For the Love of God, Tim Powers, I Thought I Could Expect Better of You

by Arthur B

Despite enjoying 90% of On Stranger Tides, one particular element stuck in Arthur's craw.
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Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride has a lot to answer for. Aside from the initially exciting but eventually disappointing film series, which has sparked a massive revival of the pirate motif (hell, even Gene Wolfe seems to have jumped on the bandwagon), it's also inspired such wonders as the Secret of Monkey Island series, and appears to have been an influence on Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides (which, itself, may have influenced Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl).

By and large, On Stranger Tides is an excellent read. It follows bookkeeper and puppeteer John Chandagnac, who's travelling to Jamaica in order to sue his uncle for stealing his father's inheritance. Naturally, he's waylaid by pirates on the way there, who appear to be collaborating with Professor Hurwood, a renowned philosopher and scientist - and a fellow-passenger of John's. Having made friends with Hurwood's daughter Beth prior to the attack, John is somewhat dismayed at this turn of events, and in a display of foolhardy bravery manages to convince the pirates that they'd better get him onside. Forced to join their crew, and given the new name of "Jack Shandy", John/Jack initially resists his fate, but a series of decisions places him decidedly outside the law; realising that he can never go back to his old life, Jack embraces his destiny as a pirate, since this is the only way he can hope to save Beth from the clutches of her evil father and his sycophantic henchman Mr Friend - and their piratical ally, Blackbeard himself!

So far, so swashbuckley. Here's where the Tim Powers bit comes in: pretty much all the pirates know at least a little magic, which they've picked up mainly through extensive contact with the voodoo practitioners of Haiti and other Caribbean islands - Blackbeard himself is a terrifyingly powerful voodoo priest who is served by zombies and who has a pact with Baron Samedi. Professor Hurwood and Mr Friend, meanwhile, are experts in the European occult tradition, which appears to cross over a certain extent with voodoo practices. (Powers presents an explanation for this which at first struck me as being somewhat too mechanistic and reductionist, until I realised that such an explanation makes perfect sense for the era of Newton and the Enlightenment, and the mechanistic understanding of the universe that was coming to light at the time - and it doesn't entirely discount the influence of such otherworldly, primal, irreducible powers such as the loa).

Hurwood, Friend and Blackbeard plan to mount an expedition to reach a legendary source of occult power in the Florida swamps - the fountain of life itself - to use its power for their own ends. Friend simply wants godlike power, Hurwood intends to resurrect his dead wife in the body of Beth, while Blackbeard is playing the long game, planning to reincarnate himself in order to escape the Royal Navy's justice - and to have another stab at carving out his own private empire in the Caribbean, perhaps kicking out the various colonial powers entirely. Jack Shandy, naturally, finds himself forced to come along for the ride in order to protect Beth, and thus gains a crash course in magic which puts him in good stead for the rest of the novel. Once the slightly-overlong Florida sequence is over, the novel culminates in a series of sea-battles, daring escapes, sorcerous duels (which are a little Dragonball Z-ish, what with the levitating and the gurning), and good old-fashioned swashbuckling, with heavy elements of the sort of bootleg occultism that Powers uses to good effect in Last Call, The Anubis Gates and the rest of his work. Interestingly, unlike Pirates of the Caribbean or Pirate Freedom (but like Monkey Island) the colonial powers of the Caribbean have next-to-no role to play in On Stranger Tides, perhaps because Powers wishes to play up the Caribbean's status as a wild frontier beyond the reach of established European authorities; beyond this, though, the novel shows an impressive depth of historical research, on a par with Pirate Freedom's, although I think at the end of the day Powers feels less need to wave his research-wang about; he uses it to better effect than Wolfe, and if it weren't for one small issue I'd say that On Stranger Tides kicks Pirate Freedom's ass and calls it a landlubbing yellow-bellied scurvy dog.

There's just a little problem: the misogyny.

There are two named female characters in this book. One of them appears a couple of times in order to act like a slut and get Jack in trouble with her man. The other one is Beth, who is useless; not only is she consistently incapable of recognising that crazy magical shit is going down until it's too late, but she lacks any redeeming quality: no personality, no hidden capacity to kick ass, nothing. She exists, in fact, solely for men to fight over her. Friend simply wants to plough her and dress her up like his mother (and in fact almost rapes her, but doesn't get very far because he's a little too fucked up to do it right). Hurwood wants to cram his dead wife's soul into Beth's body, and then plough her. The Ghost Pirate LeChuck Blackbeard wants to enter into a symbolic marriage with her in order to secure his occult power, which is destabilised after his resurrection. Jack is in love with her, and granted she loves him, but the most she's actually able to do for him in the course of the novel is get married to him so that he can beat Blackbeard. You read it right: the most important, valuable, and helpful way in which Beth can affect the course of the action is to marry some dude; she essentially has no capacity to exert any form of control over her destiny, or for that matter what she has for breakfast, independently of the men in her life.

Elaine Marley, who appears all of twice during the course of the first Monkey Island game, still manages to justify her presence in the story in those brief sequences a thousand times more effectively than Beth ever does. She is not a human being. She is simply a McGuffin in a dress, and for a book in which basically every other character is well-characterised and believably human that's unforgivable, especially considering her pivotal role in the plot. In fact, of the two named female characters in the book, both are present solely to advance the story. They are essentially woman-shaped springboards for Jack Shandy to bounce off of, catapaulting him into the next stage of the plot. This, frankly, is baffling. Granted, I can recall no female characters whatsoever in The Drawing of the Dark or The Anubis Gates, but I'm pretty sure that the ladies of Last Call (still the peak of Powers' work) were more than just motivational tits on legs.

50 milliGoodkinds for you, Mr Powers. On Stranger Tides' misogyny is only 5% as bad as that in the Sword of Truth books, but it still leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone if the rest of it weren't absolutely top-notch swashbuckling fun; as it is, do go out of your way to read it (a horribly flawed Tim Powers novel is still a Tim Powers novel, after all), but proceed with caution. Maybe you won't throw a horrible tizzy like I have; perhaps I'm simply being a prissy, politically correct, emasculated New Man about this whole thing, and there's nothing remotely offensive about the way that Beth is passed around like a bowl of nuts throughout the novel. I doubt it though.
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