In Miranda and Caliban, a precursor to William Shakespeare’s masterpiece, The Tempest, Jacqueline Carey spins a lovely tale of two exiled youngsters – one, an unwitting princess, the other, the spawn of a savage witch. Other than an authoritative elder – Miranda’s father, the sorcerer Prospero – they are each other’s sole human companions on the small island that is their world. Told in alternating points of view, Miranda is a kind teacher to feral Caliban, countering the cruelty that her impatient father would inflict on him; he is her protector from danger and from loneliness. Complications arise, however, as they grow older and their feelings shift from innocent friendship to something deeper. By the time Ms. Carey’s novel catches up with Shakespeare’s play, our minds are ready for what we know must happen, but it doesn’t keep our hearts from breaking.
I can think of no better writer to undertake this story than Jacqueline Carey. She has garnered a well justified reputation for crafting opulent historical fantasy and mastering mannered yet unencumbered prose, as well as the ability to impart the antithesis of established epic themes. In Miranda and Caliban, she succeeds in humanizing two highly stylized characters. Her Miranda and Caliban are youngsters in a world peopled with sylphs, undines, gnomes and other elementals. It is a place of spirits and magic, where the only adult is an austere sorcerer, caught up in plans of retribution. Prospero loves Miranda, but not only does he not understand her, he sees no need to. And to him, Caliban is merely a crude means to an end. Is it any wonder that the lonely girl and the outcast boy form a bond?
Ms. Carey gives these children an innocence, a purity, that is marred only by Prospero’s unyielding expectations and the interference of the enslaved sprite, Ariel. She does not turn a blind eye to Caliban’s bestial nature, his coarse appearance, his imperfect understanding of civilization, but in Miranda’s guileless eyes, they merely manifest as part and parcel of who he is, without outside judgment save that of her father, with which she increasingly disagrees. As the children mature, Ms. Carey is able to turn their friendship into a longing that is both awkward and genuine. The conflicts that occur are never contrived nor cloying, and end up dovetailing effortlessly with Shakespeare’s creations toward the end of the book.
Although Miranda and Caliban are the major players in this novel, Ms. Carey does not ignore the other characters: Prospero and Ariel. Each are given their own unique styling, divergent from that of Shakespeare, yet not so different as to feel foreign. Prospero, for all his severity and insensitivity, is not a completely callus monster. He wants the best for Miranda; he simply is blinded by his intense focus on a manipulation of the arcane arts. We can fault him for that, yet Prospero is a man who has been sorely used and betrayed, and we come to realize that he, too, is a creature of his own environment.
Ariel, the spirit bound to Prospero, is also played against type; despite his established ethereal beauty and refined speech, in Ms. Carey’s novel he is meddlesome and often a malicious manipulator rather than an acquiescent sprite pining for release. While we can have sympathy for his plight, if there is any villain in this tale, Ariel would win out due to his cruelty towards both Caliban and Miranda even if it is Prospero whose shortsightedness causes the most damage.
Regardless of your knowledge of Shakespeare, Miranda and Caliban is a lovely work, written by one of our time’s great masters of fantasy. In this day and age where appearance has come to be held in such high regard, this novel stands as a testament to the power of unfettered friendship, even as it entertains our senses and piques our emotions. Once again, Jacqueline Carey has crafted a work to treasure. I think the Bard would have approved.