Another review recovered from the mists of time. This is a review of the re-issue of On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, and first appeared in Vector 267, Summer 2011.
When On Stranger Tides was first published in 1988 we had not heard of Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course, now we know that this novel was an inspiration for the Pirates of the Caribbean films; now we know that this novel has leant its title and some scintilla of its plot to the fourth episode in the series. Now we know that the commingling of pirates and zombies is wide-screen epic adventure full of spectacular effects and Johnny Depp pretending to be Keith Richard. Which means that when we re-read the novel now, in this new edition timed to coincide with the latest film release, we are reading a different book.
It means that now, when we read some piece of derring-do by reluctant pirate Jack Shandy, we almost inevitably substitute the name Jack Sparrow, though there is a fair bit of the part Orlando Bloom played in the first film in the character of our hero. Now, when we read of Blackbeard being rowed ashore by a dead man, we visualise Geoffrey Rush and one of his crew, the flesh dropping from their ghastly bones.
The novel is the poorer for the inescapable comparison.
In the 1980s, Tim Powers was on a roll, writing a series of novels that differed in tone and subject: the time travel fantasy The Anubis Gates (which featured the fictional poet William Ashbless who provides one of the epigrams in this novel); the futuristic Dinner at Deviant’s Palace; and the subtle blend of realism and the fantastic in The Stress of Her Regard. Within this context, the garish adventure that is On Stranger Tides can be seen as part of an on-going experiment with style. But in fact the reference to Ashbless here indicates a more interesting link between these novels. They are all concerned with the Romantic and the Decadent, with a civilisation whose self-regard masks uncertainty and decline. The three novels set in the past all make extensive use of historical figures, Byron in The Anubis Gates and The Stress of Her Regard, in this novel Blackbeard and Woodes Rogers (the man who rescued Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe). Byron and Blackbeard are cavalier figures who have set themselves outside the norms of their societies, and in circling around these characters the novels provide an edge-on view of the way things are falling apart. And in each of the novels some intrusion of the supernatural (Egyptian gods in The Anubis Gates, vampirism in Dinner at Deviant’s Palace and The Stress of Her Regard, voodoo and zombies here) acts as an archetype for the breakdown of the formal, the rigid, the dressy aspect of a rotting society. In On Stranger Tides, for instance, it is notable how often Powers describes formal costume, dress uniforms, the ball gowns at a Christmas party, just at the point that the pirates or the supernatural are going to throw things into disarray.
Given such a reading of the book, it is no surprise that Jack Chandagnac is a young puppeteer (artistry betokens a Romantic spirit) on his way to the Caribbean to confront his uncle who has cheated Jack’s father out of a rightful inheritance and thus brought about the father’s death (the rightful order of society has been disrupted). But before any of this can come about the supernatural intrudes: pirates aided by the magic of one of Jack’s fellow passengers, capture the ship. Due to a wild and romantic act, Jack finds himself co-opted into the pirate crew (and rechristened Jack Shandy), where he discovers an unexpected affinity for the pirate life.
The plot now effectively resolves itself into a series of quests. Jack still wants to recover his lost inheritance, but he is also out to win the love of Beth Hurwood. Beth is the daughter of Benjamin Hurwood, once a professor of philosophy at Oxford University but now eager to use voodoo to bring his dead wife back to life (an academic driven mad by magic is another example of the supernatural representing the overthrow of the establishment). Unfortunately, Hurwood’s magic will entail the death of Beth. Meanwhile, Hurwood’s creepy associate, Dr Leo Friend, another magician, has his own plans for Beth. On top of all this, Jack’s captain, Philip Davies, is an associate of the notorious Blackbeard, with his crew of zombies. And the separate plans of Blackbeard, Hurwood and Friend all entail discovering the Fountain of Youth (Ponce de Leon puts in a delightful cameo), the novel’s central quest upon which Jack and Davies find themselves unwilling company.
The succession of opponents – Hurwood, Friend, his uncle and Blackbeard – that Jack must separately face and overcome if he is to rescue Beth and win her love, is perhaps too many. Each climax turns out to be nothing more than the prelude to the next breathless climax. But behind the colour and the swashbuckling, which Powers handles with great aplomb, you sense a more thoughtful work running alongside the adventure. There is enough here – monsters and magic, battles and betrayals – to delight those who just want the thrills and spills of the film recapitulated on the page. But there is more going on in the novel than in any, or indeed all, of the films. Pirate society is presented as wild and free, yet at the same time limited and limiting: excessive amounts of alcohol are consumed, society is a ratty camp on a small island, Blackbeard puts everyone in fear, and most are simply waiting for the free pardon that Woodes Rogers is supposedly bringing. Yet the society they long for is little better, typified by extreme poverty, lawlessness and corruption. The romance of the pirate adventure and the decadence of actual pirate life places this novel squarely among the best work that Tim Powers has done.