Review: Eeeee Eee Eeee, by Tao Lin

>>Published: April 2007

>>Finally got around to it: August 2011

Sometimes dolphins knew other dolphins—cousins, uncles—that had died, and they said, “it is sad they died but there is nothing to do except be nice to anyone still alive.” But they themselves had not been nice. They had killed Elijah Wood, Kate Braverman, and Philip Roth—people like that. They had made promises and forgotten. One dolphin had become friends with a man with Down syndrome and the man had written the dolphin a letter and the dolphin had not responded. Another dolphin had made promises to meet a person—had promised, and promised again, a third time—and had not kept them, and it had hurt the person.

And so they said, “I need to be nicer from now on,” and went home.

***

Bears, moose and dolphins living and interacting with humans, specifically a Florida pizza delivery grunt named Andrew, their lives a collection of half thoughts broken and interrupted with diminishing returns. Anarchy, discussions about depression and Batman, and the slaying of certain celebrities whose existence within the “narrative” makes about as much sense as a garden rake with a ribbed purple vibrator on the end.

This is a first—a novel seemingly spawned not from an idea, or a need/desire/unquenchable lust to write, but from ineffectually deadpan, disaffected boredom. Tao Lin’s first novel reads less like social commentary and more as if the author is sitting in the back of the room, watching the reader and snickering quietly to himself. Eeeee Eee Eeee is minimalism in every sense of the word—from the diction used, the rationale (or total lack thereof) of its protagonist, Andrew, and a complete absence of emotional involvement. This is the literary equivalent of post-modernist art—the let’s-throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach.

Honestly, I would write more, but I can’t begin to crystallize my thoughts on this book. There is no emotional through-line, no purpose beyond embracing the absurdity of our interactions, the men and women we chase after, the jobs we do and people we associate with and bear our souls to. That conceit alone would be enough were the book more than it is—a collection of barely threaded together thoughts poured onto the page in such a staccato manner that one might be forgiven for thinking that the author, writing through the veil of social disaffection, feels even more detached from his own work.

Though I understand and respect the desire to break from the traditional form of a novel, I can’t recommend this book to anyone. The level of disaffection on display moves beyond commentary and falls into the realm of the mundane. Lin’s writing feels divided; he clearly wants to challenge the reader, but lacks the maturity to do so. As a consequence of this, Eeeee Eee Eeee never pushes past the forced entropy of so much first-year poetry and countless student films that want to tilt you back in the dentist chair and ream you out with social commentaries about homelessness and drug addiction and the harsh mistress of being a listless twenty-something trapped in the narrow confines of first-world academia.

There is likely some worthwhile criticism to be culled from Eeeee Eee Eeee, but its form and intrinsic absurdity cripples any message the author might have hoped to impart—if in fact he had a message at all. I’m almost inclined to think of the book as a test, an are-you-smart-enough-to-understand-my-genius rant concocted by the author. Whichever way it’s spun, Tao Lin’s first novel is the most frustratingly vacant book I’ve read in a long time.

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Review: Once You Break a Knuckle, by D.W. Wilson

>>To be published: September 2011

—No-good whore, he said, and Winch felt a lump in his throat he couldn’t swallow, and he watched his own fist smack his dad in the jaw, an earthy sound, like someone tapping a piece of chalk to slate.

For a moment his dad didn’t react. He touched his chin. He glanced from car to woman to boy and then back at the house, his head tilted to the ground and his left eye squinting as though puzzled. Then he shot forward and those two massive pink hands hoisted Winch from the ground.

He landed hip-first, sideways. The impact spiked down his leg. His dad fell upon him, limbs methodical. Winch battered an arm aside, absorbed a half blow with his ribs, snugged his elbow over it. He smelled beer and deodorant and cigarettes, and Winch had never known his dad to smoke.

