Miranda and Caliban (2017)
Written by: Jacqueline Carey
Pages: 282 (Nook)
Why I Chose It: I have long been a fan of Jacqueline Carey’s work. I don’t read everything she puts out (to wit: I put down her urban fantasy trilogy, Agent of Hel, halfway through book one and have no plans to attempt it again), but she’s one of those authors that I will generally seek out if I know they have something new on the shelf.
A lovely girl grows up in isolation where her father, a powerful magus, has spirited them to in order to keep them safe.
We all know the tale of Prospero’s quest for revenge, but what of Miranda? Or Caliban, the so-called savage Prospero chained to his will?
In this incredible retelling of the fantastical tale, Jacqueline Carey shows readers the other side of the coin—the dutiful and tenderhearted Miranda, who loves her father but is terribly lonely. And Caliban, the strange and feral boy Prospero has bewitched to serve him. The two find solace and companionship in each other as Prospero weaves his magic and dreams of revenge.
Always under Prospero’s jealous eye, Miranda and Caliban battle the dark, unknowable forces that bind them to the island even as the pangs of adolescence create a new awareness of each other and their doomed relationship.
Miranda and Caliban is bestselling fantasy author Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous retelling of The Tempest. With hypnotic prose and a wild imagination, Carey explores the themes of twisted love and unchecked power that lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, while serving up a fresh take on the play’s iconic characters.
Disclaimer: Despite the official description quoted above, I have neither read The Tempest nor seen it performed. There may be minor spoilers for both the book and the play.
Discussion: I think I need to clarify what that disclaimer means before we start talking about the merits and issues with this book as I see them. I majored in political science and minored in philosophy and history. I then went to law school. I’m not a crunchy English literature sort, in other words. You want to throw down with me about the merits of the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, I’m your girl. You want me to quote Shakespeare at you, and I’m very likely to give you an irritated glare and start talking at you in legalese.
That said, when the topic of me reviewing this book was being discussed, it was decided that there was some merit in having a review perspective that is unbiased with respect to the source material. I had no particular thoughts or feelings about The Tempest going in and was only familiar with its plot in extremely broad strokes. My review will be limited, however, in terms of discussing how the book relates to the play because I literally can’t compare them. From having read some of what Carey had written about the writing of this book, I am aware that she intended to stick to the four corners of the play. Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. I’d be interested to hear the opinions of those of you who have read this book and are more familiar with the source material with respect to that topic. I will not be addressing it beyond noting that I understand the play has a storm and a shipwreck and, lo, so does the book towards the end…but an awful lot happens before what I understand are the events of the play take place.
And an awful lot of that has the potential to be deeply unsettling, if not upsetting. I would call it a difficulty in the work, particularly when I went in expecting something slightly less morally weighty. It’s not a flaw. In fact, it’s a strength. But it is a difficulty.
Carey’s near-poetic, evocative prose is on full display here, at least in Miranda’s perspective, but this is not a book to cuddle up on a cold winter’s night the way the original Kushiel’s trilogy is for me. This is a book that demands that you think about the bigger themes that Carey is grappling with, and the biggest of those is how we literally demonize the “other,” particularly when that other does not look like us, does not talk like us, does not dress like we do or practice the rituals we practice. I fear the ugly truth is that it is easier to wave a hand and forgive an “other” who shares most of those things in common with us than it is to show even a bit of kindness, empathy and mercy on an “other” who does not. In my opinion, wrestling with that is the central thesis of the book.
A lot of this grappling is done by Miranda. If we are going to be hard judges of the human heart, it is fair to say she does a poor job of it most of the time. She has great compassion for creatures different from herself — for her chickens, at first, and then for Caliban and certain of her father’s kept spirits. Even so, we have to watch her, over and over, fail to understand that she is using and abusing and perhaps worst of all betraying Caliban. Indeed, she seems almost more aware of the complexities of using a chicken for her own ends (or more correctly, for those of her father) than she is using an orphaned, half-feral child not so very much older than herself for the same. She tells herself (as we all so often do) that’s she’s doing it all for his own good — a pretty lie we should all, if we are at all honest with ourselves, be familiar with, and one to her credit she understands on some level isn’t true. And we also have to watch as she is, in turn, used and abused and betrayed by her father, who tells himself (and Miranda, and us) over and over that he is doing it entirely for her own good.
Caliban’s perspective is just as difficult in its own way. Carey interprets his lack of language in his early chapters by utilizing relatively few words and keeping the chapters themselves very short. They expand as time goes on and his vocabulary grows. Caliban, at all times, can only talk to us in the words he has but they are not the words of his choosing. He talking to us in a language that is not his own and that he came to in difficult circumstances. It is one that was forced on him by people who did not strictly have his best interests at heart and who had distinct notions about his family, his religion, and his life that tainted the words they taught him.
His perspective comes off as childlike at first — something that uncomfortably reminded me while I was reading it of the propensity of western cultures to interpret non-western ones as childish and in need of “education,” or of certain whites to refer to Black men as “boy.” That is not a comfortable feeling to have when you are reading a fictional book, by the way — to both think of Caliban as childish and to know he is actually not childish made me faintly queasy. I don’t want to think of myself as the sort of person who holds those sorts of beliefs…and another Miranda chapter was always just around the corner to remind me that Miranda doesn’t think she does, either.
Miranda has many forms of love for Caliban. The love of a child for a playmate, the love of a teacher for a student, the love of a caretaker for the cared for, and the love of a young woman for the only man she has ever known that isn’t her father. But that doesn’t stop her from absorbing and repeating her father’s perspective on him, on his circumstances, and on his entire people.
It would be easy — and I think a mistake, but easy if you’d rather be offended than have to try and digest something uncomfortable — to mistake Miranda’s sin in that regard for Carey’s, or to mistake Carey making us grapple with the effects of how Miranda and Prospero force Caliban to interact with them with Carey herself dismissing him as a simple, childish brute. It is very obvious that Carey relentlessly researched this book. I might not be able to speak to how well it ties itself back and into the source material, but I’m familiar enough with, say, some of the broad strokes of Renaissance symbolism and its uses in alchemy to be impressed with Carey’s attention to detail there. I’ve no doubt that Miranda’s complex thoughts and actions about the “other” are just as researched and just as carefully crafted, and that can make it easy to conflate them with the author’s own opinion. I truly do believe that would be a mistake. This is not an easy book to read. I’m not even sure I enjoyed it. But it was worth reading, and it’s worth thinking about after.
In Conclusion: One of the things our Editor-in-Chic asked me to consider when I agreed to review this book was whether it could be read totally standing alone from the play. It can. I didn’t have any trouble following the plot, keeping the characters straight (particularly as there are very few of them), or understanding the motivations of the characters. I did make a few wrong assumptions (one of them major) about where the plot was going that I doubt someone who is familiar with the play would have made. That said, none of them were any worse than any reader might make when following an intentional red herring (which is what I suspect they were). Linguistically, Miranda and Caliban has more in common with the Kushiel’s series than it does with either the Santa Olivia duology or what I have read of the Agent of Hel trilogy. If you like the writing of the Kushiel’s books you will probably like the writing here, as I did. That said, I would not call Miranda and Caliban a strictly enjoyable read. Rather, it’s one whose themes are morally worth grappling with, dressed up in Carey’s lushly visualized prose. I would be interested to know how those of you who read the book reacted to it, particularly those of you who (unlike me) are familiar with the source material.