This week I’m recommending a Fantasy novel about pirates. Who doesn’t love pirates? Except real life ones, of course. `On Stranger Tides’ by Tim Powers came out in 1988 and has been reprinted many times since. You can get it in paperback or as an ebook. `Hang on,’ I hear you saying, `isn’t `On Stranger Tides’ the fourth `Pirates of the Caribbean’ film? Well, yes and no. Disney did buy the rights to Tim Powers’ novel but they only used a few elements of its plot in the finished film. It must have been a bizarre experience for Powers to see the irrepressible Captain Jack Sparrow inserted into his original story but if someone offered me a lot of money and Johnny Depp I probably wouldn’t resist very hard either. Be that as it may, please try to forget the film while I summarize the plot of the novel.

It is 1718 and former puppeteer John Chandagnac is sailing to the West Indies to confront the uncle who has stolen his inheritance. During the voyage, John’s fellow passengers are a one-handed retired professor, Benjamin Hurwood, his daughter Beth, and a sinister doctor, Leo Friend. Just as John is getting to know and like Beth, a terrible act of treachery allows magically-protected pirates to take over the ship. John bravely attacks the private captain, Phil Davies and is given a choice between immediate death and joining the pirate crew. John agrees to become a pirate in the hope that he and Beth will find a way to escape. He is renamed Jack Shandy.

Shandy serves as a cook to the pirates and learns to respect Captain Davies. When he does get a chance to escape, he throws it away to save his pirate comrades. Meanwhile, Beth has been taken to Florida by her father and Dr Friend. Professor Hurwood is obsessed with the idea of bringing back his dead wife and he has made a grim bargain with the notorious pirate, Blackbeard. Promoted to quartermaster, Shandy is one of the men chosen to accompany Blackbeard, the Hurwoods and Dr Friend into the swamps to search for the fabled Fountain of Youth discovered centuries before by a Spanish explorer.

On their dangerous journey the group face vindictive vegetation, angry spirits and ghostly visions (but not killer mermaids). The fountain is said to be `a hole in the wall between life and death’. Blackbeard, Friend and the increasingly crazed Professor Hurwood all have their own dark reasons for wanting to reach it. Once blood is shed in this mysterious place, a terrifying chain of events is set in motion. Beth is doomed to suffer a dreadful fate on Christmas Day. Can Shandy use a new kind of magic to save her, and does he have the strength to be Blackbeard’s nemesis?

Pirates and magic are a winning combination, as the huge success of the `Pirates of the Caribbean’ films shows. `On Stranger Tides’ has everything you might hope for in a pirate adventure – a dashing hero, a damsel in distress, memorable villains, exotic settings, sea-battles, shipwrecks, murders, plundering, kidnapping, evil plans and sloshings of rum – plus  a magician who is trying to become God, awe-inspiring bocors (sorcerers who control the indigenous spirits) ghosts, zombies, protective amulets and mummified two-headed dogs. The book opens with a chilling prologue in which spirits of the dead are summoned by a blood sacrifice. Our hero, Shandy, is plunged into danger by a pirate attack only a few pages into Chapter One and his life is changed for ever. After that the action, and the horror, rarely let up.

Personally, I could wish that our heroine, Beth, wasn’t given such a passive role. She is drugged or starved into submission and carried around like a sack of potatoes by the men who want to use her in magical rituals or for their own lusts. Shandy decides to marry Beth because she is `the only woman in whom I can see both a body and a face’ but she doesn’t seem to have much choice in the matter. To be fair, Beth does finally assert herself and use her female magic at a crucial moment. She and Shandy have one of the most dramatic wedding scenes in all fiction, which is typical of Powers’ clever plotting. This is a very well constructed story. Plot elements which you think have fizzled out, such as Shandy being cheated out of his inheritance or the legend of the original discoverer of the Fountain of Youth, suddenly surprise by flaring into life again.

Powers has used a wide range of historical settings in his Fantasy novels and they are always carefully researched and vividly described. If you want to escape from cold and foggy winter days, enter this dazzling world of blue seas, white, palm-fringed beaches, jungles full of jewel-like parrots and steamy mangrove-swamps. I’m no expert but Powers really seems to know how traditional sailing ships worked. He certainly convinced me that he knew his shrouds from his studdingsails. He also makes interesting and unusually sympathetic use of traditional vodon beliefs. One of my favourite characters in `On Stranger Tides’ is Woefully Fat, a deaf bocor from Virginia, who fears that Blackbeard is misusing vodon to put together a `whole nation, it seems like, of badmen’. Woefully Fat calls a death for Blackbeard from out of the Old World and is rewarded with a magnificent death-scene of his own.

Another feature of Powers’ work is his use of historical characters, such as the poets Shelley, Byron and Keats in `The Stress of Her Regard’ or the Rossetti family in `Hide Me Among the Graves’. In this novel he features a number of pirates who actually existed, most notably Edward Teach/Thatch aka Blackbeard. The real Blackbeard doesn’t seem to have been a particularly brutal pirate but he cultivated a fearsome reputation by dressing all in black, wearing a long plaited beard and tying lit-fuses into his hair during battles. You might think it was impossible to make this man more terrifying than he was in real life but Powers manages it. When Blackbeard makes his long-awaited entrance with ghosts clinging to him like leeches, he looks to Shandy `like some three-horned demon newly climbed up from Hell’. This Blackbeard drinks flaming rum mixed with gunpowder, is consecrated to the dreaded Lord of the Cemeteries, Baron Samedi, and is served by zombies. Powers ingeniously provides magical explanations for some puzzling aspects of the real Blackbeard’s story such as that fiery hairdo, the sudden sinking of his base, Port Royal, and the reckless behaviour which led to him being caught and killed in North Carolina.

Powers’ Blackbeard is shrewd enough to know that the great age of bucaneering is nearly over as more and more pirates accept the `King’s Pardon’ and turn respectable. `On Stranger Tides’ shows wild magic and anarchic lifestyles giving way to cold iron, reason and order. The most touching relationship in the book is the one between Shandy and his mentor, the Navy officer turned pirate, Phil Davies. Disgusted by the corrupt and brutal authority figures he encounters, Shandy believes that he could fit in among the pirates – `there was a part of him that responded to the nearly innocent savagery of it all, the freedom, the abdication of all guilts…’ Davies warns Shandy not to think of his fellow pirates as heroes but he does and so do we. Reading or watching a pirate adventure is like taking a holiday from everyday morality. Everyone needs a holiday now and then but next week we’ll be back on the straight and narrow…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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