***

Once You Break a Knuckle is a collection of semi-linear linked short stories that take place in and around the Kootenay Valley in the British Columbia interior—specifically focussing on the town of Invermere. Focussing on a small group of families, the stories trace a line partially unstuck in time—while there is a certain sense of narrative progression to the stories, much like Jennifer Egan wrote in A Visit From the Goon Squad, the tales often break from their present tense and look deep into the past or far into the future, charting the mistakes and fights and transgressions of the many protagonists from several different perspectives. The result is a collection that feels claustrophobic in its setting—intended, I’m sure, to mark the limited personalities and opportunities provided by the very blue collar way of life—but expansive in its scope, offering a wide breadth of point-of-life experiences while allowing the reader to fill in certain chronological gaps on their own by interpreting events only partially alluded to.

A central conceit of oppressive masculinity gives a sharp edge to each story in the collection. Even when written from the third person, Wilson writes in the minds and dialects of the townsmen and women. His descriptions are minimalistic, often preferring to sharpen a tooth rather than coddle the reader with his metaphors. As such, the tone of the book rarely deviates, giving it a voice of unity that most linked collections lack, preferring instead to link specifically through plot or character arcs. A recurring bit of imagery that does play through most of the stories, to varying degrees of effectiveness, is the use of knuckles—as descriptors for facial features, as evidence of pain or failure, and as a creeping disturbance to the broken nature of one’s dreams or love lost.

The back-and-forth-through-time placement of the stories in the collection works most effectively when offering us glimpses into the lives of Will and Mitch, two young boys whom we see grow into adulthood and push apart from one another throughout the course of the book. However, the strongest, most abusive of the stories—the multi-part “Valley Echo”—also feels the most out of place within the overarching narrative, if it can be called such a thing. Though its tone and style remain in tight alignment with the rest of the book, the years as seen through its protagonist Winch’s eyes, and the confusion and abuse he suffers through his drug addled absentee mother and violent disaster of a father are engrossing enough as to separate this tale from the others as something that stands strong and on its own.

Wilson writes a string of effortlessly broken men, women, boys, and girls like a child pulling apart his G.I. Joes and toying with the elastics inside. People flit in and out of each other’s lives in perfunctory, sometimes shocking ways. Women are eyed as prizes to be won from the weaker men. And strength of will—or the perception thereof—rules all. Once You Break a Knuckle is a travelogue through personal tragedy, misery, and the often-crippling inability to see one’s possibilities beyond such a tiny corner of the world.

Review: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

>>Published: August 2011

The lich let out a long, disturbing cackle that echoed off the chamber’s stone walls. “Very well!” he said. “You shall prove your worth by facing me in a joust!”

I’d never heard of an undead lich king challenging someone to a joust. Especially not in a subterranean burial chamber. “All right,” I said uncertainly. “But won’t we be needing horses for that?”

“Not horses,” he replied, stepping away from his throne. “Birds.”

He waved a skeletal hand at his throne. There was a brief flash of light, accompanied by a transformation sound effect (which I was pretty sure had been lifted from the old Super Friends cartoon). The throne melted and morphed into an old coin-operated videogame cabinet. Two joysticks protruded from its control panel, one yellow and one blue. I couldn’t help but grin as I read the name on the game’s backlit marquee: JOUST. Williams Electronics, 1982.

***

Ready Player One is a blast—a blockbuster with the light heartedness and sense of adventure of the best midsummer matinees, coupled with the extrapolated, just-believable-enough-to-be-plausible future speculation of Michael Crichton in his prime. That being said, Ernest Cline’s debut is also the most audience-specific book I have read this year. To be blunt: if you grew up wanting leg warmers and Molly Ringwald on your arm at the prom; if you sunk entire afternoons in corner convenience stores and ratty-ass pizza joints, pumping quarter after quarter into old-fashioned coin-ops running the gamut from Tempest and Pac Man to Street Fighter 2 and the Neo Geo machines of the early 90s; if you can recite, beginning to end, Airplane!, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the holiest trilogies of trilogies—Star Wars (original saga, naturally), Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones (with a healthy does of The Matrix saga for those just barely out of the book’s intended wheelhouse), this is your book.

