On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

7/10 A rollicking pirate adventure.

1718: Puppeteer John Chandagnac has set sail for Jamaica to recover his stolen inheritance, when his ship is seized by pirates. Offered the choice to join the crew, or be killed where he stands, he decides that a pirate's life is better than none at all. Now known as Jack Shandy, this apprentice buccaneer soon learns to handle a mainsail and wield a cutlass - only to discover he is now a subject of a Caribbean pirate empire ruled by one Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard. A practitioner of voodoo, Blackbeard is building an army of the living and the dead, to voyage together to dreamlike lands where the Fountain of Youth awaits...

Pirates have been an overriding part of our culture for nearly 150 years, even though most of our modern stereotypes owe more to Robert Lewis Stevenson's Treasure Island - and subsequent works such as Moonfleet and Peter Pan - than to any sort of historical background. Of course Naval heroes such as Francis Drake are even older, possibly going back as far as the sea going captains of ancient Greece, however the unique idea of a ship full of lawless bandits performing sea going robbery and living apart from any law and civilization other than what they create themselves has really captured the public consciousness, despite the fact that historically speaking most pirates were likely as romantic as a mugger.

Tim Powers does, in a novel that reputedly inspired not only the 4th Pirates of the Caribbean film (which I confess I've not seen yet), and more importantly the famous Secret of Monkey Island game series), give us a highly unique view of pirates.

The setting is (much as with several of Powers other books) tied to historical roots, and the very details of the day to day task of running, sailing and repairing a ship reminded me of the stark and uncompromisingly painful style of naval writers like Nicholas Monsarrat or G. K. Chesterton. Rather uniquely however for works of sea fiction, Powers (using a talent I've seen in his other books) manages to make the setting as colourful, vibrant and interesting as if it really existed despite being a completely fantastical one. And rather than a grubby, depressing account of sailors eating diseased meat, desperately avoiding the lash or spending hours picking barnacles off the hulls of ships, the portraits of life we get are extremely relaxed and taken with hearty good humour. I particularly loved the comical description here of the hero living with his pirate crewmates in what is essentially a shanty town on a small Caribbean island, throwing just about anything into a stew pot (whether edible or not), but at the same time making it sound like a roaring good time. Of course this might be due to the fact that unlike most writers of historical sea fiction, Powers is dealing with a pirate crew rather than a naval or commercial ship so discipline is more cooperative than imposed. Yet, despite this, nowhere does Powers resort to clichés so don't expect any peg legged, hook handed pirates exclaiming "shiver me timbers" here.

Another aspect of the setting which is quite unique, is the way that the fantasy element (magic based on Voodoo) is treated absolutely and completely matter of factly. After a ship is attacked by zombie sailors, it needs repairing, and a disagreement among pirates is just as readily resolved with recourse to conjuring spirits as it is with sword and pistol. This gave the magic elements of the book, discussed with Powers usual half sardonic, half realist style quite a believable tone, even when the action became incredibly mystical in nature with mental attacks, nightmares and obscene landscapes, a fact emphasized when such expeditions occur just before more realistic concerns of getting the King's pardon, or mercantile speculation.

Stylistically the book is Powers usual treat: casual, descriptive, humorous and pointed, yet neither over-blown nor too brief. While written more as an adventure story than any sort of poetical impression, the prose is dense enough to give a real sense of place and of solid reality, even in the more mystical passages. Powers does suffer in a couple of places from having info dumps, though these are generally not given to inappropriate characters and only occur at the point that the main character himself asks, not at some unprompted moment as in other writers of secret history fiction, rather the way characters like Hagrid in the Harry Potter series answer both Harry's and the readers' initial questions about the Wizarding world, but only when asked in course of other conversation. The realistic element of the magic side of the book is also born out in one of its most worthy qualities, all the magic is fully understandable to the reader, and the occasions when the hero does employ magic are not incomprehensible bursts of sudden emotionally charged fire, but plans worked out according to rules and strictures set down previously, albeit often with unique execution. Indeed, in many ways the magic craft matches the sea craft very well.

