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I love pirate stories (as I’ve mentioned before). That is the main reason I added On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers to my reading list. I knew nothing about him, and nothing about the book other than that it was a tale of pirates, magic, and the fountain of youth. Oh, and that it was the inspiration for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie titled, unsurprisingly, On Stranger Tides. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t really see too much resemblance between the two.

As a somewhat unrelated note, I just learned that Daniel Handler has come out with a book on pirates just this week. Though it doesn't seem like a traditional pirate book (it's set in the present day, for one thing) We Are Pirates is already on my to-read list. I am also going to see Daniel Handler, along with Neil Gaiman, in just a couple weeks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I suspect the new book is part of the reason that a sword fight is on the schedule. I'm happy to be living so close to Brooklyn (and thus BAM) where Neil Gaiman seems to be making a habit of appearing (and my husband and I seem to make a habit of seeing him appear).

Now on to the book.

Blackbeard (Edward Teach)
Let's face it, this isn't his scariest pose.
On Stranger Tides had pretty much everything you could want in a pirate story. Fighting, betrayal, good men turned to piracy, voodoo, obsession, zombies, love, and history's most evil pirate. No marooning happened, but I can live with that.
The book follows Jack Shandy as he is unwillingly pulled into joining a band of pirates and sucked into a world of voodoo he never knew existed. His sole purpose becomes saving Beth Hurwood from her obsessive father Benjamin Hurwood who, along with his assistant Leo Friend is on a quest for the Fountain of Youth for some inscrutable but deadly serious purpose. As the book goes on we find Blackbeard and Hurwood are in cahoots. Both men are on a path to extreme power, and both seem to be evil personified.

What I loved about this book
Powers does creepy most excellently. This book had one of the creepiest scenes I’ve read in a long time—the trip through the Florida swamps to the Fountain of Youth. Fungus-like plants line the way and, the deeper the group (led by Blackbeard's undead boatman) gets into the swamp, the more the plants begin taking on the features of dead faces. Eventually they begin whispering and spouting out evil spirits which attach themselves more or less permanently to anyone they can get close to. The scene builds with more layers of creepiness as the group endures everything from being attacked by an evil presence seen only as shadows, to reliving the memories that most shaped who they are, to nearly becoming part of the swamp as they are turned into plants themselves and begin to take root.

I also love that [spoiler alert] Hurwood carries his wife’s head in a box throughout the entire book, hoping eventually to resurrect her. So creepy. 

Powers creates a world of pirates that is closely linked to magic. While voodoo and piracy aren't a new pairing, I really did feel that he had a different take on it as he made vodun something that even crewmembers can casually use. The parallel of magic fading from the world along with the golden age of piracy coming to an end created a nostalgic air that I really appreciated.

What I didn't like about this book:
The scenes were a bit heavy handed at times, such as the Oedipis complex of Hurwood’s sometime sidekick Leo Friend. It was hinted at first, but then Powers really piled it on and I felt a little insulted as the reader. However, the book doesn’t pretend to be high literature and it’s not too difficult to move past that the occasional heavy handedness. 

Bartholomew Roberts' flag
This is one of my favorites because of how petty it is
He *really* hates Barbadians and Martiniquians
I missed good (and consistent) character development in this book. Shandy, despite being our protagonist, was not terribly easy to identify with and I am not really sure I even like him. His motivations for his actions were very one-dimensional and his personality seemed to change several times throughout the book. Beth also was a rather weak character, limply moved along by the plot and only once showing any initiative or personality of her own when she tried to recruit a pirate to help her escape. 
Despite opening the book with him, I felt Hurwood's backstory and motivation was the least developed of the main characters (excluding Beth). I would have loved to learn more about him as his quest was the one that moved the plot along. It seemed there could have been a whole book on his backstory (I would read that book).

I can easily get past my first two points since the plot moves the story along very well and keeps things interesting, however the main negative point that stuck out to me was that "Book Three" seemed as if it were written at a completely different time than the rest of the book. Maybe Powers wrote it first, or maybe he put the novel down for a long time before writing the last part ... I have no idea, but it felt very disjointed. The style was different, perspective shifted, and even some people’s personalities seemed to change. Strange details were included that were unnecessary as well; for example, including Israel Hands, while perhaps a nod to history, was a weird digression and didn’t fit the character of Blackbeard that had been built up in the rest of the book.

All in all I did actually quite enjoy this book and *would* recommend it, despite some cheesiness and strange character development choices. It's not high literature, but it is great fun.

...And unmoor'd souls may drift on stranger tides
Than those men know of, and be overthrown
By winds that would not even stir a hair...


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