No, let me rephrase that: this is your childhood, documented, indexed, and turned into a proto-World of Warcraft-by-way-of-Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade thriller-cum-treasure hunt.

And I fucking loved it.

Through the eccentric James Halliday, Ernest Cline has crafted a love letter to his youth and the passions of so many of us who, since childhood and into adulthood, have fully embraced quote-unquote geek culture. Halliday, a reclusive multi-billionaire, is responsible for the OASIS—a Matrix-like virtual reality simulation that closely resembles today’s massively multiplayer online role-playing games. The OASIS isn’t a simulacrum of our world, as the Matrix was intended to be. Rather it is intended, in the year 2044 in which the novel takes place, to be a release—to provide its users with a liveable, interactive escape from a world that has become horribly impoverished, its resources drained and ravaged beyond usability:

At a time of drastic social and cultural upheaval, when most of the world’s population longed for an escape from reality, the OASIS provided it, in a form that was cheap, legal, safe, and not (medically proven to be) addictive. The ongoing energy crisis contributed greatly to the OASIS’s runaway popularity. The skyrocketing cost of oil made airline and automobile travel too expensive for the average citizen, and the OASIS became the only getaway most people could afford. As the era of cheap, abundant energy drew to a close, poverty and unrest began to spread like a virus. Every day, more and more people had reason to seek solace inside Halliday and Morrow’s virtual utopia.

Upon Halliday’s death, the secret to his fortune was hidden as an Easter Egg within the OASIS, locked behind three keys leading to three challenge gates, all obscured by 1980s pop culture riddles, references, and minutia. Halliday, like Cline, was a child of the 80s—a devotee of Rush, of Spielberg and Zemeckis adventures, of classic videogames from every arcade cabinet and home console ever created. Through his obsessions and cultural impact, Halliday’s life and death spawned an unceasing interest in the man, right down to the common practice of dissecting his life and living one’s own through his interests—meaning memorizing every episode The A-Team, or Silver Spoons, understanding the properties of countless mech-and-giant-monster-based Japanese animes, and knowing that when you hear a pair of coconuts clapped behind you, you’re reliving a Monty Python classic. Obsession over Halliday’s life is even responsible for Oologists—technicians within the dominant competing online corporation who have spent their professional careers in service to learning everything there is, was, and could ever be known about the legend himself, James Halliday. To the victor of Halliday’s Easter Egg hunt not only goes his vast fortune, but control of the OASIS as well. For the IOI corporation, controlling the OASIS means controlling the largest untapped source of potential revenue the world has ever seen. To the book’s protagonist, Wade Watts, victory means escape from poverty, and the opportunity to retain Halliday’s vision and keep the OASIS free to play for everyone around the world. The treasure hunt that follows—complete with a Henry Jones Sr.-esque grail diary—quickly envelops the OASIS, and Halliday’s passions are the clues to stopping a war that threatens every avatar within the game’s numerous worlds.

Ready Player One doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. This book isn’t going to redefine future speculative fiction by any stretch, and like this year’s other much-hyped blockbuster, Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse, it doesn’t bring anything terribly new to the table. However, unlike Robopocalypse, Ready Player One has a strong sense of pacing that is bolstered by very likeable characters, snappy dialogue, and more than a few moments of genuine hilarity. Some may be put off by the constant and well-embedded 80s and 90s references to media and pop culture, but they feel at home within the world Cline has crafted.

That’s not to say all is puppy dogs and rainbows within Ready Player One; the odd reference feels forced and there are moments—the prologue included—in which the exposition unimaginatively dumps information into the reader’s lap. Not to mention that the depth of Wade’s apparent hacker/manipulative abilities—inside and outside of the OASIS—never fails to amaze. However convenient or shoehorned a few of these items may feel, their inclusion never upsets the narrative or betrays the characters, and Ready Player One presses on to its conclusion at an impressive, addictive clip.

