Wednesday, August 30, 2006

On Stranger Tides - Tim Powers

Pirates! Everyone knows what they are like: they wield cutlasses, drink grog and say "harr!"; the captain usually has an eyepatch, wooden leg, hook hand or combination of the above; they collect pieces of eight and make their captives walk the plank (parrots have now gone out of fashion as piratical accoutrements). Some of them are scared of crocodiles. With all of this cultural baggage to carry, it can be quite hard to take pirates seriously, and most pirate fiction (book or film) can't avoid the cheesy campness of thigh-slapping swashbucklers, intentionally or otherwise. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it makes a very refreshing change to find an author that manages to take the cheese out of piracy and still write a cracking good yarn.

In On Stranger Tides, we have not just pirates, but voodoo - and what a great combination! It's a wonder that this hasn't been done more often, though I hear the new Pirates of the Caribbean film also combines the two. It seems a natural progression from the usual nautical superstitions, with cantrips to control the winds, fetishes for protection and some neat tie-ins with established pirate facts - for example, the burning tapers in Blackbeard's beard are now his connection with the spirit Baron Samedi who watches over him. The dark and organic voodoo magic is well-researched, well-realised and fits in perfectly with the blood-soaked world of the high seas.

With a new governor at New Providence, the age of piracy is nearing its end, and the influx from the Old World is draining the magic from the New, so many last-ditch plans are afoot. Jack Shandy is on his way to Haiti, when his ship is attacked and he is involuntarily pressed into joining a pirate crew. Also on the ship are two unpleasant necromancers, Friend and Hurwood, who have a dastardly scheme involving Hurwood's daughter; Jack reluctantly finds himself having to oppose them. From naval sea-battles off the Caribbean coasts to desperate journeys through the haunted swamps of old Florida, the setting is magnificently drawn with a real sense of menace, and the story will keep you turning pages right up to the end. This is one of the best pirate books I've read.



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