Review: On Stranger Tides

Rating: ★★★★☆
powers-strangertidesThis may well be the greatest pirate book I’ve ever read.

My discovery of On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers was a strange one. First published 20 years ago, it’s largely flown under the radar amongst the pirate crowds. I’d never heard its name uttered amongst fellow enthusiasts swapping their favorite reads, I’d never heard murmurs of it being made into a movie, never saw it pop up as an Amazon.com recommendation – it’s honestly a miracle I discovered it at all.

It was while reading an old interview with Ron Gilbert – creator of the first two Monkey Island games – that I first learned of this book. The Pirates of the Caribbean Ride has largely been attributed as the inspiration for these brilliant games, but in this interview Gilbert indicated that it was actually the book On Stranger Tides that spurred the creation of Monkey Island. Now, the PotC rides were indeed key to my early love of pirates, and the Monkey Island Games were themselves key during my teenage years. So to learn that there might be a third part of this equation – well, I certainly had to check it out.

Fortunately, On Stranger Tides is still readily available online through the usual retailers (you can buy it now via the links on the left – hint, hint!). And so I ordered the thing and quickly set to reading what I anticipated would be a swashbuckling tale ripe with the seeds of Guybrush Threepwood, LeChuck, Melee Island, and perhaps even giant monkey heads. However, it soon became aparent that if this novel indeed inspired Monkey Island, that’s all it did – inspired it. The story, characters – even the tone of On Stranger Tides was entirely unlike Monkey Island. This was darker, grittier, and utterly genius.

The story begins with John Chandagnac, a former puppeteer on his way to the New World to confront an estranged uncle who’d jilted John’s late father out of his due inheritance. But prior to reaching his destination, the ship is boarded by pirates in a surprisingly brutal battle that doesn’t go remotely as expected. John himself is pressed into service, friends reveal themselves to be enemies, and what’s more, the attack seems to be much more than a mere raid – rather it’s the first step in a much larger plan.

The “plan” here is the instrumental part of the tale, and the cornerstone of the brilliance at work. It’s a plan that involves Stede Bonnet, Blackbeard, the “governor” of Nassau, the Fountain of Youth, and even the devastating earthquake that destroyed Port Royal. Author Powers has taken the recorded histories of the time and meticulously filled in the cracks – not as a means of simply stringing together the facts of the day, but rather as the foundation of the much larger story. Think you know all about Blackbeard? In the world of Tim Powers, what you know is only the dorsal fin hovering on the surface, and you haven’t the foggiest clue of the vast predator that swims beneath.

Taking place in the early 1700’s, this is the Caribbean of legend. The colonial outskirts far removed from the Old World, where men create their own rules, and magic has not yet entirely faded from the world. Voodoo, in fact, is central to the lives of the pirates, and entirely entwined in the fates of Bonnet and Blackbeard. By all rights this would make for a fantasy novel, and yet Powers crafts it in such a way as to seem entirely feasible and in keeping with true history. Why did Blackbeard lay seige to Charleston? Why did Blackbeard take Bonnet under his wing? For that matter, why did Bonnet leave his comfortable life as a retired Major to pursue a life of piracy? All these questions are answered in full. And the answers – while steeped in Voodoo – seem as believable as walking to the market for a gallon of milk. It’s a remarkable feat and makes for a thrilling, intriguing read.

In a perfect world On Stranger Tides would be a modern classic of pirate literature. It’s as perfect a mixture of fiction and reality as I’ve ever read. Powers’ execution of his story is almost flawless, save for the very end where it seems as if he found himself suddenly overdue for publication and scratched out the rough equivelant of, “the heroes had pretty much wrapped things up, although there is still a little left so we’ll wish them well. The End.” But its peculiar conclusion aside, this remains a book that any and every fan of the pirate genre would do well to investigate.

Comments (13)

  1. Red Bess

    That cover art looks familiar…are there any more illustrations in the book?

  2. Jack McCool

    I LOVED this book! I’m so glad someone has reviewed it, or even read it for that matter! It’s obvious to me that Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio read this before penning the Curse of the Black Pearl screenplay, and in light of its existence, I’m don’t know why everyone was so surprised by the supernatural elements in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

    The whole thing is just so brilliant! The voodoo elements are fantastically written and have a frightening reality to them. It’s clear Mr. Powers did a lot of research for the book, both of solid fact and of myth. Juan Ponce De Leon, The Fountain of Youth, curses, ghosts, gods, Blackbeard… chickens… it all came together perfectly! The only thing it was missing was a really awesome battle with a sea monster.

