Years ago a distinguished literary critic argued that the popularity of `The Lord of the Rings’  and other Fantasy novels was a bad thing because it prevented young people from reading Jane Austen. This shows how little critics know about avid readers. Like many admirers of Fantasy fiction, I’ve always loved Jane Austen. My favourite among her novels is `Sense and Sensibility’  but the version I’m recommending is `Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’ by Jane Austen and Ben H.Winters (first published by Quirk Books in 2009). Many people will regard any tampering with Austen’s text as sacrilege but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.

I think it was the publication of `Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ that started the fashion for mash-ups of literary classics and horror. I wasn’t impressed by this book. The Bennet sisters as zombie-slayers was an amusing idea that I felt would work well as a sketch but became rather tedious at novel length. So I had no intention of reading `Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’ until I was drawn to it in a bookshop by the striking cover design. Intrigued by Eugene Smith’s charming illustrations, I decided to try this `multi-layered study of love, sisterhood and giant octopi’.  The wit and romance you expect from Austen are still there but Winters brings out the vein of darkness in the original novel.

You remember the plot of `Sense and Sensibility’ – it’s the one where the Dashwood sisters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, are reduced to genteel poverty after their father dies. Their half-brother and his odious wife refuse to help, so the sisters and their mother go to live in a cottage owned by a kindlier relative, Sir John Middleton. Romantic Marianne is soon courted by the worthy Colonel Brandon but she falls instead for the dashing Willoughby. Meanwhile, sensible Elinor is secretly pining for Edward Ferrars, whose mother wants him to marry for money, but Edward is already entangled with gold-digger Lucy Steele….

All this is still the case in `Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’ . It is the background of Regency England which has changed. The `Alteration’ has raised sea-levels and turned all sea-creatures into huge `blood-thirsty predators, hardened and hateful towards our bipedal race’, thus making the Devonshire coast a very dangerous place for the Dashwoods to settle. In this version, Mr Dashwood has been killed by a hammerhead shark, Sir John has kidnapped his wife and mother-in-law from a remote tropical island, Colonel Brandon `bore a set of long, squishy tentacles protruding grotesquely from his face’, Willoughby creates a good first impression on Marianne by rescuing her from a giant octopus, Edward has to grapple with a massive tuna and Lucy turns out to be…no, I better not spoil that plot-twist. Instead of going to London, Elinor and Marianne undertake the risky journey to the great under-sea dome of Sub-Marine Station Beta  where the threats from killer lobsters, swordfish  and sea-scorpions are as nothing compared to the heartaches of unrequited love.

Some of the minor characters are given fascinating backstories to explain the behaviour they display in Austen’s original novel. For example, Lady Middleton is reserved and cold `as if having been stolen from her native village in a burlap sack and made to be servant and helpmate to an Englishman many years her senior, for some reason sat poorly with her’. She constantly tries to get away in home-made boats, just as many Regency women must have longed to escape unhappy arranged marriages. The cynical Mr Palmer has seen terrible things during his time in the Royal Navy hunting fire-serpents, which leave him with no hope for the future. The world of `The Alteration’ is worked out in such convincing detail that `Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’ becomes a memorable Fantasy novel in its own right.  The bloody war between the British and the Sea Monsters is not so very different from the carnage and licenced piracy of the Napoleonic wars which form the rarely mentioned backdrop to Austen’s novels. The grimmer side of life in Austen’s England is reflected by incidents in this story in which servants perish unnoticed by the leading characters and horrible punishments are inflicted on suspected mermen.

Don’t worry. There are still excellent jokes,scary pirates, romantic episodes and happy endings to enjoy in `Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’. Many novels now feature a list of issues to be discussed by Reading Groups. These fatuous questions usually annoy me but the `Reader’s Discussion Guide’for this book made me howl with laughter. Topics for discussion include `Have you ever been involved with someone who turned out to be a sea witch?’  and `Have you ever been “attacked by giant lobsters”, either figuratively or literally?’ If the figurative giant lobsters are getting to you, turn to this book. Until next week….