In a steam-punk era, where technology progresses by leaps and bounds, women still wear corsets, Victoria is Queen of England, and women do not yet have the right to vote, 17 year old Viola Adams is a brilliant inventor who wishes to attend Illyria College, an exclusive, and exclusively male bastion of scientific adventure. Her twin brother, Ashton, agrees to help her disguise herself as a young man and apply to the college under his name. To Violet's delight and terror, she is accepted, and a year that will change their lives and shape the future of science begins.
It turns out Violet is not the only woman at Illyria: the Duke's ward, 16 year old Cecily, herself an astonishingly accomplished chemist, attends classes with the young men of genius; and Cecily's godmother, none other than the celebrated, and notorious, Lady Ada Byron, makes frequent visits and gives guest lectures.
Assisted in her ruse by life-long friend and fellow classmate, Jack Feste, Violet holds her own in friendships with second year students Toby Belch and Drew Pale: the four of them, plus Cecily's governess, the widow Miriam, go drinking in local taverns and explore the dark maze under the college, where invisible cats, hidden chambers of secrets, and an army of murderous mechanisms march the corridors. Violet's plan to prove that genius needs to be recognized and welcomed, no matter the form it wears, is complicated by her unexpected attraction to Duke Ernest, and his for her - in both her forms. To tangle the threads further, Cecily falls in love with Violet's alter-ego; "Ashton" is, after all, kind and friendly, the first young man to take an interest in her as a fellow scientist instead of a pretty face! Danger threatens them all, for upperclassman Malcolm Volio regards himself as the true heir to Illyria, by virtue of his father's secret alliance with the former Duke's plan for world domination, and Mal Volio wants to bring that plan to fulfillment, with himself in control of metal armies, and Cecily by his side.
Here is a fabulous reworking of one of Shakespeare's best plays, Twelfth Night, delightfully seasoned with whiffs of Harry Potter and extracts from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest. There are, for example, besides the Ernest-Cecily-Jack scenario, such elements as muffins, banter, an afflicted friend named Bunbury, a significant handbag that converts into a perambulator, and a foul-mouthed talking rabbit named Oscar. (Jack Feste experiments with organ transplants across species, and he put a sailor's parrot's voice-box in a bunny.) The status of inverts is presented sympathetically in the form of Violet's brother, the poetic Ashton, and his handsome lover. Secondary characters, including an actress who wants a better life, a frustrated housekeeper, and a professor afflicted with involuntary transformations, are also well portrayed with compelling storylines of their own.
Of all the steam-punk literature to be published in the last seven years, this is quite possibly the masterpiece. Cleverly plotted, well-written, sympathetic, this celebration of love and human inventiveness is a book to enjoy mightily.