On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers
Posted August 10, 2010on:
Once upon a time I posted this review here.
John Chandagnac had a plan, and it was a good one. Go to Jamaica, approach his corrupt uncle, and get his inhertence back. Pretty easy, right? But this is a Tim Powers novel – nothing works out the way you plan.
A few days away from docking in Jamaica, John finally gets up the nerve to approach Beth Hurwood, an attractive young woman travelling with her father and mysterious doctor. Before their relationship can go any further, and before they reach Jamaica, the ship is beset by pirates. When it become obvious Beth’s father is in league with the pirates, John lets himself be recruited as an opportunity to live another few days, and maybe get Beth to safety. The fact that he can cook, fence, and act further ingratiates him to the pirate crew, led by Captain Davies, who answers to Blackbeard himself. John Chandagnac becomes Jack Shandy, starts learning voodoo magic, and begins to put together the pieces of what Mr. Hurwood and Blackbeard are planning.
Here is where On Stranger Tides gets wonderfully bizarre. We’re in 18th century Caribbean, and Blackbeard is the pirate king. As a young man, he was taught Voudon magic by escaped slaves. Further instructed by a British magician, Blackbeard inadvertently caused an earthquake by performing water magic on land. This is ancient, elemental magic. If you perform water magic on land, the land goes to the water, and vice versa. Once you get to know Blackbeard, it’s pretty easy to see him as not such a bad guy. Sure, he steals and kills, and has a bride in every port, but he’s not vindictive, obsessive, overtly mean, or disrespectful of pirate democracy. And, Mr. Hurwood believes Blackbeard knows how to reach the Fountain of Youth in Florida. Hurwood’s goal this whole time has been to reach the fountain of youth to bring back the soul of his dead wife, and implant it in the body of his daughter. See what I mean about saying Blackbeard’s not such a bad guy? When Jack learns of the plan, he realizes the only way to save Beth is tag along. And the fountain of youth? He’s got to see this! It’s the realm of “magic is real!” that Tim Powers excels muchly in. When he writes magic, or time travel, or body snatching, it’s not hokey, or cheesy, or unbelievable. It’s matter of fact, it’s dangerous, and it’s real.
Wait a minute, The Fountain of Youth, in Florida? Isn’t that what Juan Ponce de Leon is famous for searching for, and never finding? Or who knows, maybe he did find it, changed his name, and retired in the Caribbean?
The Fountain of Youth that Powers envisions is not really a fountain. And it doesn’t really give you your youth. It is a plane of existence that drives you insane. While walking behind the Hurwoods and Blackbeard, Jack sees a trail of blood that no one else sees. The landscape begins to look familiar. He sees an image of his father, wounded by muggers, nearly bleeding to death, which is exactly how Jack lost his father years ago. The fountain shows you things – things you don’t want to see. If you can survive them, maybe you deserve to live. Or not.
When pirate and voodoo lore run wild, there is endless possibilities. Fans of historical fiction and alternate history will get a kick out this book, as the majority of islands and colonies and some of the people mentioned really did exist. And if you like your fiction weird and creepy? And added bonus.
Did Powers just rip off a handful of wildly popular pirate movies based on a Disney ride? Not so fast, as On Stranger Tides was originally published in 1988, and fits in well with Power’s tidal wave of successes in the 1980’s. Not to mention Disney recently optioned On Stranger Tides for movie rights for the fourth Pirates movie. So maybe we’ll be getting some fountain of youth action next summer? Or they could just butcher the living crap out of it, and be an embarrassment to fans of Tim Powers.