Thursday 21 April 2011

Book Review | On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

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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...


The basis for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film set to hit theatres this May, On Stranger Tides by Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominee Tim Powers is a drunken, back-stabbing, swaggering, double-dealing Saturday afternoon in the sun matinee of a novel. Depending on how closely Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio's adapted screenplay hones to it, and just how many Captain Jack Sparrows director Rob Marshall decides to composite into the thing, needless to say, in On Stranger Tides there are the makings of the best Pirates of the Carribean flick since the very first.

Nor is this the first time On Stranger Tides has been the inspiration for such estimable entertainment. Originally released in 1987, way back when Powers' novel also moved game designer and erstwhile funny man Ron Gilbert to define a generation with The Secret of Monkey Island. Their purposes might have differed somewhat - one was a boisterous book of adventure on the high seas and the other a comic point-and-click - but the veins of commonality between the game and the story which helped germinate it are easy to pick out, even to this day: there's all the voodoo hoodoo, of course, but also strains of Hatch and Shandy in LeChuck and Guybrush, and in the pirate town of Mêlée, where Threepwood determines to become a swarvy dog, there are echoes of "the outlaw republic on New Providence Island" (p.57) where Powers' protagonist Jack gets sea legs of his own.

This is after he's been pressganged, you understand. While sailing for Jamaica to right a wrong done him by an ass-kissing uncle and inherit the estate that is rightfully his, John Chandagnac's ship is boarded by pirates under the nefarious Blackbeard, who give him a no-brainer of a choice: John can either walk the plank, or join them. He signs on the dotted line forthwith - wouldn't we all? - and rechristened Jack Shandy via a few drunken sailors and a barrel of rum, he begins to realise that perhaps it's a pirate's life for him, after all... if only for as long as it takes to rescue the object of his affections.

That's Beth Hurwood, in whose body Beth's father Benjamin means to resurrect his late and oft-lamented wife. Beth is "innocence intolerably abused" (p.182) in so many words, and Jack hopes to see her free from harm's way, even if saving the girl means he has to cross Blackbeard himself, whose quest for booty takes the pirates - old and new "to a hole in the wall between life and death, and anyone standing around is liable to catch the spray from one side or the other. Don't you know any history? It what Juan Ponce de Leon was looking for - he called it the Fountain of Youth." (p.158)

Now I'm no Pirates of the Caribbean apologist. The sequels were ridiculous, self-serving things; embarrassing for all concerned, I do not doubt. But that first film... well, it took me back, reminded me of a time when pirates were in vogue, and such stories were still told. Where did they all go, anyway?

For its part, On Stranger Tides left me feeling much the same way, in a heady haze of nostalgia and satisfaction. Powers writes unfussily, with lots of hyphens and ellipses and asides, yet through every diversion his piquant prose flows smoothly. His language is intoxicating, engaging on a visual and a sensory level, and though his characters - Jack and Beth and especially Blackbeard - are archetypes every which way you look at them, they leap to life from the first. Their adventures are an undiluted joy to follow.

On Stranger Tides has it all, which is to say romance and mystery, action and intrigue, dark magic and exciting swordfights on the seven seas. It's such great fun; it rips along, keeping pace with the best best Summer books; and if I don't remember much of it in a week or a month or a year, as well I might not, why... I'll go at it again! I read this timely reissue because of the Pirates of the Caribbean connection, I admit, but the next Tim Powers I read, I'm reading because Tim Powers wrote it.

Also: arrrrrr!


On Stranger Tides
by Tim Powers

UK Publication: May 2011, Corvus
US Publication: April 2011, Harper

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  1. *cough* You might have gotten the author's name slightly wrong in the title of this post.... *cough*

    For your next novel by Tim Powers, I'd recommend The Anubis Gates which is a a very clever, highly entertaining and extremely well-written proto-steampunk time travel romp that is even more fun than On Stranger Tides.

  2. I second the recommendation for Anubis Gates but I'd go for The Stress of Her Regard which is a great twist on the usual vampire fluff.

  3. Hey, I'm all for vampire fluff!

    As I understand it, Corvus signed a deal with Tim to republish a few of his older books: I think The Stress of Her Regard is one such, in part because Powers has a loose sequel to it cooking just now. So I'll absolutely check that one out, when and if.

    As to The Anubis Gates, two recommendations is all it takes, it seems: I've just ordered up the SF Masterworks edition from Amazon Marketplace. Any excuse to add another of those spines to my collection. :)

  4. Your assessment if the PotC movies is dead on but I still love a good pirate story as the three Sabatinis on my bookshelf may suggest. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll definitely be adding it to my TBR list.

  5. Hi! Might I also recommend both of Tim's short story collections: Strange Itineraries and The Bible Repairman and other stories.

    I really enjoyed both The Bible Repairman which is a meditation on "see no evil, speak no evil" at least I think so. Last Coin written by Tim and James Blaylock is a fun story.

    Last Coin has an original "Twilight Zone" feel to it, which I loved. Those are my recommendations. I'm working my way through "Last Call" and the Stress of Her Regard sequel, Hide Me Among The Graves now.

    If you're interested in hearing an interview I did with Tim for a writing podcast I'm part of, here you go: