Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Stranger Tides

"You used it up too fast."
- Benjamin Hurwood

Due to it being just as easy to post up here, I will be updating both the Tumblr and this simultaneously when I have a post. It's just neater for me.

Sweet Hell. That is all.

      Okay, maybe not all. As long-time readers of this blog may know, I am a Tim Powers fanboy for life. I've read his worst (the stable time looperiffic The Anubis Gates takes top prize, in my opinion), I've read his best, and I've read everything in between. And none of them-- that's right, a grand total of none of them knocked me on my ass the way On Stranger Tides did. I once said that a writer's job is done when he or she makes the reader feel anything at all, even revulsion. Not only has Tim Powers done that, he did it so well and so frequently that even at the book's most manipulative, I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. The man is a genius, and more importantly, a genius who continues to write to this very day. And this is easily one of his greatest works, one of the two best things I've ever read by him. The ripples it has made in pop-culture further cement it as a classic, and if I didn't own it myself, I would be kicking myself again and again.
      On Stranger Tides is the story of John Chandagnac, re-christened Jack Shandy after he was captured by a rather liberally-minded (and possibly anarcho-syndaclist) group of pirates crewed by a man named Phil Davies. Shandy is on the trail of his uncle, the nefarious Sebastian, who ruined both his life and his father's. Soon, he finds himself embroiled in sorcerer's duels, reincarnating pirates, zombies, voodoo curses, and the Fountain of Youth. To survive and rescue the woman he loves from her vile personal physician and other evil forces, Shandy must survive all these things, win a duel with Blackbeard, and contend with powers beyond human control or understanding. And all of it is fantastic.
Part of what makes it so fantastic is Powers' copious research into his topics. From very early on, he makes it clear that he's done all the research he can on large sailing ships, voodoo, and the politics of the Caribbean area. None of it feels rushed or handwaved, and all of it is very, very authentic-feeling, even when it's fictitious or the details are fudged. Powers also handily sidesteps the problem of having historical characters interact in his universe by way of the copious research. I never had time to think "But Blackbeard never acted like that..." because between the realism of the setting and the way the characters act, there's really very little room for doubt. 
       Another area with very little room for doubt is the characterization. All the characters are very three-dimensional, partly because Powers understands that it's not enough to have one's characters do things because they're good, or evil, but important to understand the why of their reasonings. Shandy may be one of the heroes, but he is forced, both by Davies and by his love for the book's romantic interest to occasionally do terrible things, to the point that he no longer recognizes himself. Davies may be a dashing pirate, but he's also a brutal murderer, because that's what he has to do to survive. One of the book's major villains performs actions that border on mind rape and are definitely unconscionable, but by understanding his motivation and the point that he's reached, you understand a little more of why he felt it was necessary, making him a more effective villain by showing that he'd reached that point (trying to resurrect his dead wife). 
       The magic in On Stranger Tides is also handled fairly well. Instead of "this is power over everything", it's a more practical approach-- eternal life means magical postponement/reincarnation (a common theme in Powers' work), rituals handle things instead of incantations and handwaving (though the minor spells are that), and everything is geared towards asking the loas, or gods politely "Could I please bend the rules of reality?" While there are a few exceptions (Blackbeard being a big one, the sorcerer's duel with Friend being another), most of the magic is very low-key...people gesturing a little, or tossing a ball of dirt into the air, or saying the proper rhyme. Because it isn't a high-magic setting, this also helps keep it believable and all the characters nicely grounded. 
And lastly, the book has a remarkable sense of humor about itself. Most of this humor is delivered through the character of Philip Davies, who snarks his way through the book while both embodying and deconstructing the lovable dashing rogue stereotype. Some of it comes from Jack figuring out how to interact with the strange world he's been dropped in. All of it is as dark as one would expect for a setting this creepy, but it makes sense that the humor should match the tone of the book and not run counter to it. 
      On Stranger Tides is not without its flaws, though. Well, flaw. The book leads its readers on a merry chase through the Caribbean, but falls short in the last three chapters with the final confrontation. After watching Shandy pursue his goals tirelessly through the book, sometimes doing absolutely grotesque things in the name of love and justice, to have the book resolve Shandy's revenge and his rescue of the damsel in distress in such a way is a bit of a let-down. While Powers recovers nicely, the flaw is too glaring not to at least bring up. Also, calling the final chapter an epilogue when it doesn't really tie up any loose ends but just ends the book is a bit of a strange move. 
      But this flaw is negligible. This book is a classic, one that should be read and remembered for decades to come. Read it. Buy it. Request it for your libraries. Do whatever you have to so you can read this book. It is important that you read this book. It is equally important that this book survives. It has made it easily to the top of my list of things to read, managing to surprise me and engage me, usually at the same time. Read this book. This is too good a book to be remembered by thePirates of the Caribbean movie based on it. You will like this book. You must read this book.That is all.

Next up:
- I try an anime Live Action Roleplay
- Either Electric Barracuda or Nuclear Jellyfish by Tim Dorsey
- Other things as they arise
- Hopefully, the tenth-anniversary edition of American Gods.