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4.1 out of 5 stars
On Stranger Tides
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
The basis for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film set to hit theatres this May, On Stranger Tides by Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominee Tim Powers is a drunken, back-stabbing, swaggering, double-dealing Saturday afternoon in the sun matinee of a novel. Depending on how closely Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio's adapted screenplay hones to it, and just how many Captain Jack Sparrows director Rob Marshall decides to composite into the thing, needless to say, in On Stranger Tides there are the makings of the best Pirates of the Carribean flick since the very first.

Nor is this the first time On Stranger Tides has been the inspiration for such estimable entertainment. Originally released in 1987, way back when Powers' novel also moved game designer and erstwhile funny man Ron Gilbert to define a generation with The Secret of Monkey Island. Their purposes might have differed somewhat - one was a boisterous book of adventure on the high seas and the other a comic point-and-click - but the veins of commonality between the game and the story which helped germinate it are easy to pick out, even to this day: there's all the voodoo hoodoo, of course, but also strains of Hatch and Shandy in LeChuck and Guybrush, and in the pirate town of Mêlée, where Threepwood determines to become a swarvy dog, there are echoes of "the outlaw republic on New Providence Island" (p.57) where Powers' protagonist Jack gets sea legs of his own.

This is after he's been pressganged, you understand. While sailing for Jamaica to right a wrong done him by an ass-kissing uncle and inherit the estate that is rightfully his, John Chandagnac's ship is boarded by pirates under the nefarious Blackbeard, who give him a no-brainer of a choice: John can either walk the plank, or join them. He signs on the dotted line forthwith - wouldn't we all? - and rechristened Jack Shandy via a few drunken sailors and a barrel of rum, he begins to realise that perhaps it's a pirate's life for him, after all... if only for as long as it takes to rescue the object of his affections.

That's Beth Hurwood, in whose body Beth's father Benjamin means to resurrect his late and oft-lamented wife. Beth is "innocence intolerably abused" (p.182) in so many words, and Jack hopes to see her free from harm's way, even if saving the girl means he has to cross Blackbeard himself, whose quest for booty takes the pirates - old and new "to a hole in the wall between life and death, and anyone standing around is liable to catch the spray from one side or the other. Don't you know any history? It what Juan Ponce de Leon was looking for - he called it the Fountain of Youth." (p.158)

Now I'm no Pirates of the Caribbean apologist. The sequels were ridiculous, self-serving things; embarrassing for all concerned, I do not doubt. But that first film... well, it took me back, reminded me of a time when pirates were in vogue, and such stories were still told. Where did they all go, anyway?

For its part, On Stranger Tides left me feeling much the same way, in a heady haze of nostalgia and satisfaction. Powers writes unfussily, with lots of hyphens and ellipses and asides, yet through every diversion his piquant prose flows smoothly. His language is intoxicating, engaging on a visual and a sensory level, and though his characters - Jack and Beth and especially Blackbeard - are archetypes every which way you look at them, they leap to life from the first. Their adventures are an undiluted joy to follow.

On Stranger Tides has it all, which is to say romance and mystery, action and intrigue, dark magic and exciting swordfights on the seven seas. It's such great fun; it rips along, keeping pace with the best best Summer books; and if I don't remember much of it in a week or a month or a year, as well I might not, why... I'll go at it again! I read this timely reissue because of the Pirates of the Caribbean connection, I admit, but the next Tim Powers I read, I'm reading because Tim Powers wrote it.

Also: arrrrrr!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 1 June 2011
This was fantastically good fun. It had a great plot and was very well written.

There were lots of great action scenes and it was very atmospheric. The exposition scenes were kept to a minimum and I had the sense that the book was set in a fully realised world and that everything made sense.

The magical and supernatural elements were fully developed and didn't overshadow the rest of the plot.

There are some great characters and that includes the main character. In fantasy novels they can often be a bit dull but that wasn't the case here.