Clearly, I am this book’s intended audience. I was born in 1981 and lived a great many years of my youth in front of the arcade cabinets at my local Mac’s convenience store, in the arcade at Willowbrook Mall in Langley, BC, and in front of too many Nintendo systems to count; I have spent entire days and weeks marathoning sci-fi and fantasy films, books, and comics from the age of five onward; even now I maintain a strong longing for the items of my youth—for what they meant to me, how they helped develop me into the person I am today, and how they’ve sparked my imagination in innumerable ways. I was sold on this book from premise alone, but premise is not enough if the writing or characters or plot are completely without care. Thankfully, that is not the case with Ready Player One.

This is an excellent summer read. It isn’t great literature; it won’t change your world or ignite any sort of philosophical discussion amongst readers, and the writing sometimes leans too far into the rather clunky realm of telling and not showing. But what it does—what it strikes out to achieve—it does very well, and I was engaged in Wade Watts’ ever-deepening journey into the mind of James Halliday until the very end. But be warned: unless you’ve travelled down to One-Eyed Willy’s lair with an asthmatic Sean Astin and an inhaler at your side, or fist-pumped the air like Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club, Ready Player One might leave you in the dark.

For the rest of us geeks? Bliss.

Review: Sulphuric Acid, by Amélie Nothomb

>>Published (in French): 2005

>>Published (in English): 2007

>>Finally got around to it: August 2011

She would be God in every respect. It was no longer a matter of creating the universe: too late, damage done. Basically, once creation was accomplished, what was the task of God? Probably that of a writer when his book is published: publicly to love his text, to receive compliments, jeers and indifference on its behalf. To confront certain readers who denounce the work’s shortcomings when, even if they are right, it would be impossible to change it. To love it to the bitter end. That love was the sole concrete help that one would be able to bring to it.

***

Concentration. It’s the reality television program that sweeps the world in Amélie Nothomb’s Sulphuric Acid: a genuine death camp where relentlessly vicious prison guards—kapos—feed their innocent, plucked-off-the-street prisoners flavourless, colourless gruel, strip them of their identities, beat them at random, then execute them one by one. The ratings shoot through the roof, and Concentration quickly becomes television’s greatest hit—not only for the excitement that death can inspire amongst a viewing audience, but because of a young woman known first as CKZ 114, then as Pannonique.

Sulphuric Acid is several things at once: it is a dark satire of our reality TV-obsessed culture that seems to derive the most pleasure from backstabbing, embarrassment and defeat; it is a commentary about identity—which aspects of identity are most sought after and embellished in a fame-centric society, and which are carved away and pushed beneath the rug; and it is a further exploration into a favourite topic of Nothomb’s—the individual as God, or at the very least, the creator in charge of their existence and the existence of others.

The final point is the most salient. Through Pannonique’s experiences, Nothomb explores the individual without identity—and not just void of identity the way a prisoner or captive might be regarded in the eyes of a stranger, but to have had that sense of self removed for the purpose of entertainment. From the very beginning, Pannonique is given a quiet demeanour that, when paired with her unique appearance and one kapo’s somewhat confused lust for the prisoner, catapults her into a position of influence. She’s immediately thrust into the role of an icon—a target for the kapos, a curiosity for the excitable public, and a symbol of hope for her fellow captives. As the sole prisoner willing and able to reclaim her name—and with it a part of her identity—Pannonique begins to see herself as an agent of change. Not just within the confines of the death camp, but to inspire enough self-loathing in the viewing public as to challenge what has come to be accepted as “entertainment”:

‘Viewers, switch off your televisions! You are the guiltiest of all! If you didn’t provide this monstrous programme with such a huge audience, it would have gone out of existence long ago! You are the true kapos! And when you watch us die, your eyes are our murderers! You are our prison, you are our torture!’

