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All Men of Genius - Lev AC Rosen

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

All Men of Genius - Lev AC Rosen

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.

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At January 6, 2012 at 1:14 AM , Blogger Mieneke van der Salm said...

This is an interesting review, Justin! I've read several of this book and this is the first time that point about sexuality and gender has been raised in that manner.

At January 9, 2012 at 3:39 PM , Blogger RM said...

All Men of Genius has been on my to-be-read pile for years now, it seems. Your review only encouraged me to put it higher on the list. I'm almost more curious to dive into it now, considering your comments about the heavy-handedness of the discussed sexuality. I'll be sure to check back with you here when I read it, so we can compare and contrast. :D


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