On Stranger Tides, the 1987 novel by Tim Powers, blends historical figures with piracy and blood magic to produce a wild and richly detailed fantasy. Side by side with his original characters, the famous pirates Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and Stede Bonnet inhabit a world of ghost ships crewed by dead men, mysterious gods with their own demands, political machinations, and shifting allegiances. It is heady, rum-soaked stuff.
Set during the Golden Age of piracy in the 1700s, On Stranger Tides wastes no time in throwing it’s hero into the middle of a swashbuckling supernatural maelstrom.
Young John Chandagnac, a former puppeteer, sets off for Barbados to seek revenge on his uncle for his stolen inheritance. Instead he is shanghaied and finds a new career as Jack Shandy, a pirate on the Caribbean seas. Romance blooms while he tries to rescue the charming Elizabeth Hurwood from the sorcerous machinations of her father and her unsavory personal physician. But that only ends up drawing Jack deeper into a bloody and devious plot to reach the fabled Fountain of Youth and achieve the dangerous immortality it offers.
Powers describes the ships his characters sail on in exquisite detail, yet without coming across as quoting from a technical manual. The result is that the vessels come alive, making them as much a part of the action as the unruly men and the ocean itself.
And then he shifts from the concrete to the ineffable.
Powers’ conception of the Fountain of Youth is as a cosmically weird and timeless place, where straying from the path that leads there can result in a fate quite literally worse than death. Blackbeard and Beth Hurwood’s father relentlessly seek what it can offer their ambitions. But Powers also gives us Ponce de Leon as a lesson in getting what you wish for. The old explorer still alive, ancient and suffering from the consequences of having reached his goal.
Powers is at his best with mythic themes that blend fantasy and reality, and this novel is no exception. Overall, I found it a somewhat thinner story than some of his other work, with the sorcerous elements a little too easily attained. But no matter. On Stranger Tides is still a cinematic spectacle of adventure on the high seas, bloody and magical and full of inflamed passions. I loved it.