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.