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Book Recommendations: Riffing on Will

Confessions of an Old English Major

I took a Shakespeare course. All English majors take a Shakespeare course. It's the law. The professor was very ambitious. We would read ALL the tragedies, ALL the comedies, the most important history plays, Titus Andronicus, and a few sonnets. The semester would conclude with The Tempest.

The syllabus reminded me of the itineraries of those European tours where you visit 20 countries in 14 days. At the end you say "If this is Tuesday morning, I must be in Paris."

I won't sugarcoat it, the professor was a dick. He said things like "Everything written BEFORE Shakespeare is merely source material; everything after is derivative." He loved pop quizzes. The quizes had questions like Which character in which play said "How now and away, my lord." or "I prithee, speak." You know, the immortal lines. He dangled The Tempest before us like a carrot. When we finished The Tempest, he promised, we would come to a complete understanding of everything Shakespeare had ever written as well as an insight into the Bard himself. (He stopped short of promising we'd know if Will was really Kit Marlowe.) Class, hold those questions; The Tempest will reveal all.

Did you guess we ran out of semester before we read, much less discussed, The Tempest? Was it bait and switch, hoping he'd entice us to take another Shakespeare course? Did he not know what universal truth The Tempest revealed? Was it poor time management skills? Who knows?All I know is I've pondered the meaning of The Tempest for decades, wondering what secret I missed. I've read it and seen it performed, but there's always this nagging feeling there's something I don't quite get. Perhaps it's the reason whenever I see a novel that purports to be based on The Tempest, I snatch it up.

SO, here are two recent favorites.

  • Miranda and Caliban

  • Bright Ruined Things

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

Amazon Synopis: Miranda and Caliban is bestselling fantasy author Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous retelling of The Tempest. With hypnotic prose and a wild imagination, Carey explores the themes of twisted love and unchecked power that lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, while serving up a fresh take on the play's iconic characters.

My take: If you're going to retell a classic, this is the way to do it. I'm a fan of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart series, but haven't been big on her other works. This novel makes me want to take another look at them.

First, let's get this out of the way: you don't need to read or know The Tempest before reading Miranda and Caliban; it can stand alone. The character development and world building are marvelous. I actually visualized the island and the spirits, although Carey doesn't pound the descriptions to death. The novel is told from two points of view, and each with a distinctive voice. Although it is clearly marked when Caliban is speaking and when Miranda is, you'll recognize them by what they say. I found her characterizations through dialog to be particularly adept in the early pages when Miranda is a little girl and Caliban a nonspeaking, illiterate "beast."

At it's heart, Shakespeare's play is a study of what it means to be human and what is the nature of revenge. Carey picks up this theme and explores it in loving and lyrical detail for 350 pages, giving voice to characters who are blank slates in Shakespeare. It also is a love story that builds to the tragic conclusion worthy of Romeo and Juliet.

This book trailer captures the feel of the book.

Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe

Amazon Synopis: A deftly-plotted tale about ambition and belonging, Bright Ruined Things takes Shakespeare’s The Tempest and brilliantly reimagines its themes of family and love. Cohoe writes with a magic that dazzles and cuts right to the core.

My Take: Again, you don't need to read or even know anything about The Tempest to enjoy this book. Don't believe me? Check out all the Amazon reviews that start out by saying "I've NEVER read The Tempest." In fact, having read the play might be an impediment if you’re struggling to make a one-to-one connection between it and the novel.

First of all, kudos to Cohoe for making me interested in what happens to some thoroughly unlikeable characters. Mae, the main character, has the backbone of a jellyfish and whinges more than all the Dursleys (in the Harry Potter books) combined. Her self-denigration grated. All the other characters, save one, are reprehensible, to put it mildly. I can't think of a single one I "liked," but I sure wanted to find out what happened to them. Discover their fates satisfied me.

Bright Ruined Things seemed less a modern retelling of The Tempest (although the basics are there), and more a pastiche of The Tempest meets Game of Thrones meets Harry Potter with detours through Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby. It touches on social politics, class struggles, and the jealousy of being on the outside looking in to the lives of the young, wealthy, and carefree. If you want to find parallels with the billionaires and oligarchs of today’s world, you’ll find them. If you’re hooked on magic, magic is rather off-stage, although it is presented as an object that only the wealthy and powerful can afford.

For me, the novel started slow and relied too heavily on descriptive fluff and a stereotypical love triangle; however, by the end it twisted that old trope in one heck of a knot. But there was enough to keep me going until the much discussed First Night Party, and then things really picked up. I did anticipate the plot twist, and the ending made sense. Although you couldn’t really say justice was served, the ending provided a nice touch of realism.

Bright Ruined Things was a quick read. Given that Shakespeare didn’t write a sequel to The Tempest, it's probably a stand-alone novel.

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