    However, as much as I loved the novel, talk about a cheap-ass ending! I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way. It really feels like Tim powers got rushed by his publishers, or maybe even just got tired of writing, because the finale is pathetic! Such an epic pirate adventure needs to come to a better close. I kept waiting for Jack Shandy and Beth Hurwood to sail off into the sunset, having laid waste to the villains, embracing the pirate life or receiving some kind of proper pardon, but… well… I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read the book. I’d love to see someone try to adapt it into a film if only to wrap it up better.

  3. Iron Tom

    Never judge a book by its cover. As an English teacher (and a Pyrate) these are words I live by… except for this book. Over a decade ago my friend showed me On Stranger Tides which he was reading at the time. It took all of my self-control to overcome my pyratical instinct to knock him out and take the book then. Instead I dutifully awaited his completion of the haunting tome and then devoured it like a cheeseburger in paradise. It is easily one of the coolest books that I have ever read. Sure it is cool to teach Treasure Island, but the scene in the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride with the skeleton at the helm was always my favorite so this was unbelievable. Today this book seems ahead of its time with the current resurgence of Pyrate Popularity. But then aren’t all of us here the odd little children who wrapped pillow cases around our heads and made swords out of rulers to pillage the neighbor’s yard. Like Mark Twain or Robert Louis Stevenson, we keep the child in us alive so that we never truly grow old. Books like this one should strike to the heart of every true pyrate. At least it did for me.
    Rum all around!

  4. Bloody Jack madd

    I totally agree with your review – have we spoken about this book before? Because I too think this might be the best pirate story ever told.

    As for the ending – well, I won’t give it away, but it’s not toally out of character for Powers.

  5. sutcliffe

    A totally neglected novel that PotC seemed to borrow quite heavily from. I read it when it first came out and fell in love with Powers and his ability to intertwine historical events and persons into his tale.
    It amazes me that it was never more popular or most people have never heard of it.

  6. Woefully Fat

    Read it in high school. Was so intrigued I went to my English teacher and asked if she had anything by William Ashbless. She’d never heard of him. Same reply at the local library. It wasn’t until the internet in the mid 90’s that the joke became clear.
    Great book. Read it several times, although don’t have a copy. Maybe I should start looking.

  7. Bilge (Post author)

    I’m startin’ ta think that this book is the worst kept secret in all of pirate-dom – most everyone seems to have read about it, but no one has been talking about it. Or maybe I’ve just been attending the wrong parties 😛

  8. Quixotic

    I LOVE this book! Funny… for some reason I assumed you had already read it. (I would have recommended and loaned it to you!)

  9. dirty Roger

    A very good read, some of the voodoo (voodun) terms lost me and it took a while, fact is I’m still not sure I got’em figured out. Still a dam good story.
    dirty Roger

  10. Arthur Pearson

    Powers has published chiefly within the fantasy/sf genre. People who are not into that probaably have not encountered him. They also seem to think that this material is so obscure that they can get away with copying it. Star Wars copied Dune, and cover art from Galaxy magazine in the fifties was plundered for the cantina scene. Pirates of the Caribbean of course steals from Powers wholesale. Virtually every SF film appropriates unacknowledged material. SF is a niche field, and the authors usually do not have the wherewithal to mount legal challenges. The movies that actually credit Philip K. Dick are just the tip of the iceberg. SFWA should set up a legal fund to make an example of some egregrious cases.

  11. Little Red Reviewer

    Sorry it took me so long to find this review, On Stranger Tides is one of my favorite Tim Powers novels. Great review!

    I agree with Arthur, that since Powers is more of a SF/F author, and Stranger Tides is one of his few (maybe only) historical-ish novel, I’m not surprised he’s under the radar in the Pirate craze. On that note, Powers has always seemed to be under the Radar, all the time, which is too bad.

  12. Roy

    I almost did judge On Stranger Tides by it’s cover and although the book started off a bit slow for me, it’s one of those books that kind of drag’s you into it.

    You left out the part about Ponce De Leon actually discovering the fountain of youth but in doing so he made a fatal mistake. One of my favorite characters in the book was Woefully Fat.

  13. Punkinstein

    I have trusted your judgment, mate, for some time now. You did not steer me wrong with Cap’n Bogg and Salty, and I’d never have tried Kraken Rum were it not for the piratically-oriented services you provide.
    Praise done, I just don’t like “On Stranger Tides” as much I should. It should be my favorite pirate book of all time, and I see what you say in your review, but I have felt, for the most part, like I’m stuck in the doldrums with it. I’ve been working on it for almost a year now. I’m close to being finished, and I am committed to getting to the end, but I am not feeling the swashbuckling adventure of it that I know should be there. I think it might be the characters of Jack Shandy and Beth Hurwood that put me off. I liked Phil Davies so much as a character that I found myself wanting more Phil. Or even Skank.
    To his credit, Powers paints a wonderful picture of the islands.

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