Jacqueline Carey’s latest novel, Miranda and Caliban, is inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and narrated from the perspectives of the two titular characters. It’s largely a prequel since the majority of the book focuses on their childhood and young adulthood on the isle, but the end does follow events in the play with some embellishment. Most of the main plot points from The Tempest remain the same, although Miranda and Caliban’s thoughts and motivations are quite different from the original presentation. Yet, as much as I enjoyed reading it for its beautiful prose and immersive atmosphere, I thought it was held back from reaching its full potential to make Miranda and Caliban memorable characters in their own right by following this familiar story a little too closely.
Miranda and Caliban begins when Miranda is six years old and does not know how she came to be on the isle: she has only vague, dreamy memories of a previous life and her father refuses to speak of their past. She and her father live alone in an abandoned, rundown Moorish palace, and since Miranda’s father spends much of his time absorbed in his magical studies, she has little company other than the chickens and goat that are her responsibility. There is only one other on the isle: a wild boy. Miranda would like to befriend him, but she rarely so much as catches a glimpse of him, although he does occasionally leave gifts on their doorstep.
One morning, Miranda discovers a piece of honeycomb, the latest offering left by the wild boy. Before she can dip her finger in the sweet honey, her father orders her not to touch it and asks her to examine it. She sees that three strands of hair are stuck to it—hair that must belong to the wild boy and would allow her father to summon him the same way he did the goat that provides them with milk. Impatient at the prospect of companionship, Miranda wants him to do so immediately, but her father informs her that he must wait for the stars to be favorable if he is to be successful. Eventually the time arrives, and Miranda’s father sacrifices her favorite chicken and performs the summoning to bring the wild boy to them.
His magic works, and the boy comes to them. Miranda’s father locks him in a chamber, studies him, and attempts to teach him their language, but soon becomes discouraged that it may be a lost cause when the boy does not seem to learn. Fearing that her father will give up on him and remove his will completely, Miranda disobeys her father by sneaking into the boy’s cell, where she pleads with him to be her friend. She’s frustrated by the entire situation and dissolves into angry tears, but her hope is renewed when she sees that the boy does show concern that she’s upset. Relieved that he does show signs of understanding after all, she points to herself and states her name, and after she does this a couple of times, the boy repeats her gesture and reveals that his name is Caliban.
Though Miranda’s father is livid at her disobedience, he is pleased to discover she made some progress with the wild boy and allows her to continue to instruct him. Miranda’s wish comes true and the two do become friends, but as her trust in Caliban grows, her trust in her father begins to waver. His desire for Caliban to learn is somehow related to his desire to release the wailing spirit trapped in a tree, though he refuses to tell Miranda why this is important. As the years pass, it becomes apparent that there is much he is hiding from his daughter, and Miranda seeks to discover what he is plotting—and her own role in his plans.
Miranda and Caliban is a beautifully written book that flips the focus from the main protagonist in The Tempest to the only other (non-spirit) inhabitants of the isle, showing how Prospero’s actions affected those around him. In this novel, it is Prospero who is the villain, and Miranda and Caliban are childhood companions who fall in love—tragically, since the story still basically follows events in the play toward the end. I loved how Carey gave these two characters their own stories and distinct voices in present tense: Miranda’s formal and elegant and Caliban’s more casual and forthright. Miranda perhaps sounds a bit too educated considering the tale begins when she is only six years old but it is a pleasure to read, and Caliban’s narrative evolves as he learns language. At first, his sections are short with a string of simple words and sentences, but they speak volumes about Prospero’s treatment of him.
As it mainly follows three people (and later, the spirit Ariel) on an isle, it’s a quiet, character-driven book without a lot of plot twists, although there are a few surprises due to Prospero’s magic. The highlight is the aforementioned use of narrative and the lovely prose that brings the isle to life, although it doesn’t dwell overmuch on description. Secondary to the writing is the dimension given to characters who do not have depth in the original work. One of the biggest changes to events from the play is that Miranda is given more of a role than simply existing so her father can further his goals or spout exposition at someone, and she does not swoon over the prince or view Caliban as a monstrous villain. Earlier in the novel, she’s shown to have a talent for painting and an inquisitive nature that makes her wonder about her father’s motives rather than blindly accepting that he knows best. Caliban’s not evil but a kindhearted boy who cares for Miranda and chafes against his subjugation by her father.
Prospero is a particularly chilling antagonist because he wholeheartedly believes in his own righteousness as a servant of the Lord God and metes out severe punishment to anyone who disobeys him—including his own daughter—with barely a thought. The only time he seems to later regret his horrible treatment of others is when he nearly kills Miranda with his magic during a fit of rage. Everyone else on the isle is inferior in his eyes, and he has no qualms about achieving his goals and believes he knows what’s best.
In Miranda and Caliban, Carey does an excellent job of remaining true to the original play while fleshing it out by showing how Prospero’s quest for vengeance would have affected others: after all, The Tempest‘s main protagonist is a man who kept his daughter in the dark about their origins, caused a shipwreck that could have injured people who had not harmed him, deceived many, and enslaved Caliban and the spirits. This novel filled in the background and showed how the two titular characters felt about his treachery, and though it provided more details related to the events in the play, it changed very little (mainly, Miranda never expressed the same sentiments about the prince or Caliban as in the play). Reasons are supplied for the prince’s immediate infatuation with Miranda even though he believes his father just died, and Caliban’s motivations and thoughts give his actions after the tempest a new meaning while closely mirroring the original storyline.
However, I do feel that this novel never quite pushed the boundaries enough to make it an imaginative retelling with fully three dimensional personalities considering its emphasis on the characters. Other than Miranda’s art and the love story, Miranda and Caliban were largely characterized as having the same traits one who had read The Tempest would expect: Miranda is a lonely girl curious about her past and Caliban chafes against his captivity. Of course, the problem isn’t that they were characterized this way since that makes perfect sense—it’s that they were not fleshed out much beyond what could be inferred from the play itself in what is largely a book focused on the characters.
Though I could sympathize with both Miranda and Caliban, I was never quite as invested in their characters or their doomed romance as I felt I should have been, probably partially due to the love story seeming somewhat one-sided to me. Miranda obviously cares about Caliban, but she has more to occupy her thoughts than he and doesn’t seem to be interested in anything beyond friendship until discovering he loves her. Much of Caliban’s perspective centers on Miranda and his feelings for her, and it seemed to me as though his affection was true but hers may have been just because he was the only other young person on the isle. In general, I felt this was more Miranda’s story than Caliban’s despite the title and that Caliban was not given equal attention.
Although I didn’t find the characters quite as compelling as I would have liked, Miranda and Caliban is still a wonderful novel, even one of the better ones I’ve read so far this year. It’s beautifully written and atmospheric, but a little more imaginative character-building may have taken it from a great novel to a superb novel.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: Signed finished copy from the publisher.
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