Book Review: Dreadfully Ever After

June 15, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After

By Steve Hockensmith

Published March 22, 2011

Quirk Books

320 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74502-1

Reviewed June 14, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a franchise in possession of good fortune must be in want of more success. Certainly you can say this is true of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – taking what could have been a throwaway idea of meshing classic literature with today’s popular culture, Quirk Books managed to transform it into to a startlingly good novel that played its source material for just the right level of comic effect. They capitalized on this success with involvement in other classic authors (though the narrative success hasn’t been as strong there) and a potential movie installment that still holds a lot of potential but is sadly bogged down in development hell at the moment.

As a storyline, the original idea still stands up on its own merits – by my estimation at least – and so I was heartened to see that it hasn’t succumbed to the plague of success and sequel dilution. Quirk followed the innovation of “PPZ” with a surprisingly competent prequel novel in “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” and has now bookended it with a direct sequel in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.” And much like its predecessors, “Dreadfully Ever After” continues to strike the right balance and turn out an end product that works both as an adaptation and as a stand-alone zombie narrative.

Timing-wise, it evenly spaces the three books apart, being set four years after the events of the original “PPZ.” In the time since that installment, the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy has become strained under the forced retirement of Elizabeth’s blades – “quieted by that force more powerful than any warrior” as it said in the first book’s close – and her ambivalence towards having children. Before she and Darcy can come to any sort of resolution, a stray zombie child gets its fangs into Darcy’s neck and appears to seal their marriage to end with his decapitation. However, Darcy’s aunt – the vengeful Catherine de Bough – claims to have access to a remedy, and all it will require is Elizabeth to not only surrender care of Darcy but risk her honor and her very life to cure him.

“Dreadfully Ever After” comes from Steve Hockensmith, author of the “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” and as such the book maintains the narrative coherence of the last installment. The action moves to London – now a segmented city to defend its nobility from dreadful attack, with parks and manors on the other side of a wall from slums and plague – and continues the intersection of Victorian nobility with the deadpan unmentionable dispatch. The series’ trend of introducing outlandish humor also continues, with some occasionally gratingly silly bits like casting the “dandies” and the “fops” of London’s aristocracy as rival gangs and dreadfuls chasing an Irishman to replace greyhounds chasing a rabbit. And again, much like “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” it remains a step behind the original “PPZ” without the benefit of Austen’s original text to modify – the language is still designed to emphasize the incongruous manners with shambling hordes, but feels like it’s straining a bit to reach the original’s heights.

Yet in many ways, “Dreadfully Ever After” feels better than “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” as if Hockensmith has learned from experience and avoided that book’s failings. The overly obnoxious version of Mrs. Bennet is almost completely absent save for the last chapter, and out of the new characters none of them match the cartoonish quality of the first installment’s Lord Lumpley. In addition to Darcy and Lady Catherine several characters from Austen’s original text return, and are used in a way that strengthens the story – particularly the addition of Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne, Darcy’s intended bride who’s even more unsettling than the dreadfuls.

And while it’s not adapted Austen level anymore, there’s still passages that describe the zombie horde in proper, almost poetic detail. A scattered zombie horde is “fresh next to rancid, rag-shrouded beside fashionably clothed, all united in the democracy of death,” and a particularly accurate swing of a ninja’s sword splits “the skull and neck open… like the blooming of some viscous red blossom.”

Hockensmith’s real achievement beyond this is that even after two books in the series, he’s found some new ground to cover. Rather than try to force Elizabeth through a personal grinder yet again, the book mostly uses her story to drive the plot and focuses its narrative energy on her sisters Kitty and Mary. Free of Lydia’s flighty influence, Kitty is trying to find out what sort of person she is, and it comes to a surprise that she doesn’t like being seen as silly as much as she once did. And Mary, having erected further walls as her sisters are married off, manages to have a few chinks in her armor thanks to an unusual ally. These two were mostly supplemental to the tribulations of Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia in previous installments (and in the original Austen novel, if I’m not mistaken), but here they feel like real characters with legitimately interesting romantic arcs – especially considering the two talk their feelings over in between splitting the skills of dreadfuls.

