Violet Adams wants to attend Illyria College, a widely renowned school for the most brilliant up-and-coming scientific minds, founded by the late Duke Illyria, the greatest scientist of the Victorian Age. The school is run by his son, Ernest, who has held to his father’s policy that the small, exclusive college remain male-only. Violet sees her opportunity when her father departs for America. She disguises herself as her twin brother, Ashton, and gains entry.
But keeping the secret of her sex won’t be easy, not with her friend Jack’s constant habit of pulling pranks, and especially not when the duke’s young ward, Cecily, starts to develop feelings for Violet’s alter ego, “Ashton.” Not to mention blackmail, mysterious killer automata, and the way Violet’s pulse quickens whenever the young duke, Ernest (who has a secret past of his own), speaks to her. She soon realizes that it’s not just keeping her secret until the end of the year faire she has to worry about: it’s surviving that long.
From the beginning, I was probably predisposed to being more critical than usual, simply because I’ve acted in a production of Twelfth Night and used a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest for a final project in a theatre class; I’m just a little bit invested in each play.
The steampunk and mechanical elements of the book were very cool; I loved all the different inventions Violet and others developed. I especially liked the great gear wall of Illyria, not just because it provided power for the entirety of the college, but because it had the equivalent of USB ports where students could put in their own machines to give them power. (That was one my favorite parts about the movie Avatar as well.) I also thought the author did a good job of describing all the scientific and mechanical processes that, while not explicit in explaining how everything worked, did a good job of giving the impression that all these processes were sound and made sense.
However, while I started out intrigued by the premise and enjoyed Violet’s initial actions towards getting accepted and integrated into Illyria, I started losing my interest early on. The author tried to include as many characters from each play as he could, resulting in the story feeling overcrowded. Obviously the star of the show is Viola, and her messing about with gender roles and how it feels to act like a man or a woman was handled really well. One cool thing was that Viola didn’t privilege being masculine over being feminine; she recognized each had their advantages and disadvantages and that she shouldn’t need to be one gender in order to be respected to be a good scientist. I also appreciated how the author handled Cecily, turning her into a scientific genius of her own right while keeping her romantic, emotional side intact. Thus, both she and Violet are female scientists worthy of respect, and this was awesome. But otherwise, the amount of characters and their various story lines (I’m thinking Feste, Toby, and other people on the side) felt overwhelming such that few characters given as much time and attention as each deserved.
I think part of the reason why this book didn’t come together is because, although “Twelfth Night” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” are both comedies, they’re different types of comedies. The latter is more lighthearted with the emphasis placed on the silliness of society and the light, clever nature of the language. The former derives comedy from the role and gender swaps, but it also has a darker plot element in the form of Malvolio. In combining the two plays, the author attempted to keep that darkness both through two things. One was the examinations of gender, sexuality, and race of various characters. The second was through Volio, a malicious second-year student at Illyria and the existence of a secret society intent on ruling the world through scientific genius. Both fell flat. The intended seriousness of the aforementioned examinations felt at odds with the otherwise lighthearted tone of the book Volio’s schemes and the secret society felt undercooked. If anything, it felt like Volio was constantly interrupting the story with his own bullshit, what with the love letters to Cecily and the automotons.
Essentially, the author took on a huge project in attempting to create a steampunk fusion of these two plays and attempted to include a lot more than was necessary. Honestly, I think the story could have been just as effective if it had been kept to Violet disguising herself as a man to enter Illyria, proving that women can do science, and falling in love with the duke. That alone would have been more than sufficient – Volio really wasn’t needed and felt more like a distraction than anything else.
Another indication of the disparity between the light-heartedness and the seriousness is the romance between between Violet and Ernest. Most of my problems with it are on display in the scene that propels Violet and Ernest’s attraction for each other into the spotlight. Violet, as Ashton, accuses Ernest of plagiarizing her paper for a lecture he gave, they argue, and somehow they end up kissing each other. What? Because, apparently, Violet couldn’t stop focusing on his lips and she threw herself at him. WHAT? Let’s go over the situation here. Violet is a student and Ernest is the Duke, and therefore headmaster, of Illyria College. Just these facts should have been enough for them to be aware that making out with each other would be Not Cool. But then there’s the fact that Ernest fully believes the person who’s kissing him is male and, despite the fact that Violet’s fine with her own brother’s inversion (i.e. homosexuality), she knows it’s something frowned upon by pretty much everybody else. She certainly has no idea what Ernest’s view on it is (and the reader never learns either). Violet needs to make it through Illyria for an entire year to prove girls can do science, which she can’t do if she’s expelled, which would have been practically a guarantee given what just happened and taking into account these important factors. SO WHY WOULD SHE IGNORE ALL OF THEM AND KISS ERNEST? It was the stupidest thing she did in the entire book and certainly indicated a lack of preservation instincts.
This book was ambitious and the steampunk setting was well-done, but the end result did not work for me. I realized in writing this that as I was reading, I was projecting an expectation of a more “realistic” version of a Victorian world onto a world which was probably intended to be more “victorian-esque.” Or maybe I just was really not in the mindset for comedy when I read this. Regardless, this is one of those books where I appreciated the intended final product, but the actuality wasn’t something I liked or wanted.
Disclosure – library