Perhaps the one fault of the book is in its characters. The protagonist, John Shandanyak, or Jack Shandy as he is dubbed, is typical of powers heroes in that he is a young man dropped quite literally into circumstances beyond his control (his previous profession of a puppeteer, as well as being quite unique is almost a stylistic tribute to the way he lets himself be swept along by events). His changing attitude, goals and experience, indeed his rather ambiguous feelings about his fellow pirates are one of the high points of the novel. Sadly the same is not true of his main romance, which, given it's prominence as a driving force in much of his motivations really should've had more to it. Though the initial scene of the novel showing friendship between John and Beth, one of his travelling companions does hint at more, they rarely if ever see each other throughout the rest of the book, indeed during her longest appearance in the book Beth is unconscious. John's feelings towards Beth are never explained, indeed given some comments early in the book it seems he is actively trying to avoid developing feelings for her (and having her leave with her father and a pirate crew on a mysterious voyage would seem the ideal opportunity to relieve himself of such unwanted distractions).

Beth herself also feels something of a token character. While Powers initially, in the first part of the novel, has several scenes from her perspective and shows her to be, despite a sheltered upbringing, an intelligent and resourceful person, albeit one who is slightly naive, these fall off as the book progresses to the point that she doesn't appear for the final half of the book despite the fact that John is spending all his efforts to rescue her at that point.

Indeed, this lack of relation between the two of them is born out when, during a magical attack on his mind we are shown a scene between John and Beth which supposedly happened earlier in the novel, but we were never told about, (including this scene would've also given that moment more prominence as well).

Usually I would somewhat excuse a book written in the 1980's from this sort of sexism, especially one set in a time such as the 18th century, however given the fact that John's motivations were so much wrapped up with this romance, side lining it as Powers does makes it less than believable. This also contrasts starkly with the very realistic motivations that are given for most other actions and the fine detail on the relationship John has with the other pirates and with his own past, not to mention being a real come down as opposed to the extremely human, complex and indeed hilariously twisted romantic subplot Powers includes in another of his historical fantasies, The Anubis Gates.

Since in many ways this is a coming of age story (albeit that John is older than such characters usually are), other characters play more supporting roles. While the antagonists and allies of the book all have separate motivations, which makes the very structure of the conflict to be nicely piratical and confused in nature, all are explained adequately and meet resolution, albeit that there are plenty of surprising twists and turns and unexpected changes of sides.

Another issue I felt as far as characterization went, was that in many places the book is too short, and colourful personalities such as the mystical but seemingly knowledgeable Governor Sorny, the reluctant and half possessed dupe Sebastian, not to mention Blackbeard himself do not play quite as keen a role in the book as their distinct appearance and presence would make you expect, indeed while this was a far more straight forward novel in its overall plot than The Anubis Gates, the complexity in character motivations really could've done with a little more fleshing out, despite the fact that in its progression of events it is quite satisfying.

All that being said, this was a fantastic novel, a rollicking pirate adventure which was at the same time routed in enough history and detail to make it believable. Magic and truth were very much fused together, and the overall theme of the book was one of hope and freedom, even while giving ample acknowledgement to the costs that freedom may have. John's conscious remembering of all his dead friends towards the end of the book was quite poignant, even as he himself noted that dangerous and violent though it was, he preferred the life of a buccaneer over the duller and more ordered one of civilization.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone. Despite some flaws, the style, energy, pacing and colour of the book is an absolute experience and one not to be missed, especially by lovers of all things piratical, indeed Jack Sparrow better move over since Jack Shandy would get my vote for captain any day of the week!

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1 positive reader review(s) for On Stranger Tides

On Stranger Tides reader reviews

from US

If this book doesn't get you "bitten" by the 50th page, I will gladly boil it into Jack's island stew and feast on it! Based on the legends of Blackbeard and the Fountain Of Youth (with a generous splash of Voodoo and Ulysses), this gorgeous historical fantasy would have made a BRILLIANT prequel to Cap'n Jack's history... BUT, a large-scale studio absolutely pillaged it to a point of being unrecognizable. Sad, sad, sad, that this gorgeous story was made to "walk the plank" for a movie that used only the title thereof. Do yourself a favor and read this story! If you find yourself thinking, "Once you go pirate, you NEVER go back!", you can curse me/thank me later....
10/10 ()

8.5/10 from 2 reviews