At the heart of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is the problem of Caliban.
Caliban is a monster who tried to rape Prospero’s daughter Miranda before the play began; he also speaks some of the most lovely and lyrical poetry in the play. He abuses Prospero, our ostensible hero, and plots to kill him, but Prospero took over Caliban’s island and enslaved him. In a postcolonialist world, it’s hard not to feel that Caliban is pretty justified in how he treats Prospero, if not in how he tried to attack Miranda.
In Miranda and Caliban, science fiction and fantasy writer Jacqueline Carey rewrites Caliban’s backstory, transforming it into a sweetly tender love story. In this retelling, Miranda and Caliban are best friends, each other’s sole companion on the island outside of cold, demanding Prospero and capricious, condescending Ariel. Miranda teaches Caliban language, Caliban teaches Miranda about the island, and they keep each other company while Prospero does his obscure magic work. In this version of the story, Caliban doesn’t try to rape Miranda. They fall in love, and Prospero walks in on them halfway through consummation. Disgusted, he blames Caliban for it.
For any book that retells a canonical story from the point of view of its disenfranchised characters, the obvious point of comparison is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1983 fantasy novel The Mists of Avalon, which retold the legend of King Arthur from the point of view of the women. But that comparison isn’t a fair one: In terms of sheer technical craftsmanship, Miranda and Caliban outstrips The Mists of Avalon by leaps and bounds.
Carey is a gifted prose stylist, and she deftly manages the tricky balancing act of creating characters with voices just heightened enough that a reader could imagine them launching into blank verse, given the proper motivation. She doesn’t try to make her language Shakespearean, but her characters naturally speak with just enough poetry that it would not feel out of place for her Caliban to say, “The isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,” or for her Miranda to cry out, “O brave new world, / That has such people in’t!”
Carey’s Miranda is an especially impressive achievement. Shakespeare’s Caliban is charismatic and poetic, and it’s easy for a reader to imagine that he might have his own compelling point of view on the play, but Shakespeare’s Miranda is essentially a blank slate, a docile tool for her father to use in his fantastic plots; she doesn’t have any inner life of her own. Around that framework, Carey creates a compelling, psychologically believable portrait of a girl who grew up with no one around but her demanding, withholding father. She is profoundly anxious to please Prospero because she has literally no one else, but she chafes against his restrictions.
But Prospero, of course, is a master puppeteer, and he brings the story around to its inevitable conclusion in Miranda and Caliban just as he does in The Tempest: Miranda must leave the island and wed the man of Prospero’s choosing, and Caliban must be at best abandoned and at worst a slave.
In The Tempest, it’s a satisfying ending, if slightly bittersweet because it means the end of Prospero’s magic. Here, it’s a tragedy. And you know it’s coming the whole time, because Carey works that sense of foreboding for all it’s worth.
Miranda and Caliban is a lyrical, smartly crafted exploration of a classic story, and it is so deeply felt that, dear reader, I must confess it left me teary-eyed on the New York City subway. It’s both an intelligent book and a beautiful one.