Seventeen-year-old Violet Adams, a brilliant inventor of mechanical devices and automata, disguises herself as her twin brother Ashton so that she can attend London's famous (and male-only) Illyria College, which specializes in the sciences. The masquerade becomes somewhat more uncomfortable when the school's headmaster, Duke Ernest of Illyria, begins to have unsettling feelings regarding "Ashton," as does his beautiful young ward and cousin, Cecily Worthing, who is herself pursued by Violet's childhood friend and fellow student, Jack Feste. Meanwhile, the sinister second-year student Malcolm Volio plots to seize control both of the school and Cecily. Those conversant with both plays will have a fairly good idea of the role each character will assume and how the story will go. The steampunk story line, involving a secret cabal of scientists seeking world domination, climaxing in chaos at the Crystal Palace and the expected cameo by Queen Victoria, may seem equally familiar to many readers. The lack of surprises is somewhat ameliorated by a multitude of amusing allusions to the novel's sources, especially Bunburry, the constantly ailing and entirely imaginary friend in Earnest
, who's transformed into a very real and incredibly accident-prone scientist. (It is unfortunate that Lady Augusta Bracknell, the imperiously witty matriarch who provides Earnest
's best lines, is morphed into a foul-mouthed, oafish astronomy professor.) Rosen writes with color and verve, particularly in his descriptions of mechanical marvels, and also offers moments of unexpected poignancy, such as the sad history of Cecily's governess Miriam, whose characterization far exceeds the depth of her initial inspirations, Earnest
's ditzy Miss Prism and Twelfth Night
's comic maid Maria.
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