Friday, May 09, 2008

'There Was A Ship,' Quoth He

Patty Abbott has been asking some folks to talk about old favorite books on Fridays. Those ones we might have forgotten, but never for long. Even if it seems the rest of the world did.

Like Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides.

Long before some spastic 21 Jump Street reject traipsed around the Caribbean in too much mascara, Tim Powers did it better. This is Treasure Island the way it should have been.

On Stranger Tides tells the story of John Chandagnac, an 18th century puppeteer traveling from Europe to the Caribbean to confront the uncle who cheated his father out of a fortune. When pirates attack the ship he's sailing on, an inside job orchestrated by the story's antagonist, a mad, one-armed Oxford professor who carries a severed head in a box, he's forced to make The Choice. Become part of the crew or part of a shark's lunch. Chandagnac becomes 'Jack Shandy' and, despite his best efforts to not run with the wrong crowd, finds himself getting deeper and deeper into the life. And deeper into some supreme weirdness.

Powers seeds the facts of Blackbeard, Ponce De Leon, and life on the high seas with voodoo magic, the walking dead, sword and sea fights so brutal you wince just thinking about them. His characters are vivid; jaded pirates, English sorcerers, a voodoo priest named Woefully Fat who won't die until he's damn good and ready. Crews long dead come back to finish a fight they started a hundred years before.

Powers does secret histories well. His research is meticulous, taking the facts and tying them together in magic and mayhem as if to say, "That's what you think happened. This is what really happened." He weaves truth with fiction so well that it's sometimse difficult to tell where the lines lie between the history and the fantasy.

Now this isn't world changing literature, I'll admit. But it grabbed me when I read it twenty years ago and it's never let go.

The book came out in 1987, faded away, was reprinted by Babbage Press in 2006 and got a hardcover reprint by Subterranean just last month.

If you pick up a copy I encourage you to grab the Babbage Press printing. The publishers ran Dangerous Visions on Ventura Boulevard for years before it closed shop in 2002 and moved to the web. They deserve some love. You can find their virtual storefront now at Infinite Worlds.


Chris said...

Good call, man. I fucking love this book. In fact, when I read about the Friday plug thing, it was at the top of my list of books I'd plug, along with LAST CALL, another stellar book of Powers'. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I plugged this one right around the time of the last Pirates sequel...

pattinase (abbott) said...

You guys are all outthinking me with the books you come up with. Looks great.