On Stranger Tides is one of the most purely fun books I’ve ever read. Published in 1987, it’s difficult, in hindsight, not to imagine On Stranger Tides being an unacknowledged inspiration for the entire Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise—despite Disney having only bought the rights to the novel in 2009 and apparently only plundered it (pun intended) as the loose basis for the fourth installment. We shall have to take them at their word.
Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories aside, Tim Powers is a mad genius who, if there were any real justice in this world, should be much better known. Mr Powers has created some of the most unique fantastic fiction in several genres and is one of the key progenitors of what we think of as steampunk today, through his seminal 1983 novel The Anubis Gates.
In On Stranger Tides Mr Powers manages to refresh the incredibly tired clichés of pirate stories through the layering of a wild palimpsest of real sixteenth century pirate history with voudoun ritual & afro-Caribbean folklore, tangled familial & criminal intrigue, taut thrill-filled action, love story & comedy, and full-on supernatural horror.
It’s this last element that really elevates the book. Mr Powers shades in the background of his rousing high-seas adventure with a system of magic based equally in the psychological histories of its wielders & victims as in a deep, fathomless (pun intended) supernatural other-world of shadowy semi-human spirits. He drags his characters through frightening scenes of violence and hardship during which they drift between the real world, supernaturally altered states or other dimensions and psychologically traumatic scenes of their own past.
And in all these scenes he describes highly original and creepily perverse depictions of undead apparitions and weird creatures. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let’s just say I’ll never look at tree fungus the same way again.
My minor complaint is that the only real female character, Beth, is a bit thinly drawn, as she disappears off the page for long stretches. However, this marginalization is a largely necessary side effect of the plot. In the end, the character of Beth becomes key in an interesting and unanticipated way (at least by me, but maybe sharper readers would see it coming…the hints are there).
In fact, the novel pays off all of its incredibly dense plotting in such a satisfyingly clockwork manner by the conclusion, that I’m a little jealous of Mr Powers’ ability to successfully wrangle all the concepts he’s jammed into this book.
Hollywood, please take note: big fun doesn’t have to exist in the absence of big ideas.