Jay Daze's Reviews > All Men of Genius

All Men of Genius by Lev A.C. Rosen
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's review
Jan 21, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: ebook, alternate-history, sf, i-had-a-rant-attack, wtf-moments

** spoiler alert **
This is a book that really wants to be loved, but it didn't happen for me.

All Good Men of Genius, with it's gender-swapping hero, a villain maddened by love, and especially the careful pairing off of characters into romantic bliss is, from a kind view point, like a Shakespearean comedy, or as I started to despair about the book, more like an lame opera. At the end the benevolent ruler comes in and sets everything right, and everybody is just so damn happy. Unfortunately by the end of the book, despite characters I enjoyed and a fun steampunk world, I came down in the opera camp - a Mozart opera but with no music and an inane plot.

The story telling is haphazard at best. Rosen has a nice tone, okay prose, but perhaps too much ambition and not enough control for his first novel. To begin with the book isn't very tightly wound, it doesn't spring along like its breezy, not very complicated characters. The limited third person jumps into the consciousness of far too many of the characters and completely defuses the narrative thrust of the book.

But the truly bothersome part is that by the end of the novel the very reason for the book - Violet's daring plan to break the gender wall and gain access for women to the school of Illyria is undercut - if not completely sabotaged. Before Violet can finish her plan, Edward, Duke of Illyria, decides to let girls in on his own. (Okay, not completely on his own, Violet dazzles him with her letters of science. Sort of unbelievably, the duke has been hanging around with freaking Ada Lovelace all his life! but some letters change his mind?) It has the effect of turning Violet's daring, rebellious, dangerous act into the impatient stunt of a child. If only the poor dear had been patient. There, there, have a candy and run along little girl.

(This undermining is a prime example of everyone getting a point of view in the book. Not only does it slow things down - deadly in a light comedy - but it also puts the book at odds with itself, often deflating the suspense.)

I was also bothered by the use of technology in the story. Because this is steampunk, I can pretty much accept that science equals magic in this world - which is great, it's that fun fantasy element that has turned steampunk into the most delightful of genres. But to my mind Rosen hasn't grounded his magic-science, he doesn't build it up or make it special. Everyone in the bloody school of Illyria is a genius from day one. They're all making near-impossible gadgets or creature-hybrids immediately. Some early scenes are in the class-rooms, but I don't get the sense that anyone really learned anything at the school or that any of these fabulous inventions presented anything but the most rudimentary of struggles. A lot of these gadgets should have taken decades, with teams of engineers and scientists working on them. Instead, organ transplantation is accomplished after a couple of tries. A mech-warrior suit with a hyper efficient winding motor that defies, or at least severely tests, the laws of conservation is something first year student Violet whips up for her year end presentation. The title has 'genius' in it but the book makes the creative struggle seem too easy.

I was NOT looking for realism going into this book. I have what could only be described as the shakiest grasp of science. I'm frustrated when wizard dudes go 'ALACZAM!' and vaporize an entire orc hordes, and I'm equally frustrated by magic-science from a first year student that changes the laws of nature. I slowly lost interested in the science because it felt like Rosen was playing tennis without a net, boring.

Okay one final bitch then I'll start back-tracking.

I was really happy with the gay sex in here. In fact I wish there had been more of Ashton and his wild ways - or perhaps that he got his own book. (See my complaint about the fractured nature of the narrative voice above.) But did anyone else notice all the power imbalances in this book? Ashton fucks his serving boy. Edward has a maid to fuck. Violet falls in love with Edward, her schoolmaster. Edward kisses Violet (disguised as a male student). It is not that there wasn't as lot of master-servant, student-teacher loving going on in the past, but I do have a problem that it is presented as being so bright and happy and not problematic at all. What if you are a servant who doesn't want to put out for your master who holds your fate in his hands? Isn't it just slightly, slightly, slightly wrong that the happy ending of this book is that the headmaster marries his student? Rosen doesn't seem, to me, to worry about any of this. The light tone of the book makes the sexual politics that much more creepy.

I am not claiming purity on this. Great sexually fantasy are built on power-imbalances - consentual fantasies. But when you have a non-porn narrative and none of the more troubling sides are raised it bothers me.

So yes, the plot is derailed by the marriage ending, the narrative is fragmented over too many characters, the magic-technology didn't convince, and the sexual politics seemed suspect - why exactly am I having trouble giving this book two stars? (Have to say it seems a lot clearer at this point.) Probably because Rosen does have a light tone and characters who are winning. I even like Edward in his mopey way. I would have like the book more it it had stream lined itself, sticking to Violet's point of view, and if it had not lost its nerve and shied away from letting its heroine smash some conventions - rather than get married at the end.

I don't think I'm committing the sin of trying to re-write the novel. I do believe that the start of the book promises that Violet is going to bring change to this world - that that is why she is the hero of the book. By marrying her off and allowing Edward to open Illyria to women I feel that Rosen subverted his own novel - into a rather traditional and pointless book.

(But I enjoyed writing about it.)
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Reading Progress

15.0% "Love all the mechanical gadgetry and the introduction of the great hall of Illyria really throws down the steampunk-gear gantlet. Now to the eboook publishers - I want page numbers for the whole book, not just chapter by chapter. 4 of 33 pages for chapter 3 makes me crazy!"
21.0% "Yeah, so the duke is confused - he's attracted to a guy, but who we the reader know is a girl disguised as a guy. A very familiar trope. Though a call out to Shakespeare's comedies, I am thinking, hello, inappropriate for teachers and students to be getting it on... Meanwhile Ada smokes her not at all phallic cigars with the professors."
25.0% "Hopping slowly thru the books, like a mechanical bunny that needs to be repaired. Cecily has fallen in love/in infatuation with Ashton (Violet), responding to his (her) long lashes and soft skin."
48.0% "The kiss. Don't know about this. May be just the biggest cliche..."
70.0% "Very HP exploration in the basement between the pony fetish shows."
88.0% "While an emotional point for the characters, as a reader I've been totally left out of the story by my knowledge of what I know has been running around Illyria."
92.0% "Odd arriving at the faire, the book feels like it has both gone too fast and that there is no way it can be so near to the end. It's too fast because Violet and her friends are geniuses already! They all come up with staggeringly unrealistic masterpieces in their first year. Yes tech is like magic in this book but as Rowling showed you have to work for the magic. This tech isn't earned so doesn't feel satisfying."
100.0% "Finished."

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