Sulphuric Acid is a departure from some of Nothomb’s more directly self-reflective work that feels more in line conceptually with Hygiene and the Assassin as an investigation into the purposes of morality and the role icons play to our cultural inventiveness and well being. Still, the theme of the individual as God continues to be of fascination to Nothomb, as it was in The Character of Rain, and she finds new ways to challenge her philosophical approach through the positioning of Pannonique as less an avatar for herself and more of a question to the public at large: what are we willing to part with to be entertained?

Review: Harmony, by Project Itoh

>>Published (in Japanese): 2008

>>Published (in English): July 2010

>>Finally got around to it: August 2011

“And the successor to that Catholic dogma? Believe it or not, it’s us, with our all-benevolent health-obsessed society. Bodies once received from God are, under the rules of a lifeist admedistrative society, public property. God doesn’t own us anymore, everyone does. Never before in history has ‘the importance of life’ been such a loaded term.”

Miach was right, of course.

And that was why we had to die.

Because our lives were being made too important.

Because everyone was too concerned about everyone else.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to simply die. We had to die in a way that made a mockery of the health regime we were supposed to uphold by law. At least, that was what we thought back then.

***

As a Brave New World-esque satire of the utopian/dystopian formula, Project Itoh’s Harmony treads disturbing waters through the approach of death being the instigating factor that can offer change for entire social trajectories. Not just death, in fact, but murder and suicide, specifically.

Taking place mostly in a Japan of the somewhat-near future, Harmony envisions a world that has at once sterilized and commodified itself. Following the Maelstrom—the much alluded to nuclear holocaust that nearly wiped out humanity—admedistrations have taken over, treating the health and welfare of citizens as tasks guided by perfectionism. However, all is not well in a medically infused wonderland. Three young women—Miach Mihie, Cian Reikado, and the protagonist, Tuan Kirie—decide, at Miach’s insistence, to challenge the admedistrations and the WatchMe technology that monitors their bodies and minds by committing suicide. They intend to starve themselves to take back their bodies—to own their physical and emotional selves in a way that the admedistrations have all but made impossible. Though the attempt is mostly a failure, it pushes Tuan down a contradictory path as a World Health Organization officer who delights in punishing her body through nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine, which can still be found and acquired in other nations. When Cian re-enters Tuan’s life and their suicide pact is recalled, events unfold that may threaten to not only topple their admedistration-focused society, but to transform the face of the world.

Employing an HTML mark-up style for memories, emotions, and internal questions, Itoh constructs Harmony as a potentially dishonest narrative—especially given then the book’s welcome yet disheartening conclusion. At first the HTML styling seems cumbersome, disrupting the book’s rhythm with point-form lists. By the book’s conclusion, the HTML styling serves a dual purpose: first, it enforces the pervasiveness of the admedistrations and the WatchMe programming; second, upon completion, it offers a possible alternate meaning to the entire novel, one predicated on the possibility that it has been less a mystery and more a cautionary retelling of events, to instil fear of “unhealthy” motivations in the minds of a technologically placated society. It’s a unique reversal of perspective that feels earned and not in any way meant to pull the rug out from beneath the feet of the readers.

The subject matter of Harmony seems especially prescient given our growing obsession with health, and more importantly, misdirected fear over what is and is not indicative of health. Starvation and gluttony are the parallels most employed in Harmony, perhaps as it is for Miach, Cian and Tuan, because they are two of the least visible ways in which these girls could, at such a young age, attempt to destroy their bodies. Itoh is also making a clear statement that these associative problems are legion, and their impact on children—especially young women—in the future will be as persuasive and deadly as it is today, given the force by which the culture in power seeks to reconcile its own bodily fears and misconceptions.

