I had a bit of frustration with Lev AC Rosen's debut novel, All Men of Genius, and I recognize it may be a controversial one as it has nothing to do with his talent as a writer or the quality of his novel. In fact, the novel's voice is great, using third person omniscient that strikes a perfect balance of authentic Victorian and modern convention. The tagline on the dust jacket calling it inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is right on and I might add a dash of Charles Dicken's knack for character and setting. Even the plot is well executed, demonstrating the power of a straightforward story when populated by things the reader cares about.
Violet Adams is a brilliant young scientist barred from study at the world's greatest scientific institution by her gender. Determined to continue her studies, and prove that women deserve a place at the table, she disguises herself as her twin brother Ashton. Of course, keeping the secret of her sex isn't easy with her friend Jack’s constant pranking and the headmaster's (Duke Ernest Illryia) young ward, Cecily, developing feelings for Violet’s alter ego. Add in some blackmail, mysterious killer automata, and Violet’s burgeoning affection for the duke, and Rosen has a steampunk Victorian response to J.K Rowling's Harry Potter franchise (albeit more adult).
Where the novel raises an eyebrow, for me, is in the constant emphasis on sexuality and gender. Here's a run-down of some of the related plot devices. Violet is a woman dressed as a man. Violet's twin brother, Ashton, is gay. Professor Valentine likes to have sex with senior citizens. Duke Illryia is questioning. No one seems to have a sexual relationship with anyone their own age. Cecily has a thing for the cross-dressed Ashton (Violet). I could go on, but things might get spoilery.
Early on I found the treatment of Violet's cross dressing and Ashton's sexuality to be both refreshing and authentic. But, as the novel wore on I became overwhelmed, as I felt constantly assailed by the sexual proclivities of every character. I applaud the desire to put alternate lifestyles in the spotlight. However, I think it does a disservice when it feels like token offerings to inclusiveness, which too often seemed to be the case in Rosen's debut.
And yet, here I am talking about it. In pushing the envelope, then sealing another one and pushing it right behind the first, Rosen compels his readers to confront the issue. Despite my frustrations with it from a storytelling perspective, I can't help but applaud him for what he's trying to accomplish. All Men of Genius is a novel I would happily hand to my someday teenage daughter (she's two now). The message embedded in it is one of tolerance and acceptance, but also of demanding equality, making it one of the more important 2011 novels I've read -- especially considering its cosmetic appeal to younger readers.
Some might criticize the stiffness of the characters, an unfortunate side effect of Rosen's chosen narrative style. Other's might turn their nose up at the neat bow Rosen puts on everything. or the general acceptance of prostitution. To the latter point, some might call that an indictment of its appropriateness for a younger reader (and they might be right, as that, and several other items, are mature in nature). My response? It's Victorian! Reflected in everything from the narrative voice, to the novel's structure, to the mores of the time, Rosen never forgets it and embraces it with aplomb.
All Men of Genius is a novel I can recommend -- especially to younger readers or parents although others will find enjoyment as well. In an ever expanding world full of those alike and not, it's imperative that published works lead the way in engendering mutual understanding. My only caution is to let the ideas speak for themselves, overworking them only reveals an insecurity in their veracity (which I'm sure the author doesn't have). While I would have preferred more (any?) deconstruction, the novel is a wonderful homage to the source material of Shakespeare and Wilde. It's not clear if Rosen plans to continue Violet's story, but I'd certainly be interested if he is. If not, I'd be intrigued to see what he's capable of in a space unconstrained by Victorian virtue....more
I love historical fiction. Shogun by James Clavell, Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham, and Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, are a few of my favorites off the top of my head. What I love about the genre is how it stimulates me to learn about historical events or individuals that I haven't had an opportunity to pay much attention to. If an author is clever enough to take this historical fiction element and blend in some science fiction the end result is something I can't help but want to read. After finishing The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder I feel a great deal of conviction in saying, "Please sir, can I some more?"
Set in London, 1861, Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne stand at a crossroads in their lives. They are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy.
The two men are sucked into this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, commissions Burton to investigate why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End and if there's any connection to the assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack. Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age, and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn't exist.
As an American, I didn't have a great deal of historical attachment to any of the characters in Strange Affair. Before cracking it open the only two characters I had any real conception of were Burton himself (only barely), Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale (cameo appearances!). As for the many other historical characters in the novel I was largely blank - although Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a sad oversight on my part. I can't begin to describe what a pleasent sensation it is to finish a novel and immediately adjourn to wikipedia. Who knew Spring-Heeled Jack was a real figure? Mark Hodder reminded me that life is stranger than fiction, and life with a heavy dash of fiction is even stranger.
The central figure in the novel is obviously Richard Burton whom represents the paragon of English maleness for the Victorian era. He is rugged, overtly sexual, and excessively educated. It's unfortunate that he often seems to possess some incredible powers of deus ex machina. He always has the answers and manages to be in the right place at the right time regardless of the circumstances. Faced with a sword wielding panther man, well wouldn't you know it, Burton is a master swordsman! This is a minor complaint as Burton's renaissance man capabilities were well established early on and it did little to take away from Hodder's plotting which is - if I'm being frank - masterful.
