Book Review: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

October 5, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

By Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

Published September 15, 2009

Quirk Books

344 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74442-4

Date reviewed: October 5, 2009

After positive buzz and glowing critical reception shot “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” to the top of the New York Times bestseller list earlier this year, it came as no surprise that Quirk Books announced that it would only be the first of their new line of altered classics. What did come as a surprise was the revelation that they would not be trying the technique out on a new author but would be sticking with Jane Austen, converting her 1811 novel “Sense and Sensibility” with a nautical twist.

I admitted some doubts in my original post on the news, but chose to yield to cautious optimism for its release – and my optimism has been rewarded. Under the careful eye of Ben H. Winters, Austen’s debut work has been transmogrified into the comic horror “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” submerging her mannered work into the realms of H.P. Lovecraft and Jules Verne. The end result is a bit more extreme but still as hilarious as its predecessor.

The original “Sense and Sensibility” focused on sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, two young women whose family falls on hard times following the death of their father. Relocating with their mother and sister to an isolated cottage, the two find themselves trying to make new lives while also courting the attentions of dashing young men and noble bachelors. Possessed of a clever humor towards existing social conditions, the novel deals with the clashes between the sensible attitudes of Elinor and the more emotional instincts of Marianne.

As with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” the book does not deviate heavily from the original text but transplants their settings into a wholly alien atmosphere. Following the mysterious event known as “the Alteration,” every inhabitant of the sea has become homicidal towards land-dwellers, and humans live in fear of beasts ranging from oversized octopi to razor-fanged serpents. The Dashwoods now live in a small colony of islands after their father’s run-in with a hammerhead shark, and their supporting cast includes treasure hunters, former pirates and captured tribal princesses.

As I wrote in my “PPZ” review, I thought the book’s greatest strength was in the sheer incongruity of the setting, where the horrifying reality of the “unmentionables” did nothing to alter the social niceties and composed speech of Austen’s main characters. “Sea Monsters” continues this trend, and in many ways makes the difference even more absurdly pronounced. When Marianne’s lover vanishes her mother speculates that either his aunt has ordered him away or a pirate curse has struck him “to wander the seven seas until fate should claim him,” and in neither case seems terribly concerned. Later, Lucy Steele discusses the sad situation of her engagement to Elinor, completely unaware the latter is using an oar to fend off the two-headed Devonshire Fang-Beast trying to capsize their boat – and continuing without a beat after they return to safety.

Winters has also continued the trend of reshaping the characters with these new elements, and once again the effect accentuates their existing traits. Colonel Brandon, looked down upon for being a 35-year-old bachelor in the original version, now has an additional indignity as a sea witch’s curse has transformed his face into a mass of tentacles resembling Davy Jones from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Mrs. Jennings, once only a meddling older woman, is the former queen of a primitive island and is brashly vulgar in her manners, creating some hilarious clashes with the more proper players.

Even more than “Zombies” however, the changes made to Austen’s original text make “Sea Monsters” feel like a completely different book. Winters said in an interview that reader feedback led Quirk to request more new content, and as such the imagination runs wild with pirate attacks and undersea battles. A long-term visit to London in the original book is now set in Sub-Marine Station Beta, a vast domed city underwater where marine research takes place and giant lobsters are trained to put on shows – at least until they break their conditioning and run amok to dismember the viewing crowd. It not only embellishes, it creates a unique and rather complex setting.

This blend of Victorian manners, pirates, steampunk and aquatic monstrosities does get a little tiring after a while – possibly too ambitious with how much it can do – but the book actually manages to keep the reader riveted to the story on the strength of its horror aspect. Between mysterious chants on the island and the escalating efforts of swordfish to break Beta’s glass dome, “Sea Monsters” builds tension surprisingly well and ends many chapters with a lingering feeling of doom. It works even better as the main characters ignore all of these signs in favor of discussing engagements, building to a sense of panic at the dumb realization “what it meant that they had made their home four miles below the surface of the ocean.”

“Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” is a second success for the reinvention of old standards, proving that Quirk’s idea has not only avoided jumping the shark but managed to collar the shark and use it to rend apart half a dozen aristocrats. It’s less subtle but a positive step for the nascent genre, encouraging further experimentation and expansion into what the field can be done. Quirk’s likely to continue with these books and one hopes it adds new authors, though I wouldn’t be adverse to a third Austen to make it a trilogy. Can you say “Northanger Abbey vs. The Demonic Hordes or “Emma: Warrior Princess?”