Harmony works as much as a commentary on current and future health and social practices as it does a story of friendship found, manipulated, and destroyed beyond any point of return. Perhaps most unnerving, given the story’s admedistrative totalitarianism, is knowing that Project Itoh finished this novel while in the hospital, dying of cancer. He passed away in 2009. Harmony is his final work.

Review: Greedy Little Eyes, by Billie Livingston

>>Published: June 2010

>>Finally got around to it: August 2011

Alice told me one night after our father had gone to bed that she’d been thinking maybe this wasn’t right, this business of having multiple lovers. Forty, fifty? How many lovers would she have by the time she was done? She’d be so far into the triple digits, she’d need an abacus to keep track.

Peering into my eyes she added, “There’s no joy in frivolous sex, Angie. I’m lonesome.”

Suddenly self-conscious, I wondered if my envy was always this apparent.

“Maybe I never should have gone with girls at all,” she said. “The Universe is about miracles, and creativity and life. Two girls can’t create life. Two girls… must make no sense to God.”

***

Billie Livingston populates Greedy Little Eyes with tiny, independent disasters—the wreckage and detritus of our daily trespasses, errors in judgement, and complete and utter fuck-ups. From an unstable grasshopper-collecting, wife-murdering uncle, through a possible kleptomaniac, prescription drug-addicted job hunter; backdropped against the Pickton pig farm massacres, nursing homes, shopping centre hostage situations and performance art catastrophes at the Vancouver Art Gallery; through the eyes of those suffering sexual addictions, mental and emotional confusion, and spontaneously-adopted religious piety, nothing in Greedy Little Eyes could be called neat or tidy.

Livingston isn’t interested in tying together loose narrative strands or offering firm conclusions to any of her stories. She’s more interested in the dissection, the pulling apart of tendons without concern for what might be found beneath the first few levels of skin and blood and bone. The result is a collection of stories that hits like a sack of nickels, turning and walking away from the crime without bothering to offer a wet towel for your broken lip.

Set primarily in Vancouver and surrounding areas, with the occasional detour to a New York hotel and locations between, Livingston’s constructed worldview is one that takes the road less written about at every opportunity—never content to follow the path of least resistance. She’s more interested in showing us the life of the daughter who flounders and flails and experiments with sex, religion and parenthood while her instability grows and festers like a cancer, not the life of the one who watches and picks up the pieces of afterbirth with each successive life retooled and reassigned.

Greedy Little Eyes was the winner of this year’s Danuta Gleed Literary Award for short fiction, and it’s not difficult to see why. Livingston’s tendency to walk away from the messes she’s left behind gives these stories a harder edge than most. She’s willing to let the narratives breathe on their own, with or without her presence at the end. There’s confidence in that approach, and it reinforces the diversity and strength of the personal disasters she’s chosen to display. As with all short fiction collections, certain stories are stronger than others—“Before I Would Ever Hurt You”, “Make Yourself Feel Better”, “Did You Grow Up With Money”, and “Georgia, It’s Me” are the standouts—but there are no weak links to Billie Livingston’s surprisingly sane madhouse of characters.

Greedy Little Eyes is not for everyone. The stories are rife with murder, suicide, abuse, exploitation, and a strong amount of sexual/religious/mental confusion. They benefit from this very naked approach, but the harshness of many of the realities in this book, and the manner in which the reader is often left hanging in the thick of an uncomfortable occurrence, might turn some readers off. There are many tonal similarities to Julie Booker’s Up Up Up, released earlier this year. To lovers of that title, Greedy Little Eyes comes highly recommended.

Review: All Men of Genius, by Lev AC Rosen

>>To be published: October 2011

Jack laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“That all you would see in flowers are scientific principles,” he said, “even when a man tried to show you their beauty.”

“But that is their beauty,” Violet said, pursing her lips. “Really, I don’t know what it is with your gender, that they must divide science and beauty into separate fields. As if the stars and planets themselves are lovely, but to map the way they turn takes that away from them. In my opinion, the way a planet spins only adds to its beauty.”

