and the aching blush of romance; the faculty skulks in the school’s darkest corridors with motives that may be noble or nefarious; and secrets literally rattle within the walls. But All Men Of Genius’ biggest secret is one neither Grossman nor J.K. Rowling used: The star pupil of Illyria’s all-male student body is a girl.
Granted, steampunk-plus-cross-dressing-heroines might as well be its own subgenre at this point. (Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and Ekaterina Sedia’s Heart Of Iron are two recent examples.) But Violet Adams, All Men’s charismatically nerdy protagonist, has an axe to grind against gender disparity in Rosen’s alternate vision of 19th-century England, where steam-powered technology has far outstripped the evolution of social justice. A gifted inventor forbidden to attend Illyria due to its no-females policy, Violet wins admission after assuming the identity of her twin brother, Ashton—a promising poet as dandyish and openly gay as the era will allow.
While Rosen unfolds his sturdy yet workmanlike plot—a villainous scheme involving killer automatons lurches to a predictable conclusion—it becomes clear he’s less concerned with shoving his cast toward a dynamic climax and more interested in lingering within their hearts and minds. When Duke Ernest Of Illyria, the school’s self-doubting young headmaster, begins falling in love with the undisguised Violet, he’s strangely attracted to “Ashton”—and intellectual stimulation becomes far more seductive than the physical kind. (That said, All Men’s advent of the steampunk vibrator is just one reminder of Rosen’s bawdy humor.) It’s a nimble twist on Victorian romance that’s woven into Rosen’s intricate web of attractions, repulsions, and matrimonial machinations. But he never lets his mesh of relationships—or his fluid, playful views of sexuality—overwhelm a sprawl of vibrant, witty characters.
Steampunk soap-opera, as elevated as it is, isn’t all Rosen has up his sleeve. Tackling the genre at its root, All Men slyly examines the psychology and the aesthetics behind the act of human invention. Through his brainy, epistolary courtship of Violet (who, of course, is right under his nose the entire time), the reticent Ernest is inspired to undertake a modest project of his own: building an “aethercraft” that will fly him to the moon. The metaphor for love is obvious, but it’s no less potent for that, and it gives Rosen the space to probe his gadget-laden steampunk milieu for all the pathos and philosophy it’s worth.
As frothy, rollicking, and blithely subversive as All Men is, there’s still a nagging originality issue. Neither The Magicians nor Harry Potter is the primary font of imitation, though; it’s Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which All Men references frequently and shamelessly. In addition to the common conceits of twins, mistaken identities, and cross-dressing, many of the book’s characters (names included) are derived from the play. But rather than coming across as some kind of smirking deconstructionist, Rosen works entirely within the realm of reverent homage—and he does so with a giddy, geeky passion that Violet herself might recognize.