ON STRANGER TIDES by Tim Powers

Book Quote:

Blackbeard nodded. “I was sure you’d figured that out. Yes, old Hurwood plans to raise his wife’s ghost from her dried head and plant it in the body of his daughter. Hard luck on the daughter, left with no body…”

Book Review:

Review by Bill Brody  (JUN 12, 2011)

My review is of a paperback reprint of a Tim Powers novel, On Stranger Tides, first published to a good deal of critical acclaim in 1987. No doubt the success of the new movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides inspired the reprint.

Voodoo plays a major role in this novel, in particular with regard to resurrection. Voodoo and other western systems of magic are all tied up with the relationship between magic, blood (and its analog, sea water) and cold iron. It turns out according to this tale at least that cold iron quenches magic. The magic of Europe has been much diminished in the 17th century due to steel, armor, swords and the other trappings of European material culture. Magic flourishes in the western hemisphere where blood still rules over steel. Blood is the antithesis of cold steel; it is likened to hot iron. Magicians typically have white gums because so much of their blood is in use for magic that they suffer congenital anemia.

Oh, and there are pirates galore; most notably Blackbeard, who we discover is a powerful magician in his own right. Blackbeard’s historic practice of going into battle with lit candles woven into his beard is explained by the revelation in this tale that his patron voodoo demon, his loa, is summoned by smoldering fire. Later in the story a lit cigar serves the same purpose.

Some truly freakish and slimy souls inhabit Powers’ Caribbean world of 17th century. The good people in our tale are not all that good or pure, but they at least try. The bad ones like Blackbeard and Hurwood are truly awful. Hurwood is clearly psychotic, driven to madness by the death of his wife. In his madness he carries her rotting head in a basket and has plotted to resurrect her soul into the body of his daughter, leaving the daughter without a body to call her own. Blackbeard captains a ship of zombies. Among Blackbeard’s other atrocities is manipulating someone to bludgeon-murder his wife in order to be blackmailed into becoming a vassal pirate.

In some ways it is odd to speak to anachronism or logical irregularity in a work about invented magic, but there is one thing that stands out as being off. Hurwood is a University Don, a scholar, who knows the work of Newton and the most up to date developments in science. His explanation of the magic environment surrounding the Fountain of Youth is profoundly anachronistic. He corresponds the locale to a quantum system with some features so precisely known that other aspects are required to be correspondingly unknowable. It should be noted that Newton, who many believe was the archetypical scientist, in reality spent a great deal of his professional life involved with alchemy, and can well be thought of as a magician in his own right. No one from that time and place could have entered into the mind-set of quantum uncertainty. Another quibble is that Jack Shandy, the protagonist is less interesting than the bad guys. Additionally, his love interest, Beth, Hurwood’s daughter, is almost a non-entity. It is not that Jack is two-dimensional or just a purely good guy; he has killed, betrayed and he clearly loves. His back-story is interesting. It is just that he comes off as somewhat vapid by comparison.

Powers is an extremely gifted storyteller His wit is unfailingly dry and brilliant. His powers of bizarre invention are pretty amazing. The plot flows, jumps and bubbles weaving one fantastic invention after another. I enjoyed On Stranger Tides a great deal and I am eager for the next gem from this wizard of off beat fantasy. Readers should be encouraged to explore the long list of his fantastic novels.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 57 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper Paperbacks; Reprint edition (April 26, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bill Brody
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Tim Powers
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

Bibliography:

Fault Lines:

Movies from Books

  • Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides (May 2011)

June 12, 2011 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Alternate History, Caribbean, Speculative (Beyond Reality), y Award Winning Author