A (sorta) Review of Tim Powers’ ON STRANGER TIDES

I don’t know about you, but I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. All of them. Granted, there were some I liked more than others. But for the most part, they just excited that kid inside me who always wanted to be Errol Flynn, swashbuckling my way to adventure. And it recently struck me as odd that there just aren’t that many pirate books available to read. Oh, I’d read Captain Blood back when I was in high school and loved it. Also read Michael Crichton’s PIRATE LATITUDES…and WOW, if you’ve not read it, I can’t recommend it enough. But to my knowledge, that was just about it when it came to great pirate novels. And, just as I had done with my own novel PRIMAL THIRST (for those who don’t know how Primal Thirst came into existence, it started one night after watching an episode of Destination Truth. I thought to myself that someone should write a book similar to that show and when I realized no one had, I decided to write one myself), I’d practically decided to write my own pirate adventure novel. Then I stumbled upon Tim Powers’ ON STRANGER TIDES and all my delusions of being able to write a great pirate book flew out the window. After all, why bother? Honestly, I don’t think anyone could ever write a pirate novel to rival it.
But wait, you might be saying…wasn’t one of the Pirate’s of the Caribbean movies subtitled “On Stranger Tides”? And I would respond, “Why yes, my astute reader…yes, it was.” And it’s not by accident either. You see, someone at Disney had apparently read this awesome book and was wise enough to jump on the movie rights. Unfortunately, another no-to-so wise visionary at Disney decided, “Hey, we’ve already got a series of pirate movies…why not just throw in the On Stranger Tides movie rights into a script for a Depp movie? Don’t get me wrong…while many were disappointed with the fourth installment of the movie series, I enjoyed it. However, upon reading the book…well, let’s just say I’m not much of a fan of that particular movie any more. Let me share why.
First, here’s the product description of the book:
Aboard the Vociferous Carmichael puppeteer John Chandagnac is sailing toward Jamaica to claim his stolen birthright from an unscrupulous uncle when the vessel is captured . . . by pirates! Offered a choice by Captain Phil Davies to join their seafaring band or die, Chandagnac assumes the name John Shandy and a new life as a brigand. But more than swashbuckling sea battles and fabulous plunder await the novice buccaneer on the roiling Caribbean waters—for treachery and powerful vodun sorcery are coins of the realm in this dark new world. And for the love of beautiful, magically imperiled Beth Hurwood, Shandy will set sail on even stranger tides, following the savage, ghost-infested pirate king Blackbeard and a motley crew of the living and the dead to the cursed nightmare banks of the fabled Fountain of Youth.
Sounds amazing, right? Perhaps some similarities with ALL the Pirates of the Caribbean (POTC) movies? [There’s a reason for this, which I’ll explain shortly.] Well, there’s a great deal of differences between this book and the POTC of the same name. First of all, it’s just so much better. Ha! How do I even begin to express the differences in awesomeness here? 
Well, let me start by getting a little more specific on the plot of the book. Basically, this crazy Oxford professor has been driven insane by the death of his wife…so what does he do? He travels to the New World…to a place where magic still exists…to discover a means to bring his love back to life. While there, he makes a pact with a certain infamous pirate with a thick, black beard (and smoking tinder matches in it) and they devise a plan to set out to find the Fountain of Youth. But this fountain doesn’t grant the drinker the ability to stop aging…it’s a place where the dead and the living come together. 
Along the way, a young French lad with a hard to pronounce name is traveling to the islands in search of revenge against an uncle who had swindled his father. He doesn’t exactly make it there right away as the ship on which he is a passenger, is attacked by a blood-thirsty group of pirates. Long story short, the hard-to-pronounce Frenchman’s name is changed to an easy John Shandy, and he is forced to join the merry band of buccaneers! The crazy professor, Blackbeard, and Shandy’s group of pirates end up going to the Florida coast to search for the Fountain (a place where Blackbeard has been once before…which caused him to become infested by ghosts) and the adventure really takes off.
One of things that I loved about this book was Powers’ use of magic…or vodun (voodoo). It plays a very major role in the story and is handled beautifully. Everyone…from the ghost-infested Blackbeard to the lowliest of cabin boys…practices it. They have to…in order to survive. 
Now, as a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files I can tell you that there is nothing more important when writing about some sort of magic than having very specific guidelines and laws in which those magicks actually work. Powers does a masterful job of showing how vodun works…and it’s connection with spirit beings, iron, blood, and sea water (which by the way, is amazingly creative!!). He ties all this together to make a very believable method in which his pirates can: A) control the minds of their enemies, B) burn the pants off of a pirate who ogles your wife, or C) (my personal favorite) zombifying some undead pirates to crew your ghostly ship. 
That’s right…you heard me. We’re talking full, dead-on (heh heh…pun not intended, but funny nonetheless) zombie pirate crews. And I’m not talking AMC’s The Walking Dead zombies either…I’m talking the more traditional voodoo-type zombies…stitched up mouths and clothes, non-flesh-eating, automatons. But spooky as all get out if you actually saw them.
There’s so much more to tell about why this book is pure, unadulterated awesome…but where do I even begin? The great sea battles? The ghost pirate ships that are raised from the depths? The romance between Shandy and his lady love? Sword fights? Zombies? Sheesh…I could go on and on.

