Literature: On Stranger Tides

On Stranger Tides is a historical fantasy novel by Tim Powers.

After the death of his father, John Chandagnac travels to America to track down a relative who stole his inheritance, but his quest is derailed when the ship he's travelling on is attacked by pirates, and he becomes embroiled in a search for the Fountain of Youth.

The ur-work of pirates-in-the-Caribbean-with-voodoo fiction, On Stranger Tides was an acknowledged inspiration for the Monkey Island series, and the film rights were taken up by the makers of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series so they could plunder it for plot elements for the fourth film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

This novel provides examples of:

  • A God Am I: Leo Friend is heading in this direction.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Is it true what Panda Beecher once told me about you?"
  • Artistic License History: Benjamin Hurwood explains the shortcomings of Newtonian physics on the microscopic scale and the basics of quantum mechanical indeterminacy. In 1718. Newton hadn't even died by that date, let alone seen his work become "classical" mechanics.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Several of the main characters are nearly changed into swamp plants on their way back from the fountain of youth by the cursed jungle around them. They're saved at the last minute by special mud from the fountain of youth, which retains some of its magical properties. This becomes a Chekhov's Gun later in the story.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Blackbeard was a voodoo magician. Ponce de Leon found the Fountain of Youth, but never made it home to tell anybody.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: Leo Friend
  • Catch Phrase: "I am not a dog"
    • Though repeated less than Mr. Bird's, Anne Bonny has "For luck, man."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Quite a few. Pretty much anything that isn't "normal" has some direct relevance to the plot, and some elements aren't even directly explained.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Mr. Bird's ghoul helps Jack identify Hurwood's ship after he's spent months fruitlessly searching for it, and immediately afterward, he starts putting the pieces together about "the Governor", who turns out to be Ponce de Leon.
  • Chekhov's Skill: John's puppetry comes in handy when he's forced to turn Hurwood's corpse into a giant marionette that can signal his onshore accomplice.
  • Cold Iron: The only reason magic still works in the New World is because iron technology hasn't yet proliferated there.
  • Dead Guy Puppet: See Chekhov's Skill entry above.
  • Eldritch Location: Erebus, where the Fountain of Youth is is heavily implied to be one of these, which is fitting considering it's often considered part of the Greek afterlife.
  • Epigraph: Played with. The book's epigraph consists of two poetry fragments, one of which is apparently the source of the novel's title but was actually written specially for the epigraph; the poet it's attributed to, William Ashbless, is a Creator In-Joke who appears or is mentioned in most of Powers's novels. (The other fragment is an authentic bit of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)
  • Evil Cripple: Hurwood has only one arm.
  • Fat Bastard: Leo Friend is described as extremely, grotesquely fat. There's a bit of cause-and-effect here, though; his mother spoiled him, including sweets when he should have been on a diet, leading to his superiority complex and weight gain.
  • From a Single Cell
  • Gender-Restricted Ability: Certain magical powers are restricted by gender; maintaining access to powers he can't control directly is one of the motivations for Blackbeard's many marriages.
  • Grand Theft Me: Hurwood plans to resurrect his dead wife by utilizing newfound powers retrieved from the fountain of youth to transform Beth, his daughter, into a vessel and blank body for his wife to move in to.
  • Grey and Grey Morality: Just about every character is sympathetic in some way. Except for Leo Friend, who turns out to be a near-sociopath with severe mommy issues. Freudian ones.
    • Sebastian Chandagnac is pretty much a complete scumbag as well. His main concern about evicting Beth Hurwood's soul is that the process might mess up his dinner party.
    • Jack Shandy starts the story off as an average, if reluctant, good guy, but his willingness to straight-up shoot and explode British sailors, some of whom were probably forcefully pressed into service, in order to escape custody is pretty shocking and cold.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Hurwood, who realizes that Leo Friend is a bigger threat than the pirates and defeats him in a sorceror's duel.
    • His siding with the good guys didn't last, though.
  • Historical Fantasy
  • Hollywood Voodoo: Actually, averted for the most part. Tim Powers is one of those authors who embodies Shown Their Work, and the major difference between his rituals and actual Caribbean rituals is that his actually work.
  • I Know Mortal Kombat: The protagonist, Shandy, used to work in a puppet theatre whose owner insisted on authentic choreography for fight scenes; this saves his life when he unexpectedly finds himself in a real sword-fight. (However, it's played realistically, pointed out that he got lucky, and he's smart enough not to make a habit of it.)
  • Insurance Fraud: A variant was committed by the captain of the Vociferous Carmichael. He didn't cheat his insurance company directly; rather, he charged the owners of his ship's cargo a fat fee to be used to insure its safe delivery, but pocketed their money instead of buying the promised insurance.
  • Kill 'em All: By the end of the story, most of the major and minor characters are dead, and only Jack, Beth, and a few others are still alive.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Hurwood
  • The Magic Goes Away: Noted, and explained in detail. Magic becomes more difficult if the caster has contact with too much ferrous metal, and magic-use has been dying out as iron technology spreads.
  • Mind over Matter: The most common interpretation of voodoo magic used in the novel. Utilized in a variety of forms ranging from control over others (dead or alive) to summoning winds for the sails to telekinesis over inanimate objects—all of which involve Mind over Matter.
  • Not Using the Zed Word: We do have undead, but they're not the shambling, rotting, moaning sort. They're closer to dead people bound as servants, and never actively referred to as "zombies", since that word has a very specific connotation in voodoo.
  • Oedipus Complex: Leo Friend. While attempting to rape Beth Hurwood (albeit falingly so) Leo Friend, with newfound powers and an apparent lack of mastery over them, accidentally and briefly turns Beth into his mother which while saying "mommy, oh mommy" repeatedly and in an increasingly pathetic tone. This, in turn, causes Beth to vomit.
  • People Puppets: Much of the voodoo magic present in the novel involves controlling others to say or do as you command. Contributes to themes involving Jack Shandy's history as a puppeteer.
  • Power Born of Madness: Jack Shandy suffers a blow to the head just before confronting an evil sorcerer, who attempts to trap him in illusions. The illusions keep breaking down as a result of Jack's disorientation, causing the villain to exclaim: "What's wrong with your mind? It's like a stripped screw!"
  • Public Domain Artifact: The Fountain of Youth.
  • Seeks Another's Resurrection: Hurwood's goal is to resurrect his dead wife.
  • Throw Away Guns: Hurwood assists the pirate attack by firing one pistol after another, pulling the guns from bandoliers and dropping them after use. Justified because they are one-shot flintlock pistols. People who expected to have to fight with them would usually pack a half-dozen or so for use in Real Life.
    • Hurwood also has only one arm and would be slowed down immensely if he paused and re-holstered each weapon.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Hurwood, who does terrible, terrible things, but for remarkably justifiable reasons. Doesn't stop him from being a monster, though.
    • Well, his reasons are 'justifiable' if you think that bringing your dead wife's spirit back inside the body of your own daughter for some incestuous loving is justifiable.