Review: Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett.

To say that Katharine Duckett’s debut novel picks up where Shakespeare left off in The Tempest is more than a little inaccurate, Old Will wrote a weird play about a cruel wizard bent on enslaving every creature he meets and abusing his enemies as much as his borrowed powers allow — but, you know, there’s like love and drunks and stuff so it’s a comedy? Duckett proposes some very good answers to questions left open by the play, but more importantly examines this 400-year-old fever-dream with the lens of a careful reader and reveals some of the worms in its core.

Please allow me skip the part where I provide some examples of the excellent prose and plotting and jump right into the stuff I want to nerd out about. [Some spoilers, I suppose.]

So, the big question, of course, is “who was Miranda’s mother”? Prospero doesn’t have much to say about her in his extensive As-you-know-Bob-ish exposition speech. Duckett places her very firmly in an unusual place — the underworld. The palace in which Miranda lives/is confined has many tunnels beneath it, and it was there that the mad Duke studied his magics. The entrance most commonly used during Miranda’s Milanese mischiefs is right behind a statue of Virgil. And her mom’s name? Beatrice, called “Bice”. [Cue lit-nerd excited squees at Dante’s Inferno reference.]

So is this Beatrice Portinari? Did Milan join Naples during her lifetime? Or is it just the name? Further research will be reported upon here. Either way, the blending of two Italian fantasy stories in this book is delicious.

And here’s another question, one I wasn’t clever enough to realize even should have been a question: where is Antonio’s son? Ferdinand blathers about “the Duke of Milan and his brave son being twain,” a line I completely missed. So one of the “others” always entering and exiting with the Milanese is the son of the usurping Duke? Doesn’t that bear a little more screen-time? Duckett comes through again with this little tidbit.

Caliban is the son of an exiled Algerian woman — why does Prospero treat him as a monster? (The accusation of attempted rape in the play is managed in this book by presenting it as a possessive Prospero’s misunderstanding, which works well with the “Prospero is an evil prick” interpretation (to which I subscribe)). Are we just supposed to think it’s ok that the wizard keeps putting Miranda to sleep with magic? Was Antonio wrong to wrest power from his brother, considering that Prospero by his own admission ignored his civic duties? What was the old bastard studying so intently anyway? And does everyone really just welcome him back? Plenty to explore here, and the author satisfies every curiosity.

The power of words makes an appearance several times (including some very much appreciated mocking of Prospero for his histrionics), my favorite of which is the question of Caliban’s language. Prospero taught him Italian (enough to curse in it), but what did the poor guy speak before then? Are we truly to believe he had no language at all? Language in this book holds the key to power, yes, but also to respect and understanding between people of different cultures. (Not Prospero’s forte).

The only thing missing, and this is only because I’m a huge game nerd, is a chess scene. Ferdinand and Miranda spend a quiet moment playing chess in the play, and a moonlit match in the gilded rooms of the palace would have been the last drop of icing on this very good cake for me — but near the end, Miranda is chided for speaking not of her heart, but of politics, “the chessboard of kings and queens, where all of us are only pieces.” I think we can safely say the author covered all the bases.

Also, the cover is awesome. Go read it!

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