I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while now. I really only picked it up because I watched all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies earlier this week. Interestingly, when I looked the Pirates movies up on Wikipedia, I found out that not only are they filming a fourth movie right now, but that the producers also bought the rights to this book and the fourth movie will be based in part on Tim Power’s On Stranger Tides.
When I was asked earlier this week to describe what I was reading, all I could really come up with was pirates messing around with voodoo. The more I thought about it, the more this description fit. After an exciting prologue in which a character tries to retrieve his dead wife Orpheus-style, we meet our protagonist, John Chandagnac. Chandagnac, a puppeteer, soon becomes Jack Shandy when the ship he’s traveling on is taken by pirates who have problems pronouncing his French name. Shandy becomes a reluctant part of their crew and is swept up in the pirates’ plans.
This book has a great cast of antagonists. More than once, they steal the scene from Jack Shandy. First, there’s Shandy’s captain, Philip Davies, who pushes our hero to greater and greater heights of criminal behavior–but who is ultimately Shandy’s best friend. There’s Ben Hurwood, the would be Orpheus who will stop at nothing, not even the murder of his own daughter, to resurrect his dead wife. And then there’s my absolute favorite: Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard. He first steps on to the stage in full piratical rig out, including the smoldering slow matches braided into his hair. Blackbeard is portrayed like a force of nature. Even when he’s not actually involved in a scene, he still seems to influence events. When he and Hurwood team up to find and use the Fountain of Youth, it’s captivating and terrifying to watch. Shandy just gets tangled up in their plans, but he’s the only one who knows what they’re up to and has the wherewithal to stop them. The last scene of the book, when Shandy takes on Blackbeard, is marvelous–in the original sense of the word, not the fashionista sense. It truly is a marvel to read.
This is one of the first books Powers wrote and published. I’ve read his later books and can tell the difference. I really enjoy reading Powers, because he is incredibly skillful in blending history and oddball supernatural stuff together. In Declare, it was World War II and the djinn. In Last Call, it was poker and the Fisher King. In both of these books, Powers steadfastly refuses to reveal more than he absolutely has to. It’s like he met an expository character when he was young and formed a violent abhorrence to their kind. In contrast to the later books, there is a lot of exposition in these books. Not only to characters say what they’re doing, but they also explain why things work the way they do. It was a pleasant change, but after a while, I found that I missed the challenge of trying to figure out just what the hell was going on.
Still, On Stranger Tides is an entertaining and unusual read. With a full compliment of zombies, voodoo practitioners, and loas, On Stranger Tides is one of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read. I’m really looking forward to the next Pirates movie, just to see what those writers did with this story.