But that’s not the only way “Dreadfully Ever After” gets into the minds of the dreadfuls. In spending time with Darcy as he fights off the undead taint sweeping through his body, the book actually broaches relatively untouched ground in zombie literature by showing how the undead see the world and depicting how painful warring with its compulsions can be – dreams filled with steaks garnished with fingers, every life form all the way down to spiders emitting a radiance you just want to reach out and touch. And a late chapter focused on average zombie Mr. Crickett in his pursuit of a meal fit for a king is a bit of a stylistic departure, but one that’s the funniest part of the book (and evokes fond memories on my part of the game Stubbs The Zombie).

It’s not a novel that will win over any new fans – and if you were turned off by the concept at the start this won’t be what lures you back – but as a third installment to the saga of the zombie-slaying Bennets “Dreadfully Ever After” makes a very respectable close. As someone who was a curious observer and turned into an involved reader, I’m satisfied to see that Hockensmith was able to turn it into a trilogy, and flaws aside it’s a set I’m pleased to have sitting on my shelf.


Book Review: Android Karenina

June 8, 2010

Android Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters

Published June 8, 2010

Quirk Books

538 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74460-2

Reviewed June 8, 2010

It’s now been a little over a year since the literary mash-up genre made its way into the public spotlight, and in that time the marriage of popular culture with public domain has had its share of ups and downs. It began strongly with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a title that sounded like a throwaway joke but exceeded expectations by cleverly using its undead graft to enhance the original’s story rather than replace it. The series continued to expand through Austen with reasonable success, adding deep sea mythology with “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and creating a prequel to their first entry in the fanfiction-esque “Dawn of the Dreadfuls.”

But while the first three titles opened to favorable reviews, the introduction of “PPZ” has had some rather unpleasant aftershocks. Its success led to a string of derivative books with exceedingly silly titles, which might hold up on their own but seemed to cheapen the mash-up idea simply by their very existence. This could also be reflected in various parody titles suggested online, which as time went on sadly seemed to sound more reasonable as suggestions for upcoming releases.

As I suggested previously, I thought that the reason for this was that that Quirk and others were dwelling too heavily on Jane Austen and zombies, and that they would be better suited expanding into new authors and genres. But as it turns out, that may not have been to the genre’s benefit, as the Quirk Classics’ fourth installment “Android Karenina” is their first major malfunction. While they have taken my advice by changing authors to Leo Tolstoy and genres to steampunk, the main casualty of the shift is the spirit that made the originals so successful.

“Android Karenina” follows the established formula for mash-ups by not deviating too heavily from the original’s core structure. Set in 19th century Russia, it paints a broad picture of a series of members of the Russian aristocracy and the culture surrounding them, centering around two love stories. On one hand is the affair between the elegant noblewoman Anna Karenina and the proud soldier Count Vronsky; and on the other is the courtship of young Kitty by the country gentleman Levin.

The extra element to the story comes with a literal element, the miraculous groznium, which has advanced technology by leaps and bounds. Great grav trains glide between Russian cities on magnetic rails, citizens skate on electromagnetic ice patches and waltz above the floor on high-powered air jets, and beloved-companion robots offer reassurance and replay footage of memories to their high-society owners.

In my “SSM” review I argued that the book’s main weakness was the fact that it was trying to introduce too many ideas – pirates, deep-sea monsters, steampunk tech to name a few – and “Android Karenina” feels even more bloated with content. Beyond the technology, there is a terrorist organization called UnConSciya undermining the government with sabotage dangerous insect-like “koschei” machines; the rumored existence of “Honored Guests” who are revealed to be hideous reptilian creatures trying to take over the Earth; and the discussed possibility of time travel that eventually comes together in a twist ending worthy of lesser M. Night Shymalan films. Each of these additions brings in various action scenes, which author Ben H. Winters (of “SSM”) renders competently but which feel more preposterous the longer one reads.

These elements aren’t deal-breakers on their own, but the critical failing of them is that they actually detract from the original – every time I feel real interest in the characters or setting, something outlandish completely breaks the flow. Anna is riding home on the train, considering the strange feelings Vronsky inspires in her despite her life as a wife and mother, when all of a sudden koschei attack the train and attempt “to plunge [their] heart-sucking electrode antenna into the chambers of her heart.” Kitty, pining away over tuberculosis and a broken heart, is recommended to go abroad by the doctor – and “thus were the Scherbatskys blasted into space.”