Most of the novel's early going is spent introducing Burton and "Victorian" London now powered by all kinds of incredible contraptions. There are message delivering robot dogs, street sweeping crabs, armchair helicopters, and some form of early botox to name a few. Once all that's out of the way and Burton gets his assignment the novel begins to read a bit like Sherlock Holmes before descending into a paradoxical mind trip. Paradoxical I say? Yes, not everything in Strange Affair is steampunk and I think calling the novel anything but science fiction obscures the truth.
If what I write here is a bit obscure, I apologize, but it's in an effort to avoid spoiling any of Hodder's twists. While the novel's early parts are historical urban steampunk, the latter half goes in a disparate direction culminating in a lengthy section told from the point of view of a character other than Burton or Swinburne. Things very much slow down as this point and scenes become somewhat redundant as Hodder runs through the reasons why in 1840 history as we know it ceased to exist. I don't begrudge the time spent as the explanations are necessary to unravel his dense plotting.
By the novel's conclusions everything makes sense, which for anyone reading the middle section described above may seem like quite an accomplishment. None of that would have been possible without some brilliant writing. I don't mean that Hodder is some kind of wizard of metaphors like Lauren Beukes or an efficient wordsmith like K.J. Parker (although he does write a fine sentence). Nor has he put together a layered narrative like Lev Grossman. Instead, what I mean by brilliant writing is that he's written something that feels Victorian, but reads modern. Compare it to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which feels Victorian and reads the same way leading to an occasionally frustrating experience. I think it's quite an accomplishment to write a dated voice but make it so easily readable to modern sensibilities.
I've been making up sub-genres lately. In my Zoo City review I coined urban noir magical realism and now I'm forced conjured up historical science fiction steampunk. Whatever. Regardless of what I call Strange Affair it's a premier example of how to do historical fiction through the specfic lens. Hodder has given readers a tremendous trip into the history books, a dynamite adventure to keep things lively, and a science fiction twist to get the mind working. Consider me a big fan of Mark Hodder moving forward. I can't wait to check out the sequel The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man....more
As I was nodding off last night to the thundering pops of at home fireworks outside my window (northeast D.C. thinks the 4th of July lasts for a week), I couldn't get Disney's Beauty and the Beast out of my head. Beautiful Belle is trapped in the Beast's castle and held against her will. During her imprisonment Belle comes to see the Beast for what he is and not what he looks like. He's smart, gentle, and compassionate. Outside the castle, Belle's suitor - Gaston - plots to "rescue" her. In truth, Gaston is a blowhard who only wants to free Belle to pump up his own ego.
After twenty minutes or so of pondering, I realized that I couldn't get Beauty and the Beast out of my head because I'd just read it. Only Beast was a vampire in a book called The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith. Of course the realization came at the same time my neighbor set off a screamer, so my epiphany was accompanied by me falling out of bed - not terribly impressive.
In 1870, vampires rose up to become the dominant life form on earth. This event would come to be known as The Great Killing. 150 years later free humans only exist in enclaves near the equator where vampires refuse to live. Adele, princess and heir to the largest of these enclaves, has been captured by Prince Cesare, the most notorious vampire alive. Not everything is at it seems in the world of vampires, and Adele soon comes under the protection of Cesare's brother Prince Gareth. Now, she's a piece for both sides in a chess match that's sure to lead to open war between vampires and humans. The only thing between Adele and a gruesome death are Gareth and a mysterious entity named the Greyfriar. Can they keep her alive long enough for her betrothed, Senator Clarke, to come and rescue her?
So the plot of a fantasy novel is retread? Right, no one is surprised. There are more examples of recycled material in fantasy novels than almost any other genre. As long as there's enough to otherwise entertain a fantasy yarn can get away with some unimaginative storytelling. By and large, I think Greyfriar accomplishes that.
I maintain that world building is the most important aspect of a novel in the speculative fiction genre. So many blemishes can be covered up by a world that stimulates the imagination in a new and unique way. The Griffith's blend a fully realized alternative reality earth complete with imperial borders, political infighting, and magical powers. They also up the ante by providing something fresh to the vampire narrative by tossing out many of the stereotypical "vampirisms" to create a more realistic (lol?) interpretation. It's my opinion that they pull of this off near flawlessly providing such a great backdrop that the underwhelming plot becomes an afterthought to the world's epic scope.
Outside the not-so-imaginative plotting, my complaints are two fold. First, two real places featured heavily in the story - the Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle - just aren't well drawn. I've been to both of these places and neither were described in a way that made them come alive. I'm not sure what the point was of naming them as real places given their lack of ambiance. Both of these places are as haunting and impactful as a place can be. None of that really came through in the writing. Second, there's just a too much Twilight going on between Adele and Gareth. It's pretty well done and there's a great deal of action to keep things butch enough for male readers (yes, a generalization, sue me). Still, in this post-Twilight world vampire/human infatuation is going to near impossible to pull off without some serious eye rolling.
