There's a lot to recommend On Stranger Tides (1987), another superb offering from the best genre author you’ve never read, Tim Powers. It’s carefully researched and written, with likable characters and a propulsive plot. It showcases Powers’ cross-novel magical economy. It’s a subtle, progressive take on basic high fantasy tropes. It’s a noir-inflected pirate novel. There are zombies. Oh, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
It’s the seventeenth century. Jack Chandagnac began life as the son of an itinerant master puppeteer, just as puppetry ceased to be a going concern. Tired of his father’s exhausting, hand-to-mouth existence, Jack quits the family business and moves to England to become an accountant. His father dies, alone and penniless (in an incredibly affecting flashback – Powers really knows how to tug a heartstring), and Jack determines to journey to the Caribbean and claim the inheritance out of which his father’s evil scheming brother cheated him.
On the voyage, Jack meets a girl. Beth is smart, boasts a wry sense of humor, and is a lot of fun. She’s also being forced to maintain a mysterious vegan diet by her wild-eyed father, a well-known academic named Benjamin Hurwood, and his creepy companion, the leering Doctor Friend.
Pirates attack the ship within minutes of Jack and Beth taking a shine to each other. Jack is forced to join the pirate crew to save his own skin, while the Hurwoods and Friend are… not taken hostage. Indeed, Hurwood and Friend appear to have some sort of deal in place with the pirate captain. The plot, she thickens.
By accident, although not entirely unwillingly, Jack Chandagnac, accountant becomes Jack Shandy, pirate. He earns the trust and respect of his pirate brethren, becomes chef de cuisine for an entire pirate island, and experiences multiple uncanny folk: the increasingly insane Benjamin Hurwood, the infamous Blackbeard, and any number of silent pirates, who shamble around with their clothes sewn shut and their jaws tied up with cloth. Meanwhile, Hurwood and Friend are essentially holding Beth hostage, keeping her from contact with the pirates in general and Jack in particular. They need her for some unknown – and, it becomes clear, unsavory – purpose; as their hold over her tightens, the light seems to die from her eyes.
On Stranger Tides is an adventure story, the story of Jack the pirate. It’s a redemption narrative, the story of Jack’s attempt to make amends for abandoning his father; a love story, the story of Jack’s effort to save Beth from whatever weird-ass shit her dad is doing to her; and a fantasy novel, the story of Jack’s introduction to magic.
Jack is a good guy, a flawed but likable man who finds himself trapped in increasingly incomprehensible circumstances. Here’s where the noir flutters through the narrative – the world in Tides is a grim and ugly one, and Jack’s efforts to keep himself afloat in it only serve to drag him further down. He’s trying to right a wrong he himself inflicted on an innocent, but in so doing gets people he likes and respects hurt and even killed. But Tides isn’t only gut-wrenching noir bleak-punk. Or even partially. The noir is there, but it’s so understated that it’s easy to miss. No, the heart of On Stranger Tides is to be found in its infectious sense of fun.
Tides is a pirate novel! With pirates! And swashbuckling! And derring-do! And zombies! And magic! There are betrayals and rescues and loss of purpose and sense of purpose regained! And rum! None of which is undercut by anything like affected seventeenth century prose or dumb pirate accents. Powers writes readable, believable dialogue – which, considering the temptations a pirate novel set in the seventeenth century must have presented, is laudable in and of itself. Tides is an excellent example of a well-written historical novel: true to the spirit of the time, while not caught up in its ultimately inimitable quotidian appurtenances. (Historical romance novelists: take note.)
And, like all Powers’ novels, Tides presents a deceptively simple, fundamentally coherent system of magic. If you haven’t ever read any Powers, I won’t spoil it for you. (He complicates it a bit in Last Call and Declare, but even then this system never loses its essential consonance.) Even more refreshing, magic is not a big deal. Once the characters adjust to the fact that they live in a world where magic exists, they get on with life; there’s no gawping and gasping at every new magical appearance. You won’t know how annoying you found the wide-eyed Harry Pottering of a magical system until you realize it’s gone.
One last thing before I leave you to rush off and buy yourself and several friends copies of On Stranger Tides: it’s not just entertaining and intelligent. It’s also progressive. Beth’s father and his compatriot are literally trying to hollow her out; to remove all personality and character from her. She’s not an individual to them, but an object. The same is true for a number of secondary characters, all of whom have designs on Beth – not a single one wants her for herself, but for what she represents, or contains (or doesn’t contain). Jack is the only character in the entire novel who recognizes her individuality and loves her because of it. Powers engages in a wonderful bit of authorial sleight-of-hand to represent this: Jack never, ever thinks of Beth as “the girl.” When he thinks about her, or talks about her, he always refers to her by her name.
When was the last time you read an adventure novel about a man rescuing a woman where he didn’t refer to her, even in the privacy of his own mind, as “the girl”?
On Stranger Tides is an accomplished and intelligent novel, a high-seas adventure with pirates and zombies and sword-fights oh my. It’s tight, well-written, super engaging, and utterly compulsive reading. While it may not exhibit the ambition of Declare or Last Call, On Stranger Tides is also less sprawling and (occasionally) more fun than either of Powers’ twin titans. It’s definitely going on my list of favorite Powers novels.