Granted, none of the titles in the mash-up field are intended to be taken seriously in the full definition of the word, but there was a strange sense of legitimacy to “Android Karenina’s” predecessors. “PPZ” kept Austen’s mannerisms and social context intact, with the zombie infestation seen as part of life they all grew accustomed to. “SSM” was more deliberately fantastical, but still managed to create a legitimate setting where the world had adapted to the “Ascension” and added new elements – remote cottages replaced with islands, London replaced by Sub-Marine Station Beta. In “Android Karenina,” the additions just feel silly at best and detrimental at worst – even the titular androids feel like mere simplifications of the original text, devices to personify character traits or voice internal dialogue.

This could also be attributed to the fact that Tolstoy, one of the legendary Russian writers and considered by some the greatest novelist of all time, is a far different animal to Jane Austen. I have not read all of the original “Anna Karenina” myself, but TLOTE’s own “Classical Anna” has and discussed it in great detail, praising it for “smooth and clear” prose with details “carefully picked to draw readers further into the world.” Tolstoy’s world is much more nuanced than Austen’s, a sprawling epic of complicated individuals where alterations resonate all the deeper – and the alterations made by Winters never seem to work in tandem with the source.

Overall, Tolstoy might not have been the best choice for adaptation – a choice made markedly clear because the mash-up is taking more from the original than it gives. At 538 pages “Android Karenina” is roughly as long as the first two Quirk Classics installments combined, but even at that length it’s still 300 pages shorter than contemporary translations of the original text. Several chapters have been edited down or removed entirely, and while the ones removed don’t seem to hurt the story (based on cursory review) there’s no telling how much characterization and context was stripped away as a result.

“Andoid Karenina” is a book that really doesn’t feel able to justify its existence – it adds nothing to Tolstoy appreciation, to the steampunk genre or to the mash-up movement it is trying to continue. It has a few curiosities here and there, but is for the most part taking a very sturdy framework and adding annoying bells and whistles that detract from the original’s effectiveness. Does this mean that it’s time to put this fledgling genre down? I’m not willing to go that far yet, but I will urge Quirk Classics to think twice if their next effort plans to put lasers or vampires into “War and Peace.”


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?”


News Update: Quirk Books announces next classic mash-up

July 15, 2009

After keeping fans in suspense for the last few months, the wait is finally over: Quirk Books has announced the next title in their “Quirk Classics” series of literary re-imaginings, following on the excellent “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

The winner? Might actually be a bit of a surprise:

Sense_Sensibility_SeaMonsters

The new title, “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” is a remake of another Jane Austen novel, this one weaving Victorian manners and social breeding with the nautical images of kraken, pirates, sharks and other denizens of the deep. The book is scheduled to be released on September 15 of this year.

My take on this? Well, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” is one of my favorite books of all time, and I thought the imagery of the Flying Dutchman crew was one of the only factors keeping the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels from sliding into “Matrix” sequel-level mediocrity. Still don’t understand why so many people are fascinated with the Cthulu mythos, but I do give the imagery credit for inspiring so many T-shirts and RPGs.

Anyway, I think the expansion to sea monsters is a great stylistic choice on their part,with room for expansion into fields ranging from a great battle with a kraken to giant lobster claws ripping waistcoats asunder. The imagery concocted is inspired, and there is a fountain of information to draw off of. Additionally, it’s more creative than I was expecting, and keeps the series alive rather than sliding into too much meme territory – yes there will be pirates, but it promises to be more creative than that.

I am a little disappointed that they’re sticking with Jane Austen again rather than trying out a new author, but for a new franchise like this it’s probably best not to stray too far out of the comfort zone for risk of using up all your ideas. Plus it does keep my “Tale of Two Cities” steampunk project open.

Speaking of authors, one change is that this project will be handled not by Seth Grahame-Smith of PPZ, but by Ben H. Winters, best known for his work on the “Worst-Case Scenario” series of books. I remain slightly concerned that switching horses will make for a marked difference, but as long as they keep to formula of the first one – not dramatically altering the original work, making the changes fit in with the themes and characters – it shouldn’t be too hard to mess up. Winters does say that the “monster-to-Austen ratio” will be higher in this book, but being only a 10 percent shift there’s not real room for alarm.

Plus, Grahame-Smith’s absence means he will be free to work on his upcoming release “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a title I’m possibly looking forward to even more than the new Quirk Classic.

