by Nathan Haney
...And unmoor’d souls may drift on stranger tides
Than those men know of, and be overthrown
By winds that wold not even stir a hair ...
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
--Philip K. Dick
Every time I venture into a Tim Powers novel I find myself enthralled, and I cannot say why. Perhaps I find appeal in Powers’ historic breadth and learnedness, or maybe I find Powers’ metaphysical universe intriguing? Either way, Powers never ceases to amaze me. But I emphasize again that I cannot say why he so amazes me. Nor, for that matter, can I place a name on what it is that so draws me to his writings. I typically dislike your everyday, contemporary work of science fiction/ fantasy, and I never found much enjoyment in a thousand pages of historical intrigue, but Powers’ works, contrary to face value, appear different somehow. Indeed, upon closer inspection, they contain a rootedness in reality lost in the works of other contemporary writers in similar genres. Granted, Powers’ works do contain evil clowns, vampires, werewolves, and every other sort of fabulous creature imaginable, but Powers brings a certain symbolic rationality to his works that other writers frankly do not possess.
Powers, born in Buffalo, New York in 1952, grew up in a devout Roman Catholic home. In 1959, Powers and his family moved to California where he later attended The University of Cal State Fullerton. While at Cal, Powers studied English Literature and, in so doing, first met friends and fellow authors James P. Blaylock, K.W. Jeter, and Philip K. Dick. Together these men, along with a few others, began collaborating to write countless books, essays, and poems, continuing to do so up to the present day.
Since the publication of The Drawing of the Dark and The Anubis Gates, Powers has drawn in readers with assurances of terror and a utilization of historic fiction all his own. Readers best recognize Powers by his use of historic oddity, or in other words, his integration of historic fact with fictional obscurity. In addition, Powers brings to his works a fascinating look into the world of the metaphysical, skillfully reshaping the face of history to allow magic a greater role in the enacting of definitive historical events. The result is a memorable and, oftentimes, haunting vision of the world around us.
On Stranger Tides is no exception, with ghosts, incantations, and witch doctors aplenty, lending itself reminiscent of Powers’ earlier works.
Set in the Caribbean region of Haiti during the reign of King George I, On Stranger Tides traces the journey of John Chandagnac, an Englishman and former puppeteer on a quest to avenge his father and reclaim his rightful inheritance. Troubles soon arise, however, when pirates overwhelm his vessel and force John into a crucial predicament: join the crew or die. With his father’s honor ever in mind, John (later dubbed Jack Shandy) chooses life with the crew, not knowing, however, that these pirates sway under the authority of the infamous Blackbeard and not privy to the work that they will soon have in store. What becomes of his decision is a hodgepodge of magic, intrigue, love, and betrayal that is sure to impress most readers. And with appearances by notable historic figures such as Juan Ponce de Leon and the aforementioned Blackbeard, On Stranger Tides is sure to capture the attention of fans from a broad range of literary genres.
Powers’ unique perception of historic fact coupled with his moderate contemporary tone combine to form a grand, somewhat farcical, saga reminiscent of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. But above all, Powers rarely calls the authenticity of the inexplicable into question. As the result, Powers’ works become products of the unknown, eerily realistic and brought to light only by his pronounced theological message.
As a devout Catholic, Powers possesses a chilling appreciation of the reality of good and evil, their struggle, and a beautiful understanding of righteousness under persecution. His works, therefore, commemorate this grand struggle by focusing on a clash between the symbolic powers of East and West as seen through the eyes of some arduous and wayward soul. In each of Powers’ works, redemption and the revelation of Truth are themes dynamic to the development of the central character. Suffering and Christ-like sacrifice also play their parts in the fulfillment of characters’ lives. And of course the realities of sin and judgment remain his foremost theme.
Powers repeatedly makes a point to specify the necessity both of earthly rootedness and Christian self-denial in his books. He fosters in us a healthy reminder of his belief in our need for spiritual awareness while reminding us of our earthly bonds: the Fall, human insufficiency, and our need for a savior. Powers achieves his aim through the lives of his heroes, often placing his protagonists in situations certain to render them harm. Indeed, Powers delights in the humanness of his heroes and takes joy in the reversal of their own self-reliance. He stresses that his heroes are not supermen, possessing deep-seated spiritual gifts, nor are they saints or knights in shining armor, fearless and infallible. Quite to the contrary, Powers’ denotes that his heroes are humans, weak, fallen humans, dependant upon the good graces of a mysterious, but sovereign, higher authority for their provision and made to suffer for their call and greater good.
Powers’ On Stranger Tides borders on the fantastical and perhaps the ridiculous. His attempt at producing historic fiction with twentieth century relevance, while successful, sometimes hinders the clarity of his finer goals and plot points. Nevertheless, Powers’ intriguing storylines, innovative creative methods, and enlightened looks at matters of spirituality and the character and nature of God merit the attention of anyone in search of a fun, exciting, learned, and well-written novel. Trust me, once you start, you won’t want to put it down!
Nathan Haney is a Junior BU English Major.