All Men of Genius makes no attempt to hide its main sources of inspiration: an odd couple of famous comedies, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Rosen’s twins of two sexes, a female character’s masquerade as a young man, several cases of infatuation spurred on by interfering tricksters, plus the names of many people and places, all derive from Shakespeare – with the Bard’s imaginary land of Illyria transplanted and updated into something like Wilde’s late-period Victorian Britain of peers and ditherers. In itself, that’s an ambitious task, but Rosen has more in mind. While holding true to the antic spirit of both plays, he also manages to bring in the exploratory worldview of SF.
This requires a solid earthly setting, where steam-driven and the even newer electrical vehicles have begun to show up in a city which resembles London on the brink of the modern age. Some historical figures join the cast (notably, Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace and inventor of the Analytical Engine). Showing far more interest in science than her brother Ashton, female twin Violet adopts his guise in order to satisfy her passion for knowledge. Only males can enter the school founded by and named for that late, great master of Victorian science, the Duke of Illyria, but she regards this as an absurd prejudice. If she can sneak in amongst them, surely she can equal or surpass those spotty boys!
In philosophical moments, Violet thinks the field could benefit from a woman’s perspective. As she tells one male friend who’s in on the ruse, ‘‘Really, I don’t know what it is with your gender, that they must divide science and beauty into separate fields…. In my opinion, the way a planet spins only adds to its beauty.’’
This book’s version of Ernest (now the Duke’s son and heir to the administration of Illyria College) may strike most people as a slacker and general disappointment, yet he anticipates the future with his own kind of passion, imagining how new developments could transform ideas about life, genetics, transportation – maybe even make space travel a real possibility.
While Violet has something of Fever Crumb’s defiance of convention (Fever herself grew up among scientists who downplay the feminine mind), and Ernest shares Arlo’s devotion to flight, some of the alternate science in All Men of Genius is wackier than anything Reeve devised. In particular, genetics has taken strange turns, leading to bizarre hybrids like a foul-mouthed pet rabbit who’s part macaw. (Thanks to him, this book would never get a G rating.)
Bad guy Volio retains his Shakespearean liability to fall head over heels in love. Rosen fleshes out the portrait with memories of a sad youth that might make the man almost sympathetic, if not for another part of his heritage in this world that makes him truly dangerous. It leads to mayhem in climactic scenes set at a science fair at the Crystal Palace, where Violet had planned to make a triumphant debut and reveal her sex. Volio’s machinations help bring down those dreams, turning a high-toned event into chaos worthy of H.G. Wells – one further inspiration for an author who mixes genres with fearless panache in his novelistic debut.