Well, for right now I’m going to regard this project as one of the most anticipated releases for the fall, and will look forward to getting my hands on it. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly recommend that you watch their announcement trailer as many times as you possibly can.

Les Chappell is open to discussing any ideas for his Dickensian steampunk project. Currently brainstorming guillotine advancements.


Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

May 4, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

ppz-cover

By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Published April 1, 2009

Quirk Books

320 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74334-7

Date reviewed: May 4, 2009

It’s hard to imagine a 2009 title more anticipated than “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” The concept is nothing short of brilliant, combining Jane Austen’s classic novel of society and romance with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem.” The possibilities seemed endless, ranging from half the main characters having their heads cracked open to windows of a manor house cracked open with decaying fists. Indeed, it seemed like something that could go so over the top it would make Austen herself rise from the grave in complaint.

So does it measure up to that promise of madcap zombie fun, or does the gimmick burn out less than half-way through? The answer is neither – but that turns out to be to the book’s benefit. Rather than sacrifice a work of literature to Internet memes, “Zombies” actually spends more time with the original story than expected, reshaping the characters but never excising the plotlines. It’s not what most readers would expect going in, but in many ways it makes for a much better book, regardless of whether you favor Jane Austen or George Romero.

For the uninitiated, the original “Pride and Prejudice” is the story of Elizabeth Bennett, the most willful of a country gentleman’s five daughters. Continually badgered by her mother’s desire to marry her off and the flighty attitudes of her younger sisters, she finds a new target for her ire after the haughty Mr. Darcy dismisses her at a ball. As the two continue to interact, they find their terse reactions might be only a cover, masking an attraction that must overcome pride and social circumstances.

The new version keeps the original narrative, but adds a twist in that the countryside is crawling with the living dead. For the past five decades England has been besieged by hordes of the “unmentionables,” which rise from their graves in tattered suits and gowns to swarm manor houses and crack open the skulls of those within. Elizabeth and Darcy, along with several other characters, are now highly trained warriors who are capable of decapitating their enemies and feel no qualms about setting the bodies ablaze.

What is interesting about this undead invasion is that while they retain many of the more fearful aspects – passing zombie infection through bites, pitiful moaning and feasting on brains – it never becomes the overarching concern of the story. Most of the recent efforts in the genre have focused on the apocalyptic aspect, but the world of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” still considers social norms and inheritance the greatest of concerns, and Austen’s verbal sparring is supplemented by actual combat rather than replaced.

Keeping the language turns out to be the smartest decision the book could make, as mixing the free indirect speech of the original book with nightmarish threats makes it funnier than any gore-splattered zombie film. The precise verbal patterns see characters encountering the “sorry stricken,” weapons are drawn and they are “promptly dispatched to Hell,” and given “a proper Christian beheading.” A variety of incongruously humorous scenarios ensue, such as when two zombies slaughter an entire staff of servants in the kitchen and the party’s host can only observe “a delightful array of tarts, exotic fruits, and pies, sadly soiled by blood and brains, and thus unusable.

The subtleness of the zombie humor keeps the altered narrative going, but the book’s real strength is in the indirect changes the threat provides. Elizabeth and her sisters have been trained in the deadly arts by Master Liu of China, and are capable of walking on their hands, administering cuts of shame in times of failure and fight with “a razor-sharp dagger with one hand, the other tucked modestly into the small of her back.” They and other characters have grown up with the zombie threat, and as a consequence match breeding with battle skills.

With the characters tooled in this fashion, it enlivens the original’s conflicts considerably. Elizabeth sees Darcy’s slights not merely social but an insult to her warrior honor, and vows to take his head after their first meeting, and when he confesses his lover her first reaction is to kick his head into a fireplace mantel. Lady Catherine, the preeminent noble in the book, is respected as much for her elite guard of ninjas as her extreme wealth, and Darcy’s dispute with Mr. Wickham is less about money and more about severe beatings. The moves seem to make the characters more interesting, as they can act on their feelings rather than just talking.

In the end, the real victor of this parody appears to be Jane Austen herself, as her book has been reanimated in a way not even Keira Knightly could pull off. Fans of the original will be both taken aback and charmed by their beloved characters talking casually about ripping out an enemy’s heart, and those who haven’t read it before will be intrigued as to how the story could work without. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” has not only had a brilliant idea, but handled it in the most competent fashion.