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Book Review: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

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If you thought Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a ridiculous idea, then go ahead and skip to the next review; and while you're at it, loosen up your sphincter a little. OK, that leaves everyone else. PPZ, with its rotting Austen-ish woman on the cover and, um, striking title, took a lot of readers by surprise. The biggest surprise, however, might have been how well Austen's "co-author," Ben H. Winters, pulled off the whole literary mash-up spoof thing. Mixing two totally different fiction "industries" -- Jane Austen (or Jane Austen fan fiction) and zombies -- seemed a breeze for Winters. The characters' lives were changed by the appearance of zombies, but the undead were so deeply woven into the story -- and Winter's Austen characters were so hilariously dead-on in the midst of the terror -- that after awhile you forgot how utterly goofy the book was.

Here's an example of how it works. Here is the original first paragraph of Sense and Sensibility: "The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance."

Here's the first paragraph of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters: "The family of Dashwood had been settled in Sussex since before the Alteration, when the waters of the world grew cold and hateful to the sons of man, and darkness moved on the face of the deep."

Winter takes Austen's story and turns it on its head, upending the staid, structured world of Regency England with giant tentacled monsters from the deep thwarting the main characters' attempts at normal, respectable lives and conventional love lives. A scene in which giant Death Lobsters interrupt a public gathering and scatter the screaming guests, only for the escaped guests to soon resume their normal, sedate conversations, is priceless, not to mention a hilarious tribute to the soothing qualities of banality. We may be stuffy and generally clueless, Austen's characters seem to be saying, but we like it that way and we're certainly not going to let some ugly monsters change our way of life.

There's plenty to like in SSSM, if only the ongoing astonishment of grotesque sea creatures showing up at critical junctures in delicate situations. And I haven't even mentioned that Marianne (for non-readers, that's Kate Winslet in the movie), has to decide whether to marry Mr. Willoughby or the repugnant (but rich) Colonel Brandon, who is half-soldier and half-sorta-squid.

Unfortunately, the smooth transitions of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are hard to come by in this follow-up, as is PPZ's crucial integration of the monstrous into daily life. Admittedly, it's hard to make a giant octopus rising from a lake to kill lovers on the shore seem normal, but coming after PPZ's success at making zombies seem almost routine, SSSM can at times seem a bit thrown together, which is disappointing.

By the way, if you like this kind of literary spoof, other books currently in print include Mr. Darcy, Vampyre; Vampire Darcy's Desire; Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim; and The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies.

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