John Chandagnac and his father toured late 17th -century Europe as master puppeteers, profiting greatly during the years when live actors were banned in Germany. But that time passed, and John's father died in poverty.
Now John is on his way to Jamaica to claim the family inheritance that his uncle stole-but his ship is seized by pirates. Chandagnac is too impetuous; he attacks the pirate chief to avenge the cold-blooded murder of the ship's captain, and ends up with a choice between quick death and life as a pirate. He chooses life.
So begins On Stranger Tides. Tim Powers has written across the entire range of the literature of the fantastic, but he is at his best when writing gonzo historical novels like his unforgettable The Anubis Gates-and like On Stranger Tides.
It is obvious he has done his research, and he fascinates us with the richly detailed Caribbean culture at the end of the great days of piracy. If you grew up, as I did, with pirate novels and swashbuckling movies, this will be familiar territory.
Still, it is the essence of gonzo history to stick a knife into the past and give a couple of good, sharp twists. The result is a dark, delicious flow of strangeness: Even though you know things didn't happen that way, even though violence is being done to the past, you find that you like the fictional version better that reality.
In On Stranger Tides, the strangeness comes from the fact that the primitive magic of vodun works. No one is surprised when animated corpses walk along the beach; children play with dead chickens by magically making them dance; you don't eat a chicken with certain markings on its beak, because a healer has put someone's disease in that chicken, and it will poison you.
So it is that John Chandagnac, now called Jack Shandy, finds himself caught up in more piracy. An English scientist, obsessed with his wife's death, has come to the Caribbean to bring her back to life by putting her spirit in their daughter's body-he would gladly destroy his own daughter for the sake of getting his wife back.
And, just to keep things interesting, the famous Blackbeard is pursuing his own immortality, and thinks of the young woman as his proper consort. Shandy, who is obsessed with love for her, must save her from her mad father and from the wife consuming pirate.
Does this all sound familiar? Do you recognize elements of this story? Of course you do. The woman in danger; the man trying to save her, though she misunderstands and fears him; the displaced heir who returns to oust the usurper and reclaim his fortune. These are the stories that all human beings in every society hunger for. What we charitably call "contemporary literature" is only a thin, dry crust on the roiling stew of romance. Powers has all the writing skill needed to dazzle the literati, but that is not his concern. He is writing to the volunteer readers, the audience that is hungry for the rich, true tales-stories at once safe and perilous, familiar and strange. On Stranger Tides reminded me of why I came to love reading in the first place.