Monday, January 30, 2017

What I am reading: On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

"This dark fantasy tale will appeal not just to pirate fans but also to anyone who appreciates Powers's talent for blending the most unlikely elements into a brilliantly cohesive whole." 
-- Publishers Weekly (Starred Reviews)

The reviewer nailed it. On Stranger Tides (1987) by Tim Powers is an entertaining swashbuckling pirate story. And it's a secret history that, among other things, explains 
  • How Caribbean pirates were so successful at thwarting Spanish, English, French, and Dutch naval forces; 
  • Why Stede Bonnet, "The Gentleman Pirate," left the life of a wealthy landowner to turn to a life of crime;
  • The real, i.e. has to do with magic, reason that Blackbeard had lit slow matches tied into his hair and beard;
  • What was really behind Blackbeard's May 1718 blockade of Charleston, South Carolina and what he did with his treasure before he died.

Powers does have a talent for "secret history" historical fiction. Years before reading anything by Dan Brown I read Anubis Gate by Powers. (I much prefer Powers' story telling.) Anubis Gate is a time travel story set mostly in 1810, featuring a brainwashed Lord Byron, magic, Egyptian gods and a werewolf. What's not to like?

Typically, Powers strictly adheres to established historical fact. In a Powells interview regarding his 2000 novel Declare, he stated,

"I made it an ironclad rule that I could not change or disregard any of the recorded facts, nor rearrange any days of the calendar – and then I tried to figure out what momentous but unrecorded fact could explain them all."

One nice bit is that Powers tells us what magic in this world smells like -- hot metal like an overheated gun that's been fired too many times in succession. That makes me think that I've spent way too little time and effort deciding and describing the sensory effects of magic.

The characters are entertaining. I liked the protagonist. In fact he reminded me a bit of Will Turner in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Jack Shandy starts out naive and out of his element, though still  possessed of a few useful talents - who would think that being a puppeteer would help you in a sword fight? But we see him learn and grow and change as he comes to terms with the strange environment into which he has been thrown. The love interest, while likeable, is somewhat 2-dimensional, but she is the object not the subject of the quest. And the pirate captain Phillip Davies is delightful.
"One of the pirates stepped forward and sprang up the companion ladder to the poop deck so lithely that Chandagnac was surprised, when the man turned and tilted back his three-cornered hat, to see the deep lines of his dark cheeks and the quantity of gray in his tangled black hair. He scanned the men below him and grinned, narrowing his eyes and baring a lot of teeth."
Sound like any pirate captains who you might have later seen elsewhere?

Disney optioned the novel for the third (2011) Pirates of the Caribbean film On Stranger Tides. But, without getting into two many spoilers, with the exception of the title, there are at least as many elements of the book in the first movie in the franchise as there are in the second. And like most movies inspired by books, the book is better. 

Captain Davis is frequently drinking, but then so are virtually all the pirates in the book so it doesn't stand out as irritatingly unusual in the way I sometimes find Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. Phil Davis often steals the reader's interest from both the hero and the villains of the tale. He's a good, interesting character with plausible virtues and vices. Davies has a wry sense of humor. He's a keen observer of the human condition and he is honest about himself. I like his description cum metaphor of the honest and good-hearted Jack as a wooden choirboy Christmas ornament that was knocked of the shelf is a unique and quirky and it tells the reader why he likes and helps Jack.

I enjoyed On Stranger Tides a lot. I give it 3.5 stars.

1 comment:

  1. Catching up on posts and wholeheartedly agree that the book is both brilliant and wasted in the PotC film.

    I'm not sure I ever posted my thoughts on the film but I thought there was a more natural adaption.

    Basically it involves turning Davis into Jack Sparrow and introducing a new cast member, I'd no objection to the rumour about Zac Efron or anyone else for that matter, to play Shandy. As long as it was someone young enough and with a bit of star power.

    This could have extended the franchise beyond Depp, something the studio would probably appreciate.

    They could have run the film much closer to the book and saved all the extra for another film.

    I think it would have been a much better fit for the characters, and the book could have remained far more intact.