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All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen

I have on other occasions rabbited on about the need for authors to strike a proper balance between style and substance. Get it wrong, no matter which way, and you’re in deep trouble. Well, here comes All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen (TOR, 2011). This is heralded as one of these rewrite jobs. What better source material, you may propose, than that of the old Bard himself. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, we’re off into Twelfth Night with a quick diversionary paragraph or two based on The Importance of Being Ernest by a slightly later author, Wilde by name and nature. I suppose I must formally declare it to be a form of mashup in that it conflates two sources into one and then rewrites it as a steampunk novel of the Illyrian, i.e. Victorian, era.

 

So here comes Violet Adams, a female who has the effrontery not only to be interested in science but rather above average at the practical side of it. To get into Illyria College to study with the best, she has to cross-dress as a man. In this version of reality, women are only good for having babies and then watching maids rear them. The penalty for being detected as a male impersonator is severe. Fortunately, she has a twin brother who will lend his identity for the deception, and a childhood chum who will offer her protection once inside the ivory towers. OK, so here’s the thing. As a plot set-up, how many pages should it take for our young lady to get through the doors of the college? Remember nothing really exciting can happen until circumstances inside the College offer challenges both to her gender-identity and to her prowess as an engineer first-class. The answer is that she and her friend Jack make it through the gates as students on page 88. Put another way, the characters spend 87 pages fossicking about in the hope of finding something interesting to occupy their time. Now I will concede that the Man from Avon did occasionally have quite long moments of filler content as when Porters come only slowly to open the gate. We all run a little short of something interesting to say and so must tread water until inspiration strikes. But when a novel takes some 88 pages to make a start, there’s something seriously amiss. Indeed, absolutely nothing of any real interest happens until page 115 when the initiation in the cellar gets a bit spooky. So, when I say this book is a triumph of style over substance, I’m not exaggerating. Those of you with a low boredom threshold should consider reading the Prologue to understand something of what’s going to happen, and then jumping forward to the start of Chapter VII.

Lev Rosen showing Violet Adams how it should be done

 

However, I now need to reprise yet another of my prejudices. To me, half the fun of writing is that I get the chance to say something new. While I would have no great pretension to be truly creative, I do believe I can often come up with unexpected and different ways of presenting content. I would not consider it creative to rewrite another’s work. Yet this is what I find repeatedly as I read All Men of Genius. I keep coming across bits of Shakespeare and Wilde, either in actual words but not attributed, or quietly recast to maintain the sense if not the form. We also have a more or less exact duplication of plot including a Malcolm Volio exchanging letters of a misleading character. So I find myself in a state of despair. In part, this is bewilderment that Lev AC Rosen considers it morally acceptable to pass off out-of-copyright work as if it was his own, but also that such not-quite-plagiarism should be implicitly approved by an apparently respectable publishing house. This is a TOR-Forge book and, in my opinion, publishers should not condone work like this. Most of the other mashups I have read do at least develop the original stories in different ways. This is slavishly following the originals in confusing genders and identities right up to the end. I don’t care that there are steampunk elements that offer a kind of window-dressing to distract the eye. Having the odd invisible cat brush against your legs in the dark or automata lurking dangerously in the cellar or making one of your characters actually gay (as a tip of the hat to Wilde) is not a sign of originality. In fact, the book is not so much steampunk as a kind of technomagic where things just work even though there’s no explanation or rationality involved. For example, the idea that a voice box removed from a parrot taught to speak by sailors would swear when incorporated into a mechanised bird is ludicrous.

 

When you put all this together, All Men of Genius is to be avoided. The politics on display is superficial and annoying. As with any plot based on cross-dressing, there’s no credibility. The idea that any young girl could pass herself off as a man by applying a few whiskers and adding a little padding in the nether regions is a complete nonsense. And, as a book that could have said interesting, if not subversive, things about gender politics, it’s trivial. I suppose this could indicate it was written with the Young Adult market in mind. It has many features that would mark it as appropriate for that label with young people sneaking into the world of adults and proving themselves superior. It’s a bit like the school stories Enid Blyton used to churn out where wise-beyond-their-years young ladies at, say, Mallory Towers or some equally pretentious place, are brilliant but mischievous. In this case, self-absorbed fellow students and daft professors fail to see through a disguise so transparent that several women recognise the gender switch instantly. The themes, however, might very well appeal to the wish-fulfillment fantasies of young girls who want to throw off the shackles of patriarchalism and remake the world in their own image (and get the good-looking hunk at the end). However, the author expressly denies this is intended as a YA novel and I suppose he should know. So, no matter how I try to find something good to say about this book, I come up absolutely dry. I cannot think of any redeeming features.

 

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