There were plenty of flashes of humour and despite being fairly long I found this to be a quick and easy read.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 14 June 2011
On Stranger Tides was first published in 1987, and is the third (and most American-based) of Powers' historical fantasies. It is set in the Caribbean in the early eighteenth century, where magic still survives on the remote fringes of civilisation. Penniless puppeteer John Chandagnac sets out from Europe to reclaim the family estate in Haiti from his usurping uncle, but en route the ship is boarded by pirates and John is forced to join their crew. Dubbed "Jack Shandy" by his new shipmates, he harbours dreams of completing his quest (and rescuing his fellow passenger, the lovely Beth Hurwood, who was taken captive in the raid), but he runs afoul of Blackbeard, who is searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth, the key to immortality. In true swashbuckling pirate fashion, Shandy learns to fight and sail a ship, kills the bad guys and gets the girl, facing European sorcerors, voodoo bocors, zombies and even Baron Samedi himself along the way - no wonder Disney wanted to steal the best bits!

In fact this book's plot has so much in common with the very first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, that the inspiration is clear. The protagonist's pirate name is awfully close to that of Jack Sparrow, his quest to rescue (Eliza)beth from a sorcerous pirate captain mirrors that of Will Turner, and like Sparrow, Shandy does indeed become captain of his own small ship and spend a couple of long spells getting blind drunk on rum (or red wine if he can get it) on beaches. There's even a character who could have stepped out of the original movie, a black pirate called Mr Bird who periodically shouts "I am not a dog!" for no apparent reason.

In some respects this is a very old-fashioned book: there is no strong language (beyond an occasional "damn" or "bloody"), with any actual swearing being referred to obliquely, and any feminist readers are likely to be disappointed by the passivity of the female characters. Beth Hurwood exists purely to be threatened by the bad guys and rescued by the hero, and the one potentially interesting young woman (a teenage Ann Bonny) makes only a couple of brief appearances. However all this is very true to the genre's swashbuckling, "Boy's Own" roots and detracted very little from this reader's enjoyment, perhaps because the hero himself is a complex, well-rounded character: likeably naive to begin with, gradually coming to enjoy his new adventurous life but with a moral core that prevents him from descending into the savagery displayed by the other pirates.

Overall, I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves a good adventure story. It's darker than the movies, but comedy is much harder to pull off on the page than on-screen, and Powers' rich imagination more than compensates.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 13 May 2012
I went into this book knowing very little about it. Really the only thing I had to go on was the rather lacklustre Pirates of the Caribbean film based on it, which is hardly the best endorsement.

But I found myself very pleasantly surprised with the result. The actual similarity between the book and the film is limited to the name, the fountain of youth, and the involvement of Blackbeard. If the film had been more like the book, then it might not have been the disappointment it turned out to be.

So why did I like "On Stranger Tides" so much? Well, the first thing it has going for it is excellent characters. The pirate genre lends itself to colourful, imaginative and exciting casts, and Powers doesn't disappoint. Main character Jack Shandy is the classic character who never really wanted to be a pirate, but found an outlaw life thrust upon him, whilst Blackbeard manages to be engagingly bad, but more than simply a cardboard-cut-out comic villain. Add to the mix a host of brash but morally-questionable buccaneers and you couldn't really want for better pirate fare.

One thing that I was a little less passionate about was the ending. Throughout, Powers keeps the story fast paced and exciting, with the action running right up to the end. Which is great, but it makes the ending feel rather abrupt. To go from full-throttle to over zap quickly killed the mood a little, but I couldn't say what I would have changed and it didn't damage the reading experience too much.

Overall I would definitely recommend this book. I was somewhat sceptical at first, believing that pirate stories were something of a genre cul-de-sac, but Powers' excellent writing and brilliant story converted me very quickly.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2011
Apparently this book was a partial inspiration Ron Gilbert's 'Monkey Island' series. So I was expecting this to be more of a comedy, though I was prepared for it to be a more serious novel. I wasn't disappointed, though, and the story wasn't bereft of humour.

