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Literature / On Stranger Tides

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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:

  • 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.
  • Bald of Evil: The entirely bald and utterly ruthless Edmund Morcilla, actually the resurrected Blackbeard after choosing a new hairstyle that will reduce the chances of anyone recognising him.
  • 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
  • Blood Magic: Many magics are powered or enhanced by the shedding of blood, which has something to do with the connection between magic and iron. Many magicians end up with persistent anemia from spending their blood iron on magic.
  • Book Ends:
    • On his first day on the pirates' island, near the beginning of the book, Jack sees a group of children playing with a puppet using Mind over Matter, one of his first clear signs that magic works in the New World. On his last day, near the end of the book, he sees the children playing with the puppet again, but this time using mundane strings to move it, a sign that even in the New World the magic is going away.
    • The sword-fighting move Jack uses to defeat the resurrected Blackbeard in the final confrontation at the end of the book is the same one he uses in his first-ever sword fight at the beginning.
  • Brain Fever: Mentioned a couple of times; Hurwood claims his daughter is at risk of brain fever as an excuse to control what she eats, and after she learns his true plans starts telling people she actually has brain fever as an excuse for keeping her confined and to lay the groudwork for discrediting anything she might manage to tell people.
  • Catchphrase:
    • Mr. Bird's "I am not a dog".
    • Anne Bonny has "For luck, man."
  • Character Name Alias: At one point, put on the spot for an explanation of who he is, Jack claims that his name is Thomas Hobbes and that his traveling companion is his manservant, Leviathan.
  • 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: There's a distinction between hot iron and cold iron. The former, naturally occurring in contexts such as blood and falling stars, helps magic along, but the latter — basically any worked iron, such as in a knife or a nail — is magically dead, and impedes magic.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: A famous historical incident in which Blackbeard shot and wounded his second-in-command without provocation is explained as Blackbeard impulsively acting to get him safely out of the way before an upcoming confrontation that Blackbeard knows is likely to result in many deaths.
  • 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.
  • Enemy Mine: After Elizabeth is abducted by the newly-empowered Leo Friend, Shandy and Hurwood collaborate to rescue her, since each for his own reasons wants her alive and unharmed. Hurwood turns on Shandy and his crew the moment Friend is dealt with.
  • Enfant Terrible: Leo Friend was one as a child; his hobbies included torturing small animals and randomly distributing poisoned sweets.
  • 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.
  • Faking the Dead: Sebastian Chandagnac fakes his death, leaving a headless corpse, to avoid exposure and ruin from his criminal activities.
  • 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.
  • Forced Transformation: 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.
  • From a Single Cell: Anyone who has drunk from and shed blood at the Fountain of Youth can return from death if even a single drop of their blood falls into the sea when they die.
  • From Dress to Dressing: After the final showdown, Jack tears strips off his shirt to bandage the wounds of the survivors.
  • 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.
  • A God Am I: Leo Friend is heading in this direction.
  • 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.
  • Historical Domain Character: A whole lot of pirates, including Blackbeard and several of his crew. A young Anne Bonny makes a few appearances, too.
  • Historical Fantasy
  • Hollywood Voodoo: Actually, averted for the most part. Tim Powers is one of those authors who embodies Shown Their Work.
  • Human Sacrifice: In the prologue, a sorceror sacrifices two humans so their blood can power a spell to communicate with the afterlife, derived from the one Circe teaches Odysseus in The Odyssey. It's noted that Odysseus could get away with two sheep, but due to the weakening of magic over time it won't work in the present with anything less than humans.
  • 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 get into any more sword-fights until he's had real fight training.
  • Inner Monologue Conversation: The vodun magician called Woefully Fat is deaf, and never responds to anything spoken to him — but several times he gives an answer to what the protagonist had just thought.
  • Insanity Immunity: Jack Shandy suffers a concussion from a hard fall 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!"
  • 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.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Hurwood is driven to horrifying extremes by his grief over his wife's death.
  • 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. Magic has become extremely difficult and dangerous in Europe for this reason; it's easier in the New World, but by the end of the novel it's being weakened even there.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Captain Davies, who introduces Jack to the ways of piracy and magic, gets killed in the climactic battle of the book's second act, leaving Jack alone to come up with the willpower and plan to face the villains in the third act.
  • 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.
  • Necromantic: Hurwood's descent into villainy is a result of his plan to use voodoo magic to resurrect his dead wife, despite the terrible cost.
  • Not Too Dead to Save the Day: During Jack's final confrontation with the resurrected Blackbeard, the ghost of Captain Davies shows up to provide moral support and a few useful words of advice.
  • 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.
  • Of Corpse He's Alive: Played for drama; after Hurwood dies inconveniently, Shandy has to apply his puppetry skills to the corpse to stall his accomplice.
  • Parental Incest: 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, at which point he starts saying "mommy, oh mommy" repeatedly and in an increasingly pathetic tone. This, in turn, causes Beth to vomit, which is exactly the reaction his mother had when he made sexual advances on her.
  • 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.
  • Pirate Booty: Blackbeard buries treasure in remote places, intending to come back and dig it up after he's died and been reincarnated, so he can start a new life with all the treasure and no criminal record.
  • Power Perversion Potential: The man who taught Leo Friend how to do magic used it mainly for stealing food and looking up women's dresses without getting caught. Leo himself uses it, though more elaborately, for much the same sort of thing.
  • Seeks Another's Resurrection: Hurwood's goal is to resurrect his dead wife.
  • Suicide by Cop:
    • Attempted by Phil Davies when he's captured by the navy; he deliberately provokes the captain into a murderous rage because he'd rather be killed on the spot than be tried and hanged.
    • Also attempted by Stede Bonnet later in the novel under similar circumstances. His desire to be killed in battle rather than hanged leads him to escape from jail when captured, then provoke the pursuing soldiers into firing on his own party of fugitives.
  • This Was His True Form: After Blackbeard dies for real, his corpse shows the marks of every lethal injury magic had saved him from over the course of his career. There are a lot of them.
  • 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.
  • Wizard Duel: The showdown between Benjamin Hurwood and Leo Friend.
  • You Must Be Cold: Jack lends Elizabeth his jacket a couple of times.