Viola Adams has a gift for invention, and the best way to hone her skills is by attending the prestigious Illyria College. Illyria only accepts male students, so of course she masquerades as a boy to attend. While there, she runs into wacky professors, sinister clockwork automatons, and the far-too-sexy-for-her-good Duke. While she and the Duke battle their attraction for each other (he assuming she's a boy, she wanting to focus on her inventions), the Duke's ward Cecily falls in love with Viola. Meanwhile, one of Viola's fellow students plans to take over the world!
It's a bit like Twelfth Night mixed up in a blender with the Importance of Being Ernest, except without the transversive sexual tension of the first or the humor of either. The world building is odd--I could never tell exactly when it was supposed to take place. Judging from Ada Lovelace's age, it should be 1882, but it never felt like it, not even close. All historical details are kept very vague, which is frustrating to someone like me when reading an alternate history. I want to know exactly what's alternate about it! The steampunk feels pasted on, and it works like magic, not science. For someone supposedly obsessed with mechanical devices, Viola certainly thinks about them very little. She doesn't seem to learn a thing at Illyria, either--she spends all her days working on her own project, without needing professors' help, and her nights drinking with friends. Why then go to such effort to attend the college? She's never challenged, never has to study hard or singe her fingers on a mis-wired fiddly bit. Her inventing feels like a set piece, or like a randomly assigned character trait.
(One big point in this book's favor: it would have been very easy for Viola to be the Sole Exceptional Woman, but in fact she's surrounded by other women, from the girlish chemist Cecily to the sensible prostitute Fiona. There were, if anything, *too many* characters, but a good number of them were women.)
The plot is silly, like the professors are silly, in this very consciously twee style that apes Lemony Snicket's without approaching his light touch. There's no narrative tension, and the pacing is soooo slooooow. I really, really wanted to like this book, but the construction was just too lightweight and slapdash. I'd love to read a silly book with gender play and marauding robots, but with characters that read more genuinely, and humor that actually works.