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Book review: On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers

I wanted to re-read (and review) this book this month, before the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, on which it is very loosely based, comes out. I’m very glad I did, as it’s been many years since I first read it and the experience was quite an eye-opener.

On Stranger Tides was first published in 1987, and is the third (and most American-based) of Powers’ historical fantasies. It is set in the Caribbean in the early eighteenth century, where magic still survives on the remote fringes of civilisation. Penniless puppeteer John Chandagnac sets out from Europe to reclaim the family estate in Haiti from his usurping uncle, but en route the ship is boarded by pirates and John is forced to join their crew. Dubbed “Jack Shandy” by his new shipmates, he harbours dreams of completing his quest (and rescuing his fellow passenger, the lovely Beth Hurwood, who was taken captive in the raid), but he runs afoul of Blackbeard, who is searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth, the key to immortality. In true swashbuckling pirate fashion, Shandy learns to fight and sail a ship, kills the bad guys and gets the girl, facing European sorcerors, voodoo bocors, zombies and even Baron Samedi himself along the way – no wonder Disney wanted to steal the best bits to reanimate their own ailing franchise!

In fact this book’s plot has so much in common with the very first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, that it could almost have inspired it. At the very least it shares the same source material, with an early scene of the pirates telling stories around their beach campfire “of ships crewed by zombies and glimpsed only at midnight by doomed men”. Even the protagonist’s pirate name is awfully close to that of Jack Sparrow, and he does indeed become captain of his own small ship and spend a couple of long spells getting blind drunk on rum (or red wine if he can get it) on beaches. There’s even a character who could have stepped out of the original movie, a black pirate called Mr Bird who periodically shouts “I am not a dog!” for no apparent reason.

In some respects this is a very old-fashioned book: there is no strong language (beyond an occasional “damn” or “bloody”), with any actual swearing being referred to obliquely, and any feminist readers are likely to be disappointed by the passivity of the female characters. Beth Hurwood exists purely to be threatened by the bad guys and rescued by the hero, and the one potentially interesting young woman (a teenage Ann Bonny) makes only a couple of brief appearances. However all this is very true to the genre’s swashbuckling, “Boy’s Own” roots and detracted very little from this reader’s enjoyment, perhaps because the hero himself is a complex, well-rounded character: likeably naive to begin with, gradually coming to enjoy his new adventurous life but with a moral core that prevents him from descending into the savagery displayed by the other pirates.

Overall, I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves a good adventure story. It’s darker than the movies, but comedy is much harder to pull off on the page than on-screen, and Powers’ rich imagination more than compensates.

As an aside: The further I got into this book, the more I realised what an unconscious influence on my own writing it has been. The combination of history and the fantastic, the clash of New World and Old, even some elements of the magic, have all found their way into The Alchemist of Souls. Well, Picasso did say that “immature artists imitate, mature artists steal” :)