Book Review: Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

So, I read Miranda and Caliban because I love Shakespeare and had never gotten around to reading any of Jacqueline Carey’s other work. I also read two other Tempest-based stories last year (Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed and Foz Meadows’ Coral Bones—both excellent) and thought it would be interesting to compare this one to the others. For what it’s worth, Miranda and Caliban is beautifully written, well-structured and readable, but the question I kept coming back to the longer I read it was “Is it necessary?” Sadly, I don’t think it is. I don’t regret having read it, but I also wouldn’t say that it deepened my understanding of The Tempest, Shakespeare or their themes, and what insight it gave me into the author’s understanding of these things didn’t impress.

Miranda and Caliban tells the story of about ten of the twelve years that Prospero and Miranda spent on the island prior to the start of the play, beginning with six-year-old Miranda and story of the “taming” of the wild boy Caliban, who comes to be Prospero’s servant and Miranda’s friend. Over the years of the novel, the narrative is split between Miranda and Caliban’s points of view as they are both educated and come of age on the island, detailing their friendship and their respective relationships with both Prospero and Ariel. Rather than digging deeply for a fresh take on this material, however, Carey chooses to depict it as largely standard fare coming of age tragedy, and the tone of that tragedy infects the entire book with a bittersweetness that quickly turns cloying.

Though I went into the book knowing the ending, I was disappointed that there were so few surprises in store over the course of four hundred pages. There’s not a single event in Miranda and Caliban that couldn’t have easily been extrapolated from the play, and everything that happens is so absolutely banal that it’s barely enough to hold one’s attention. I kept expecting a twist or turn that would challenge my expectations or offer some new thought on the play, but Miranda and Caliban is literally exactly what it claims to be. I suppose that’s fine, but the tragic nature of the story also prevents it from being bland, relaxing comfort food, which sends me right back to the question of the necessity of this book.

Even the revelation of Miranda as an artist with a kind of magic of her own that complements her father’s doesn’t do much to elevate the novel. While Miranda is bright and clever and kind, she remains, ultimately, a passive character in a story that is happening around and to her. She’s never able to use her magic to help herself, her brief romance with Caliban is too inevitable-seeming to evoke much passionate feeling, and in the end she seems resigned to being a pawn of her father’s with no particular ambitions or goals of her own. Caliban, for his part, is much the same as depicted in the play, if perhaps somewhat more sympathetic with a fuller knowledge of his childhood. However, he too is at the mercy of Prospero and, later, of Ariel, with no opportunity to change his sad fate and no fresh shading added to color our understanding of his actions.

It’s possible that readers unfamiliar with The Tempest may feel differently, coming to this book with fewer expectations and preconceptions about the material, and longtime lovers of Carey’s work may just be happy for a new title by a favorite author, but as a first exposure to Carey’s work I can’t say there’s much here that makes me want to come back to it. Pretty prose and a flair for the occasional poetic description isn’t enough to redeem a dull and flawed premise, especially one that has so little of substance to say.

On the other hand, look at that incredible cover with art by Tran Nguyen and designed by Jamie Stafford-Hill. It’s gorgeous enough that even if you don’t love the book you might want it on your shelf.

This review is based on a copy of the title received for review via NetGalley.

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