Monday, September 8, 2014

Review of On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Ahh, pirates! From Robert Louis Stevenson’s superb Treasure Island to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the thieving rogues capture the heart of everyone wanting freedom and life on the high seas with wine, treasure, and adventure.  Recent genre forays faring better and worse (Gene Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom, better; Scott Lynch’s Red Seas under Red Skies, worse), a little gem written in the 80s has gone overlooked and is deserving of resurrection—voodoo style—for anyone interested in eye patches and Jolly Rogers: Tim Power’s 1987 On Stranger Tides.  Falling in the middle quality wise, the novel remains an imaginative romp through pirate land.

On Stranger Tides opens with John Chandagnac as passenger aboard the Vociferous Charmichael in Caribbean waters on its way to Kingston, Jamaica.  Looking forward to reclaiming an inheritance from a sleazy uncle who cheated John’s father years ago, his dreams of vengeance, as well as conversations with the lovely Beth Hurwood onboard ship, are interrupted by a pirate attack.  The little brigand sloop amazingly able to overtake the much bigger and better armed Charmichael, John is taken captive by the buccaneer Philip Davies and given a choice: join or die.  Taking the obvious path, John is soon learning the ways of pirating and helping to trim the Charmichael down to racing speed so that Davies can rendezvous with the notorious Blackbeard.  Blackbeard’s purpose for the meeting, however, remains shrouded in ghosts and magic, leaving John in a fight for his life—and soul—on the seas and in the jungles of the Caribbean when they do meet.  

The early days of Hollywood the greatest influence on the novel, On Stranger Tides features all the elements of pulp adventure.  There is a damsel in distress, captures and escapes, increasing heights of unbelievability, wild magic and sorcery, an unrelenting pace, and, of course, a daring hero.  If the characters say they’re going somewhere, they go—and adventure is sure to follow.  Powers doesn’t waste text humming and hawing, getting his characters from one scene to the next, bogging the narrative down with world building.  If they’re going to meet Blackbeard, they’re off, no mucking about in the details of life aboard ship or lessons how to be a pirate.  The result is a streamlined novel that maintains interest through sheer verve. 

It’s therefore in depth of story that On Stranger Tides falters.  When hedging all your bets on plotting, one had better be sure the characters, setting, pacing, story direction, etc. are proportioned to produce a cohesive whole that satisfies in both predictable and unpredictable fashion.  Starting from the first, the scenes are gloriously set; the jungle voodoo prologue sends a chill down the reader’s spine.  But it is the nighttime walk with Blackbeard through the swamps of Florida which is the single best section of the book.  The characters, well, they are less successful.  They get the story from point A to B, but are generally place holders for an adventure.  Beth is damsel du jour. John is the resourceful and honorable hero caught up in matters over his head.  Leo Friend, with his mommy-issues and lechery, is an obvious villain.  Davies is the pirate you respect, Blackbeard the crazy wild card, and so on.  Story direction (event plotting, whatever you want to call it) is likewise mediocre.  The first and second thirds of the novel moving in an exciting, even unpredictable fashion, the final third collapses into a narrative that everyone knows the result of, only the minor details left to click into place.  Powers makes no effort to hide this (everyone knows from the beginning how John will end up), and therefore tries, and for the most part succeeds, at making the pacing as salacious as possible.  As a pure storyteller, Powers, is awesome, but the conclusion of On Stranger Tides does not possess the same satisfaction as The Anubis Gates and Dinner at Deviant’s Palace.  For a story dependent on plotting, this is a sore spot. 

Another issue is the consistency of style.  Where the scenes are set and move wonderfully, there are other times when the exposition becomes quite overt.  See the following:

“I  can't  fire on a Royal Navy vessel, he thought. But if I refuse to shoot, these men will kill me … as a matter of fact, if I don't do a good job here, the Royal Navy may very well kill me, along with everyone else on the Jenny.  My God, there simply isn't an acceptable course of action for me.”

There are, of course, some readers who find nothing wrong with such presentation, so I will suffice in saying it was possible for Powers to have imbued the narrative with a little more nuance.

In the end, On Stranger Tides is a strong Hollywood-esque pirate adventure.  (Indeed, Disney would later option Powers’ story for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film.)  Light entertainment, it’s easy to become drawn into John Chandagnac’s plight in the pirate waters of the Caribbean for its sense of fun.  With voodoo magic, Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth, and the ghost-infested Blackbeard coloring his adventure, the pages keep turning, and turning in imaginative fashion.  True popcorn fantasy, I would recommend Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom over On Stranger Tides for substance, but if one is just looking for a beach read—perhaps the Caribbean (sorry, couldn’t resist), it’s tough to go wrong with Power’s novel.

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