To use a ridiculous metaphor, Greyfriar is to books like Big League Chew is to chewing gum. I mean it's no Bubblelicious, the unquestioned king of gums. Nor is it like a black licorice gum with nuanced flavors. It's not even one of those gums that's like regular gum until it's bitten into and there's that squirt of liquid whatever it is. Nope. It's Big League Chew - simple, fluffy, and a little overwhelming after an extended chew. It's not a gum that's meant to be chewed every day (unless exhausted jaw muscles are the end game), but there's nothing wrong with occasionally shoving a big wad of Big League Chew into your mouth and endangering your ability to breath.
So where do I come down on this book anyway? To be honest, I'm not really sure. This definitely isn't the kind of novel that I gravitate toward with the, how can our love survive the gulf between us malarkey. Still, there's a pace of action, and a depth to the world that are impossible for me to ignore. For anyone who enjoys romance, action, and some blood sucking - The Greyfriar is a great choice. It hits all three of those things out of the park and provides enough that I will absolutely check out the sequel, The Rift Walker. Looking for something with a dynamic plot or lustrous prose? Eh, I might look elsewhere....more
I am fascinated by the necessity those of us interested in genre fiction seem to have for classification. Cyberpunk, hard sci-fi, space opera, high fantasy, epic fantasy, etc. Oh and the debates that ensue throughout the community when something is misclassified. In any case, there is no doubt what Dead Iron is - steampunk. Unfortunately, for author Devon Monk, it is steampunk reminiscent of Will Smith's Wild Wild West. While a far more successful execution of storytelling it shares a confusion with Smith's flop film about what it's trying to be. This shouldn't be read as a condemnation, rather a point of reference for discussing a book I ultimately I enjoyed.
Cedar Hunt is a man cursed by the Pawnee gods to hunt the Strange. He bears his curse, but is forever tormented by how it twists his humanity. Traveling west, he follows the Strange to a town named Hallelujah that lies in the inexorable path of expanding rail. When a child mysteriously goes missing, Hunt takes on finding him despite the town's mistrust of an outsider. Hunt's quest soon becomes much more as he sets himself against the Strange who would destroy not only Hallelujah but humankind in their entire.
Like any novel of genre fiction the nuance and ambiance the author sets are critical to success. Monk, trying to create fantasy, offers the Strange. The Strange comes from another plane where something akin to demons rule. It spills into the world and taints it. Personified by two characters, Mr. Shunt and Mr. Lefel, it is linked to the expansion of the railway as it paves a way to carry the Strange itself across the land. There is an obvious, if not overt, metaphor here about the expansion of technology and its impact on humanity.
Monk combines the Strange and technology powered by gear and steam with something called glim. Glim is essentially the Strange made tangible. Placed into a construct of metal and oil it brings technology to life or at least supercharges it. Every time glim made an appearance I was reminded of Tim "The Toolman" Taylor from ABC's 90's hit, Home Improvement - more horsepower! I found the gears and steam extremely satisfying, but imbuing them with the Strange felt unnecessary and made inventing somewhat tangental to "magic". It made what I felt like was an alternate reality steampunk novel feel like Final Fantasy. A few times I was sure Monk was moments away from summoning Bahamut.
As for the worldbuilding, Monk does a satisfactory job. Hallelujah is well imagined. It feels right - a frontier town like any other in an old western, replete with blacksmith, banker, storekeeper, town bully, wild eyed dreamer, and hard working black man looked down on by his peers. While it felt authentic, at least as I imagine a western town to be (since all my experience in such comes from Silverado and The Magnificent Seven), it didn't feel particularly original or unique.
Beyond Hallelujah, the world is only hinted at. Airships, universities, unseen technology, and mysterious cabals lurk beyond the mountains in the east. In this I think Monk did a better job. Her world felt far more fleshed out and alive than the town itself. It is unfortunate that we never see this world in Dead Iron, but I am certain more will come in the promised sequels. That said, the novel itself is entirely self contained and should I never read a sequel I wont be worse off for having spent the time reading this one.
It should be noticed that I'm now easily seven paragraphs into his review and I haven't mentioned the plot outside of a brief introduction. Believe it or not, it's intentional. The plot in Dead Iron is good. It's fun, with adequate emotion and action. If it seems a bit abstract at times when Mr. Lefel waxes poetic about the Strange, it quickly finds it's way again. But to me, in a novel like this the plot is of secondary concern (assuming it's adequate, which it is). The success or failure of Monk's first installment in the Age of Steam series, and her subsequent sequels, will be entirely dependent on how readers connect with the world she's created.
For me, it was ok. I believe she would have better served if Dead Iron had been her second installment in the series. The remembrances of Hunt's time among the Pawnee and his days of learning in the east would have been far more compelling of an introduction to Monk's world. Furthermore she could have avoided the strong emphasis on the Strange and glim and instead explored more of the steampunk tradition before turning things on their head with the introduction of "magic". This combination is what seems to lead the book astray as it loses cohesion in trying to be a western, a steampunk novel, and more traditional fantasy all at the same time.
All that said, I enjoyed the book. The characters are warm and alive. I feel confident in recommending the book to fans of the sub genre. I feel even more confident in the fact that the next book in the series will be better than the first. ...more