So instead, let me get back to my statement of why there may not be as much of a coincidence as one might think in regards to the Tim Powers’ masterpiece of piratey literature and the entire POTC movie franchise as a whole. The connection? Simple…the single most awesome computer game to ever sail the Seven Seas. I am, of course, talking about the classic point-and-click 90s adventure game of hilariousness…THE SECRET OF MONKEY ISLAND.

Don’t know it? Well, it all starts with a young lad by the name of Guybrush Threepwood (um, yeah…he gets ridiculed for that name as often as you might expect throughout the game series). Young Guybrush sums up the entire plot of the series with the very first words he utters: “I want to be a pirate.” Now in order to see his dreams fulfilled, young Guybrush has to brave the Caribbean islands in a showdown against the dreaded Ghost Pirate LeChuck…in order to save the love of his life, the beautiful governor of Melee Island.

Um, but what does this game have to do with either the book or the movie series? Simple. The creator of the game was a HUGE fan of Tim Powers’ book. As a matter of fact, the game itself was inspired by On Stranger Tides. Many of the game’s themes and story lines come straight from the book. Well, at some point, someone decided they wanted to turn The Secret of Monkey Island into a movie, so a script was written. A few years go by and the movie is eventually dropped. But the script writer for Monkey Island goes on to pen the script for…you guessed it, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. And he openly admits to using portions of his Monkey Island script for POTC. So there you have it…the connection and why they’re all so similar.

And you now also know why I entitled this blog post “A (SORTA) Review…” In a nutshell, if you love pirates or swashbuckling or adventure…or even the POTC movies, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It far exceeds anything ever put on film and really far exceeds even my own vast imagination. Truth be told, I wish I’d written it….but an even more difficult truth to admit is, I never could have. It’s just too amazing for my own meager talents. Kudos to Tim Powers. This is probably one of my all time favorite books…plain and simple.

2 thoughts on “A (sorta) Review of Tim Powers’ ON STRANGER TIDES”

  1. I heartily echo your rave and the sentiment that the GREAT AMERICAN PIRATE NOVEL has indeed been been written by Mr. Tim Powers and we mere mortals are better off pursuing some other endeavor. I have been a fan of the pirate genre for quite some time and actually read ON STRANGER TIDES when it first came out back in 1987. And I can honestly say that upon reading it my sentiment too was “this is the book that I wish I had written.” After seeing the first POTC movie, I told everyone that it was great but then with a sly wink and a “come here, kid” gesture I whispered “there is something even better” and pointed them towards ON STRANGER TIDES.

    I too enjoyed The Secret of Monkey Island back in the day but had forgotten how similar it was to Powers' book. Wonder if there is a version out there compatible with today's PCs (or PS3) so i could share that fun with my son.

    Speaking of Powers, you should check out Anubis Gates (time travel), Last Call (poker and Fate), and Declare (cold war espionage and djinn). Great stuff.

    Wishing you and yours a healthy and prosperous 2012!

  2. Thanks Greg! I'll definitely check those books out. I only recently stumbled on Powers and am glad I did.

    As for Monkey Island…oh, you're so in luck! In 2009, they came out with an update special edition of Monkey Island 1 and Monkey Island 2 with updated graphics and voice over artists (the same as the later games in the series). Do a search on Amazon for Monkey Island special edition and you'll find it. Also, recently they released a brand new Monkey Island game that you download online and play (not sold in stores that I know of)…and it was every bit as much fun as the originals.

    Thanks for the comments. I definitely love interaction on my blog.

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