On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is a Californian by way of New York; he is apparently good friends with Philip K. Dick and James Blaylock. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, try Dick’s novel that was loosely adapted into the movie Blade Runner, approved was dedicated to Powers. All of that I learned two minutes ago on Wikipedia. When I actually started reading this novel, I only knew that I’d gotten an ARC (just after the book was released) from Subterranean Press. Apparently the book was originally published in 1988, by Ace, but was reissued by another small press in 2006. Subterranean Press’s version came out mid-April; you can get the $18.95 cloth-bound hardback, or the $75 limited edition, or the $250 lettered edition. I’ve done my ode to their bookmaking skills before, but I’ll repeat it here: Subterranean Press makes the prettiest and most satisfying book-objects I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

In around 1718 or so, John Chandagnac, a puppeteer by trade, was heading to Haiti to confront his uncle who stole the family fortune when his ship was hijacked by pirates. Captain Philip Davies gave him the choice of death or becoming a pirate, and Chandagnac (renamed Jack Shandy) naturally chose to become a pirate. The hijacking of the ship was somehow coordinated by a man named Benjamin Hurwood, who has a pretty daughter named Beth; she and Jack hit it off, and end up seeing quite a lot of each other over the next few months. Her father, though, is involved with some strange things — magic, actually; primarily voudoun (voodoo). Magic is stronger in the New World; it’s apparently been used up in Europe. Davies, Hurwood, and his men are eventually to head over to Florida, to meet up with one Ed Thatch, commonly known as Blackbeard, to help him with his quest — which also happens to be Hurwood’s quest. Eventually Jack figures out that there’s something strange going on involving Beth, voudoun, and her father. Can he get his family fortune back from his uncle and rescue Beth, all while not losing his life?

The aforementioned Wikipedia entry told me that many of Powers’s books are ‘secret histories’ — he picks a historical period, and without changing any facts, tells a story about how there is magic working behind the scenes. On Stranger Tides is definitely of this type. Apparently voudoun was very important to pirates, as well as the societies (white and native) of the Caribbean islands. I found it fascinating, if a bit grisly. Some of the magic involves two-headed dogs, human sacrifice, zombie servants, and other darkly fantastic things. I should also not forget to mention the chickens into whom someone’s illness had been magicked — one should not eat those chickens, or one will catch the illness.

Powers can write. Oh, boy, can he write. While this was a fairly short novel — only a little over 300 pages — it was dense, mostly narration and not nearly as much dialogue. His characters talked in a modified version of modern English, but there was definitely a historical flavor. I think an excerpt would demonstrate what I mean the best.

Gripping one of the taut vertical ropes and leaning far out over the rail, John Chandagnac waited a moment until the swell lifted the huge, creaking structure of the stern and the poop deck on which he stood, and then he flung the biscuit as far as he could.

That’s the first sentence of the first chapter, and the rest of the book is like that. Not pretentious, but long, balanced, and clear sentences. They never got in the way of the story, but I was still able to admire his skill in creating these sentences.

It’s a fairly dark tale, what with all the grotesqueries and death required by the magic side of the plot. Pirates, as well, were not known for having particularly peaceful occupations, and Jack rises from cook to captain. However, the love story is satisfying, the magic is interesting, the boat stuff is (presumably) accurate, and the characters are colorful. I’d recommend this, in whatever edition (although obviously the Sub Press edition is what I’m reviewing), to more adult readers interested in history, historical pirates, and who wouldn’t be put off by the death-magic. 5/5 stars.

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