On Stranger Tides: Tim Powers’ Swashbuckling Adventure

It has been years, decades, since I first read On Stranger Tides. I suppose I have been busy reading other things. It’s a pity those other things couldn’t all have been as fun as this. It’s long for a work of (perhaps) sword and sorcery, 322 pages in my paperback edition. But despite the length it still may well qualify as S&S. Swords it has in plenty: cutlasses, rapiers, sabres (though I note that Powers uses the latter two terms interchangeably.) There is plenty of swashbuckling swordplay, blades clashing aboard ships, on piers, etc. And there is sorcery galore, of the voodoo variety. As usual Powers has worked out a detailed supernatural science and deploys it in great detail. The man works only in big ideas and never disappoints. There is no grand, world-saving quest here. The stakes are personal, the motives of most characters venal. Even many of what might be more noble goals are tarnished by the means and utter lack of scruples employed in pursuing them.

I don’t know, maybe it isn’t S&S. But it is a glorious adventure, sprawling across the entirety of the Caribbean from Haiti to Florida. Set near the tail end of the golden age of piracy, it features notable historic villains such as Blackbeard and Stede Bonnett, with cameos from Anne Bonny and Calico Jack. The Caribbean of Stranger Tides, however, is steeped in dark magic, with pirates employing voodoo as a tool every bit as important as sailing ships and cannons. We get a protagonist caught up in the game, an unwilling pirate at first, whose motivations shift from a mixture of revenge and pecuniary interests to the romantic as he attempts to rescue his love interest from the nefarious clutches of her father, whose obsessive love for his dead wife is a dark mirror of the hero’s.

We get sea battles, zombies, the Fountain of Youth,  zombie pirates, storms, magical duels. And rum. Plenty of rum. And puppetry. This is an unflinchingly brutal tale, not sparing of spilled gore and viscera. I was pleased, if pleased is the right word, to find that the aspect of the tale that had the power to make me cringe every time it recurred to my memory, still had what it took to make me wince this time through. If you grew up reading history of the Spanish Main and plunder and the skull-and-crossbones flag, and if you are a fan of heroic adventure fiction, On Stranger Tides is the book you need in your life right now.

As a fun coincidence, while I was reading this book, I received an email from the narrator of the upcoming audiobook version of my novel Silver and Bone. Coincidental, I say, because this fourth book of the Semi-Autos and Sorcery series is set in the Gulf of Mexico and deals with pirate treasure and voodoo. That’s about as far as the similarities go. But still. Spooky.

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