Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
by Ben H. Winters
Trade Paperback – $12.95
Author Article – “How I Wrote Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters”
Reviewed by Superwench83
“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.” So begins Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters, and a fine beginning it is—setting us up for a mannerly, man-eating tale full of wit and wonder.
When their father is eaten by a hammerhead shark, the Dashwood sisters and their mother are forced to leave their home behind, for it is their brother’s inheritance. In a world where the ocean has crept inland and even the gentlest sea creatures have acquired a taste for human flesh, a home with proper defenses round the perimeter is a must. The Dashwoods’ new home on Pestilent Isle has such defenses, but it is a strange place, and becoming stranger still. Nonetheless, it is a home, and they are pleased to have it. Now the sisters only need suitors who can protect them from giant octopi and devil-dolphins. In their world, such a man is one to swoon over.
If you think it sounds absurd to mash a Jane Austen novel up with a nautical horror tale, you’re right. It’s absurd. And brilliant. Far from ruining Austen’s clever prose, the startling contrast of manners and monsters makes her social commentary even more biting. I have so many favorite lines from the book that I can’t even begin to quote them all.
The book’s basic plot is the same as in Sense and Sensibility: It is about the Dashwood sisters’ trials in love. But there is much more, just as the original is more than a romance. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters has an amusing yet disturbing undercurrent, blending delightful wit and a feeling of unease about what darkness lies beneath the surface. While the casual mentions of “the giant tuna that had lately tried to consume her mother” or “taking appropriate enjoyment in every opportunity to dine upon the hated foe” are humorous, there is also a strong sense that terrors unknown are just around the bend.
Only Margaret senses the deeply unsettling air of Pestilent Isle. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters expands this youngest Dashwood sister’s role, which I enjoyed because Margaret seems like almost an afterthought in the original story. Marianne is too absorbed with herself and Willoughby to notice anything amiss, but Elinor’s strange visions of a five-pointed star add to the unease. These flashes of foreboding lend Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters a very different kind of suspense than what the original story had.
Yet despite all the gloom, there is a sense of wonder in this book. Best of all is Sub-Marine Station Beta, an undersea city where the streets are canals and tamed sea creatures replace gondolas as the usual transportation. Beneath this dome of glass, residents must wear Float-Suits at all times. These suits act as breathing and floatation devices in case of emergency. This city is accessible only by submarine, but it is worth the trip, for Sub-Marine Station Beta is home to a host of sights, such as museums and the famed Kensington Undersea Gardens. Such inclusions almost lend Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters the feel of a steampunk novel.
The only issue I had was that some of the added storylines weren’t resolved as adequately as I would have liked. There was never a clear answer as to what caused the Alteration, and I felt that this was the one explanation that needed to be given. The focus of this book is Austen’s original story with some new settings and twists, and I understand that a long passage devoted to the Alteration’s origins might have taken away from that. But I still feel that there should have been more closure on some of the added fantasy elements.
If you’re not familiar with Sense and Sensibility, you can certainly enjoy Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and you probably will if you enjoy both classic literature and fantasy. But Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is definitely an experience which is best appreciated if you’re familiar with the original work. It is amazing how well the new bits of text blend with the old, and you’ll only be able to enjoy that if you know Sense and Sensibility. Ben Winter’s writing masterfully captures Austen’s own style so that his additions fit into the original text almost seamlessly. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters has all of that Austen charm, but is a venture into uncharted literary seas.