Retellings of Shakespeare plays are all the rage these days, so it’s not surprising to see a fantasy author tackle the magic rich world of The Tempest. Carey’s take widens the play from a tale of Prospero’s grand revenge scheme into a story of two children growing up supported by each other while in the power of a man whose care and interest is only for his own ends.
Jacqueline Carey is a lyrical writer who breathes new life and depth into the familiar characters of The Tempest. The novel takes the former Duke and mage Prospero, his daughter Miranda, his ‘monstrous’ slave Caliban, and the wind spirit Ariel and gives them all engaging back stories. This Prospero is a self involved man brimming with casual cruelty towards his daughter and his servant, more interested in his magics and revenge than in their well being. Carey sets the scene far before the opening of the play, rewinding the clock to when both Miranda and Caliban are children. Miranda at six knows only the small world of her father’s will and studies, and the isolated island they live on. Caliban at ten has long been surviving on his own, a child gone feral after the death of his mother. When Miranda’s father decides to lure and trap Caliban in order to ‘civilize’ him and use him to free the trapped spirit Ariel, it sets the two on a path to true friendship and ultimately, heartbreak. Their relationship is built over years and is firmly rooted in the kindness and loyalty they show each other. While often described as a romance, this story is more about friendship while living under the control of an abuser.
In the pages of Miranda and Caliban Carey once again demonstrates her mastery over world building. Her island brims with elementals who are bent to Prospero’s will and powerful spirits who can be brought to heal. The glimpses of a celestial based magic in this novel would make for a fascinating series. Here they add grounding to Prospero’s grand schemes from the play while also helping to explain the characters’ survival in exile for so long.
Having said that, there is a major flaw in this novel. Many educated critiques have been written about The Tempest and colonialism. The original play is rife with references to it and it’s a critical component of understanding the play. Not only does Miranda and Caliban refuse to engage with that element of the play, it actively avoids confronting it. Caliban is not a slave, but a servant. He is to call Prospero ‘Master’ but his rage at being confined and chained by Prospero’s class expectations and magic are downplayed over and over again. It’s framed as a lack of class and a lack of civilization which allows Prospero to claim dominion over Caliban, but those claims are never challenged head on. The question of why Prospero feels justified in owning and controlling Caliban is never raised. Instead it is written off as Prospero’s magical strength being superior to Caliban’s will.
Similarly, Caliban’s ‘monstrousness’ in the play is firmly rooted in colonialism. The play describes Caliban as savage and vile, a lying slave and an attempted rapist, who is referred to as a monster by men who have just seen him. Instead of acknowledging these as commonly used descriptors for non-Europeans throughout the many ages of English colonialism, Carey instead presents a Caliban that is deformed and hunched in addition to being dark skinned. The Caliban of the play has certainly been presented this way before and Carey is by no means the first to refuse to engage in the colonialist subtext. However, this was a confusing decision for an author to make in an expansive retelling of this play for modern audiences.
Miranda and Caliban is an engaging well written read, but the choices the writer made were often on the confusing side. Knowledge of The Tempest certainly isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying this book, but knowing what had changed from the play was enlightening. Those with a high tolerance for descriptions of periods who are looking for an interesting and quick read should give this one a try. The tenderness with which the author writes of Miranda and Caliban alone makes this worth the read.
Disclosure: This review is based on an ebook galley provided by Tor Books via Netgalley.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3 stars
Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey
Publication Date: February 14, 2017
Ebook, 336 pages