My book review: On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (Here be spoilers)
|Original Edition, not the edition I own|
It took me nearly a year to read this book. I put it down for quite a while during the October to January time frame. Normally this would be to read Halloween and Christmas books, but honestly it had lulled a bit and I was bored with it. I wanted very much to like this book. The reviews I'd read on it, and since its re-release, all suggest that it is a perfectly written, brilliantly scripted, smart piece of sci-fi/fantasy.
I confess, I was disappointed.
I do not blame the Disney film adaptation, if one can call it that, for ruining my opinion of the novel. I believe if I had read this book 20 years ago I would have loved it. As it stands today I only sort of enjoyed it.
Tim Powers is a decent writer. His descriptive powers are wonderful and he has the ability to evoke the locations of the Caribbean (islands, waters) in an emotionally satisfying way, while still using plain language. He uses enough nautical and sailing terminology to make the book feel "real" without bogging down in too much shipspeak. His choice of time and location, the early 18th century Caribbean, provides both the great pirate base of the Bahamas and some famous pirates, the most important being Blackbeard. Some of his characters, especially the pirate captain Phil Davies and the bocor Woefully Fat are wonderful original creations and a joy to read about, the latter being especially good (quite the scene stealer in his few appearances). His villains are convincingly evil as well, especially Hurwood who has one of the most interesting (and disturbing) villainous motivations I've ever read. Hurwood's assistant, for lack of a better word, is a forgettable character. I can't even remember his name and his brief back story was disgusting.
The voodoo that runs throughout the book is the fantasy element and a high point. From the simple mind controlling and zombies crews to the fantastical Fountain of Youth sequence, the magic is integral and not too obtrusive, for the most part. Magic is both minuscule and able to be employed by the meanest of pirates and complex, reserved for the most powerful of practitioners. As an integral part of the plot it works and I do like Powers's "rules" for magic quite a bit.
It lulls a bit in the third act, so to speak. The death of Phil Davies more or less made me want to put the book down and be down with it. Not all of the characters are winners, either. Of particular disappointment to me were the hero and heroine of the book. John Chandagnac, who becomes the pirate Jack Shandy, is a French puppeteer heading to the Caribbean to confront the uncle who stole his birthright. A nice enough back story, but the execution of the character is lackluster and he seems like just another wooden hero, not unlike the marionettes he uses in his trade. Even his use of his puppeteer skills and his rise to a position of leadership and heroic piracy are too pedestrian for what is an otherwise astounding setting. His revenge quest, which shifts to become a lover's quest, has perhaps the most uninteresting ending I've read in a long, long time. This is a shame, since had Powers not set up such a great story idea so rich with fantasy it would have been a great ending.
Beth Hurwood, the daughter of the main villain and Shandy's love interest will not be winning any awards for memorable female lead. She spends 99% of the novel as a dyed-in-the-wool templated Damsel-In-Distress, only to suddenly become a heroic counterpart to Shandy in the last 6 pages or so. One is reminded of the character played by Lysette Anthony in Krull, who spends the whole movie waiting for a rescue and then at the end uses the Krullian marriage ceremony to give the hero a power boost to kill the villain...
Which brings me to the really bad bit: the ending.
The book ends much like the 1983 film Krull, mentioned above. Shandy confronts his uncle, uses his resemblance to his father and his uncle's belief in voodoo to cause the evil uncle (who is a minor character at best) to get his comeuppance, then fights the resurrect voodoo powered Blackbeard (in new bald head disguise) not once, but twice (like a video game final boss) to save the woman that he decided he loves while he was shagging Anne Bonney on a New Providence beach. Yeah, that Anne Bonney.
Blackbeard being steeped in voodoo proves unbeatable by Shandy. Blackbeard will forcibly marry Beth Hurwood and live his voodoo power retirement to the fullest. Beth commingles her blood with Jack's and they exchange marriage vows during a sword fight and viola, dead Blackbeard. Yeah, I wish I made that up.
|This guy is NOWHERE in the book|
In almost every possible way.
The film has mermaids, zombies, Blackbeard with a magic sword, Sparrow, Barbossa, and Blackbeard's daughter. A love subplot between two young people (Philip and Syrena) was shoehorned in.
The book and the film have the Fountain of Youth, voodoo (already a POTC staple) and well, the locations.
Jack Sparrow is not a Jack Shandy, so the plot was substantially rewritten. I do not really feel the film is an adaptation of the book. I still enjoy the film immensely.
So that's me review. On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, 2 coconut monkey heads full of booze out of 5. Give it a miss.