“Perhaps you are right,” Jack said.

“Of course I’m right,” Violet said.

***

Violet Adams is a genius. She is also a woman. In Lev AC Rosen’s variant steampunk-inspired Victorian-era London, this caries with it certain limitations—chief among them, the ability to gain entry into one of the world’s foremost scientific institutions, Illyria College. Thus, with aid from her brother Ashton, an “invert” with a penchant for their carriage driver, Antony, and their mutual, lustful companion, Jack, Violet embarks on a year-long scheme to not only gain entry into the college of Illyria by becoming a young man in both dress and mannerisms, but to take the school, its faculty, and her fellow students by storm. She aims to cement herself in their eyes as one of the greatest inventors of their age, and then to reveal herself to them as a member of the supposedly weaker sex—one that, for a variety of reasons (not limited to the distraction a woman would be suspected of causing for the other male students), has never before been allowed entry into the student populace.

Claiming inspiration from both The Importance of Being Earnest and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, All Men of Genius wears its social and aesthetic trappings with pride. Rosen writes his characters with extreme delicacy, constructing a cast of characters that at once is familiar yet unique unto itself. Throughout the book, hints to other literary venues reveal themselves in tiny increments: the individual professors and their marked, Harry Potter-esque mannerisms (the stuttering, cowardly Curio; the brusque and abusive Bracknell; the slightly dim-witted, partially mechanized Bunburry); the partially developed subplot of Curio’s chemically-induced Jekyll and Hyde personality conflict. Though some of these elements bear a resemblance to the works of others, Rosen is adept at skewing their personalities enough to stand on their own, strong and wholly realized within the world he has crafted.

The world itself is another accomplishment. Rather than embrace the full spectrum of clichés that has dogged the steampunk genre in recent years, Rosen peppers his world with modest accoutrements—essentials, here and there, to enforce the revisionist history of his vision of London (airships, a proliferation of clockwork configurations and contraptions, automata that are capable of functioning and mimicking human actions). The end result is a more accessible variation of the steampunk genre, one that offers a missing link of accessibility—elements of this world can be traced to our own with considerably less effort and suspension of disbelief than others of its ilk.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the story is the relaxed way in which Rosen discusses homosexuality, or “invert” status. Through several relationships, including a rather complicated love triangle between Ernest, the Duke of Illyria, and both of Violet’s gendered personas, Rosen introduces but never lingers on the discussion of homosexuality and the social mistrust it entails in his alternate Victorian-era London. Instead of approaching the subject with a limited, predictable hand, one that could be used to mirror the issue of sexuality with the struggle for acceptance it still faces today, Rosen uses it more as a tool for further dismantling the highly stratified existence of his world and Violet’s actions to cross such barriers.

Though creative and engaging on several levels, All Men of Genius does have a few flaws. The book’s primary antagonist, the bullish and manipulative Malcolm Volio, feels somewhat underdeveloped, which makes his murderous intentions in the novel’s climax feel a little more vicious than he was seemingly capable of. Additionally, the Society that is alluded to on several occasions, which seeks to overthrow the Queen and establish the dominance of intellectual, scientific men over all others, remains largely in the shadows, implying a larger plot that, one hopes, will reveal itself in further entries in this series. Lastly, and this is a very minor complaint, some of the book’s relationships feel too tightly and unrealistically resolved by the conclusion, leading me to feel as if Rosen wanted to clear his slate of all detritus should he decide to write a follow-up. That being said, my criticisms do not detract from the wonderment of Illyria, nor do they misrepresent the playfulness of the characters and the conflicted game of identity transposition Violet has chosen to engage in.

While All Men of Genius occasionally suffers from its inspirations, Rosen’s novel remains sure-footed and confident enough to stand on its own as a welcome entry into the steampunk genre—one that uses the conventions of its genre to its advantage through restraint, offering a strong, character-focused narrative that does not suffocate under the weight of its own aesthetic ambitions.