I had very few expectations going into this book.
But then, I couldn’t put it down.
Violet Adams, a brilliant mechanical engineer, only dreams of one thing: to attend the prestigious Illyria College, the best school in England for the sciences. The problem? It’s founder, the Duke of Illyria, has deemed it a male-only institution.
Despite the heavy competition to get in and the obvious limitation of her sex, Violet knows she can get in with brains alone. With the help of her twin brother, Ashton, she plans to pose as him for an entire year at Illyria.
But hiding her secret, even with the help of her friend and roomate, Jack, won’t be easy. Between getting into mischief with her fellow peers, unwittingly attracting the affections of the Duke’s ward, finishing her final project, and the dangerous mysteries of the college, keeping her secret may be the least of her worries.
The premise for this novel is solid. Not exactly a new idea, but solid. I like the idea of a woman promoting equality in the sciences. The cross-dressing plot line hasn’t really failed me yet (Mulan, Leviathan, Daughter of Venice), and Violet’s adventure is exciting, funny, and dramatic.
There are points, however, where the plot seems too complicated. There are so many things going on and they feel really disconnected. Part of the problem is that the main antagonist isn’t really explained well. The motives are generic and cheesy, and so they don’t really feel diabolical or clever, but rather juvenile.
The best part of the book, however, is the subterfuge, and how it makes Violet develop as a character. She struggles to fit in, and when she does, she struggles with wanting to be a lady. It’s a good way of showing how being a scientist and being a woman shouldn’t be mutually exclusive terms, because it’s clearly tearing her apart.
Individually, these are very interesting characters. Violet is intelligent and stubborn, Ashton is poetic and overprotective, Jack is sensitive and playful, Cecily is impressionable and clever, Ernest is insecure and a romantic. I also like how each student and professor we meet has a particular personality, so they are distinct and memorable.
The antagonists are pretty flat in terms of motivation and character development, but the novel’s weak point is its romantic relationships. For a book about science, it’s very bad at portraying chemistry between characters. People just sort of see each other, their basal urges kick in, and even later when they start to actually know the other person, there’s a huge focus on the physicality of the relationship. It’s rather disappointing, considering how intelligent these characters actually are.
There’s only one way I can describe Rosen’s writing style: charming. Rosen has a way of slipping in wit that reminds me of the time period he’s writing about, and I can’t help but smile at it.
The world building is a bit rocky. I like the idea of a steampunk college: learning how use clockwork, chemicals, and chimera to better the world. That’s interesting. But there’s a huge problem. Rosen tends to tell instead of show. Granted, it’s not all the time, but the mechanics of his world could be explained a little bit better.
This is part of the reason why the romance is so bad. Sentences go on and on about how people are in love with each other, without really showing the two falling in love. Violet and her love interest are often thinking about how much they want to touch each other, but Rosen never actually shows the relationship progress intellectually. Which makes no sense because everyone is an intellectual. Just give us one letter, Rosen, to show how compatible their minds are.
This book is definitely about girl power. The cast of women is quite broad in this novel, ranging from the ingenious Violet, to the independent Miriam, to the bold Fiona, to the reserved Mrs. Wilks. Their personalities are very different, but they all have a mind of their own, and I really appreciate that about this book.
There’s also a minor discussion on intelligence and how it should be used, but frankly, it really wasn’t set up well. The general idea is that intelligence doesn’t automatically mean superiority, but it really was not established well enough for me to take it seriously.
Recommendation: Read. Overall, All Men of Genius is worth the read. Sure, it’s a little disorganized and distanced at points, but it’s a fun read. Rosen’s style is charming enough to keep you reading, and the characters will endear themselves to the reader, given the chance.