On Stranger Tides
by Tim Powers
Recommended for: People who liked the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or The Pirates' Own Book
When John Chandagnac steps aboard ship, he little realizes how much his life will change. As he sets out on a voyage of revenge to restore the fortune that his uncle absconded with, he is soon distracted by the beautiful Elizabeth Hurwood. John begins to sense that something is wrong: Elizabeth is oddly listless, thoroughly controlled by her eccentric father and overbearing doctor. Already conflicted by his interest for the girl, John's life irrevocably alters when pirates attack and take the ship. John's brave and rather idiotic actions during the attack lead to him being offered The Choice: join the pirates or die. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, John joins the crew as Jack Shandy. Now a pirate, he discovers that the New World is full of mystery, danger, and literal magic. Beth's father and the fearsome Blackbeard have concocted a horrifying scheme involving powerful Voduun magic and blood sacrifice. Jack, torn between his sense of honour and loyalty, sets himself a new goal: to protect and rescue Beth. The story hits climax after climax, and sorcery and swordfights abound.
Considering that the male lead's name is Jack, the female's is Elizabeth, pirates are after a hidden treasure, blood sacrifices are central to the plot, and undead pirates end up battling aboard ship, comparisons with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl are pretty much unavoidable*. My issue with the story was the same as the one I had with Pirates of the Caribbean. The very mechanics of the plot meant I could not examine the contents too closely. I have a somewhat inflexible moral compass, and one little thought kept slipping into my head: that a man who pillages and murders, no matter how affable he might be, is not a good guy. The narration appears to cast the "good" pirates as neutral and Shandy as heroic and noble, and like Will Turner in Pirates, neither Shandy nor the narrator reflect much on what it means to join, aid, and be loyal to the pirate crew. I didn't like Will much, and Shandy really, really reminds me of him, with his self-righteous arrogance and his overarching obsession with a woman that we've only seen him speak a few words to. However, morality has little to do with likeability, and like Shandy, I find the pirate captain, Davies, to be an incredibly engaging and enjoyable character. He reminds me of Barbossa, my absolute favourite character of Pirates, but he has an even more wicked sense of humour. I couldn't really empathize with any of the characters, but I liked most of them. I also loved the characterization of Blackbeard as incredibly cold, scary, smart, and charismatic.
The only aspect I think the movie got better was Elizabeth. Elizabeth Hurwood has the worst case of the damsels I think I've ever come across. She spends the entire book as someone's hostage, and her personality remains entirely undeveloped. I think all of her words together might fit on one page, and they are all reactions to circumstance and declarations of affection or fear. She is explicitly considered by the men around her to be merely an object, a vessel to be utilized for the pleasure or convenience of others. The story also uses the "weepy weakling woman threatened with rape" trope way too much and way too graphically for me to be happy. Since Elizabeth appears to have been born with the backbone of a jellyfish and other forces continually use multiple means to control and subdue her, she is little more than a blank-eyed doll, and is actually described as such at several points in the story.
The fight scenes are pulse-racing and oddly realistic, considering most of them involve spells cast by Bokur (Vodou witch-doctors) and zombies joining in the fun. They actually forced me to realize that although I have a fascination with the grotesque, I have an incredibly weak stomach for the gruesome. I never really realized just how wimpy I was until some of the graphic fight scenes in the story. Guhhhk.
My favourite aspect of the story was the way that it intertwined the history and myths of the region. Powers definitely did the research. His New World is vivid and enjoyable, and Powers never rewrites history, something I really appreciate. He adds carefully engineered additional details which not only fit with all the known facts but feel both fitting and creative. For example, in this story, Blackbeard is a Vodun Bokur, which explains some of his fantastic adventures and odd foibles. Other fantastic stories, from Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth to iron's effect on magic, are deftly woven into the tale. Overall, On Stranger Tides is a perfect read for anyone who likes quite a bit of blood, gore, and battle, enjoyed the lurid tales of The Pirate's Own Book, and wants a better-crafted rendition of Pirates of the Caribbean.
*I'm comparing On Stranger Tides solely to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl; apparently a later Pirates movie was directly based on On Stranger Tides, but I didn't get that far in the Pirates franchise.