The importance of being pleasant
On a pleasant late-summer evening, a pleasant collection of Beamers gathered to have a pleasant conversation about our latest book, All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen, a work which we found to be … well, you get the idea.
Or did we?
From Mighty Oaks Do Tiny Acorns Fall
All Men of Genius is billed as a steampunk adventure soaring from the literary heights of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Populated with characters borrowing names from those works (Violet, Toby Belch, Jack Feste, Cecily, Ernest, Bracknell), it mixes in some real-world figures such as Ada, Countess Lovelace, the first computer programmer, and Mattias Forney, a pioneer of steam locomotives. The plot is roughly congruent to Twelfth Night, with Violet disguising herself as her brother to attend the all-male Illyria Academy, at which (s)he becomes the romantic target of both the headmaster, Duke Ernest, and his ward, Cecily. Meanwhile, Malcolm (Mal) Volio plots his schemes of world domination with the aid of bell-controlled automatons stashed in the academy’s vast and under-explored basement level. By novel’s end, the villain is defeated, Violet and Ernest are married, and Cecily has found her mate in Violet’s good friend Jack Feste, a bio-engineer (creator of the comically vulgar talking rabbit, Oscar).
Whizzing Along Like a Four-in-Hand Carriage
One point that united all of us was the very good quality of the writing in the book and its rapid pace, which, as Liz noted, aided in disguising the somewhat puzzling plot dead ends that, as Chris pointed out, seem, like the academy’s basement, to wander about, unexplored, throughout the book. Rosen has a good grasp of the language and the tropes of Victorian fiction, and he is willing to play along with the standard trappings of steampunk, even if he seems a bit more attached to the real era than to its re-imagined hyper-tech substitute.
He also creates (perhaps overabundantly) a number of enjoyably eccentric characters, starting with Violet and her brother Ashton, who outmaneuver both their father (off via airship to an astronomy conference in America) and their governess, Mrs. Wilks (who, in her spare time, fiddles up an “oscillation therapy device”, whose clear alternative use brought to Robin’s mind the classic Sex in the City scene in which Samantha is returning a similar “stress release” device for warranty service). While most of the quirkiness of Rosen’s characters has obvious connection either to his sources (Toby Belch’s libertine attitude, Volio’s arrogance) or to the genre (Violet’s “science-only” outlook, Ernest’s absent-mindedness), a lot of the characters and their various personality traits just seem to hang in mid-air with no visible means of support (Prof. Curio’s Jekyll/Hyde or Banner/Incredible Hulk split personality comes into play only late in the book and then only for brief, ultimately inconsequential, scenes). Alan was led to wonder if the true inspiration for this novel was actually Frankenstein, another book about stitching together a lot of disparate pieces that results in a rather awkward creation.
I, also, disliked the kind of “free association” pairing of character names and personalities, particularly where Bracknell (Wilde’s magisterial matriarch, here converted to boorish and barely competent male astronomy teacher) and Ada Lovelace (granted the “shocking” if “liberating” improprieties of cigar smoking and poker playing) are concerned. On the plus side, the ambiguity involved in some of the characterization (ages being a particular obstacle for us) did lead Nick to appreciate the growth shown by Violet and Ernest (who “reads” as, perhaps, older than the character is) by the end of the book.
With a Twirl of the Mustache and Swirl of the Cape
Worse, some of the book’s clear judgements are muddled a bit by the too obvious linkage with the Good Guys/Bad Guys breakdown. For example, it is perfectly fine for students to experiment by grafting snake skin onto rats, even as it almost inevitably results in the deaths of the rats (Science!), but it is a moment of moral outrage for Violet when she discovers Volio dissecting one of the academy’s invisible cats (which, naturally, haunt the basement). Worse, for me, was the second romantic scene with Violet (as Ashton) being kissed by Duke Ernest, which moment of passion (built up in true Hollywood bickering couple “slap, slap, kiss” fashion) kindles her interest in him, but made me wary of the abuse of his position of power, not to mention their age difference (though, again, we had trouble figuring out just what their ages are).
In a related way, Donna found some of the discussions of sex (brothels and prostitutes being explicitly mentioned) to be a bit blatant, especially for a book that reads in many ways as a YA novel. We had a bit of trouble deciding at just what age we would peg the ideal reader, coming down to a narrow range of just-old-enough (16+) and yet not-too-old to demand more coherence in the plot and characters (maybe 23-).
Lots of Gears but Precious Few Pistons
The steampunk tone of the book also struck us as being a tad “off” (or, as Robin put it, “not much steam and precious little punk”). The world building is a bit haphazard, too, being another area where we had difficulty in putting together a unified picture. Did electricity feature among this world’s technology? Other than a mention of Father’s trip to America, airships (a major steampunk convention) are pretty much absent, and even our favorite genius, Violet, seems clueless as to how they work. On the other prosthetic hand, we did see a lot of manic invention by Violet and her fellow students, often accomplished without breaking a sweat (keeping them from following the Edison “99% perspiration” path to genius) and clearly signalling in which directions the plot was heading, as Chris observed, falling into a pattern we deemed “Chekhov’s Phaser” (in deference to both playwright Anton and navigator Pavel). Still, imagining Sigourney Weaver in Violet’s power suit (her big end-of-year student project) as Robin and I did, is not that bad a way for a book to go.
Jon, our book selector, was most bothered by the lack of concentration in the book on the method of and the consequences for the various inventions, most of which do, even in the book’s terms, fall into the category of “toys”. Indeed, it seems that the most tragic outcome of the climax (a battle between the Good Guys with power suit and Volio’s robot army in front of Queen Victoria, who is thrilled rather than frightened) is the destruction of Duke Ernest’s “aethership” (spaceship), which thus never gets a chance to soar into the heavens (whether by chemical combustion as he prefers or spring-power as advocated by Violet). For Jon, as for several of us, the lack of soaring in the book keeps it from being a novel that we could recommend without reservation and, instead, rendering it a pleasant, if inconsequential, trifle, something to be quickly snapped up with pleasure but not long dwelt upon. The AV Club’s rating of ‘A-‘ for the novel is something with which Jon and I shall have to struggle, given our fondness for their reviews.
A Pleasant Read, with Killer Automata
Overall, our reception of the book did end up on the positive side of the ledger, with ‘5’ to ‘7’ being the final grades, with only 2 dissenters descending to ‘4’. Chris had invited Mr. Rosen to attend the meeting and, while we may have been less than complimentary at some points, we would likely have left him feeling encouraged to work on his second novel (which, according to his Web site, is called Woundabout, a “middlegrade” novel illustrated by his brother Ellis).
– Eugene, hoping all Beamer airships arrive to meetings on time and depart safely for home afterwards …