You may be disappointed (or, as I was, glad) that the book has little in common with the 4th Pirates of the Caribbean movie, though it does have several similar themes to them which remain just as relevant to the plot; Piracy in the Caribbean, Black beard, Voodoo, Zombies and the Fountain of Youth. No murmaids. And Black beard has no daughter... At least not one who makes an appearance. In real life he probably had a few, as he was a polygamist and pimp, though the book doesn't really touch on these facts).

About the plot;

The story itself is a modern fantasy, set in the Caribean around the early 18th century; toward the end of the "Golden Age of Piracy".

We meet the central protagonist, John Chandagnac (aka, Jack Shandy) a puppeteer (though 'Master' puppeteer might be more accurate) after he has learned that his uncle cheated his father out of an inheritance that would have prevented him from dying in poverty out of starvation and exposure and is living on a large estate on an island near Jamaica and set off to confront him. After befriending the ship's captain and a mutual crush forming between he and fellow passenger, Elizabeth Hurwood, the ship is attacked by pirates.

After attacking the pirate captain, Phil Davies, he's given the choice of joining the crew as part of Blackbeard's flotilla or execution. He eventually befriend's Davies and most of the crew and, after discovering a knack for many of the crews duties (sailing, navigation, gunnery and especially cooking) he quickly ascends the ranks until, near the end, he is the captain of the Vociferous Carmicheal; the ship he was originally a passenger of.

The main antagonists are perverse English magicians, Professor Benjimin Hurwood, his apprentice, Doctor Leo friend (probably named ironically as he is the most disgusting character in the book) and the famous Dread Pirate Edward Thetch (Blackbeard) who is also a master of Vodun (properly referred to as Vodun), The latter of which is one of a very few men who know the location of the Fountain of Youth, the former, Hurward, being the only man who knows how to actually get to it once they have arrived.

Not only do all 3 of them plan to live forever but they all have selfish but conflicting plans for Hurwood's daughter, the aforementioned Elizabeth, one wishing to forcibly marry, one wishing to displace (and subsequently destroy) her soul and replace it with that of his deceased wife and one who intends to use his magic to make her a willing rape victim (not content to simply dominate her body he wishes to dominate her mind).

However it seems that, as desperate as she is to escape, she has become increasingly distrustful of the only man who still cares enough to rescue her as he is increasingly forced to *fully* embrace the life of piracy...

About the writing;

The research by Powers was clearly thorough, each scene set with minute detail without dwelling on it to the point of tedium.

There's nothing, no anachronism, cliche or plot device that made me cringe with the exception of 2 scarcely used Americanisms; cilantro (which should have been properly referred to as coriander) and friend's perverse use of the term 'mommy' (which should have been 'mummy' or, given the time period, possibly 'mama').

There are a few fantasy staples in there, such as magic is real and used to be common throughout the world but simply faded away over time. However Powers actually explains this, as 'magic' has its own scientific laws and actually comes off as pretty plausible in the end. Once I reminded myself that magic wasn't real I had to keep reminding myself that magic in other fiction doesn't work on the same principles.

I think this book *just* fell short of being a truly great book, but I'm not sure how. I think it could have been the focus on the 2 villains of his own creation, Prof. Hurwood and Dr. Friend and their perversion made the final antagonist, Black Beard, comparatively likeable when in reality he was one of history's most brutal and loathsome pirates.

However this could have been because the story of the book was set in a realistic setting and all characters, events and locations that had real life counter parts have remained unchanged; limiting the influence of them within the book allows the author to remain creatively flexible while not being anachronistic.

They story is good, well researched and the subject matter is fascinating but all in all it's missing that certain something, that 'x' factor or Je ne sais quoi that would have caused me to give it a full 5/5 star rating. But if you're a big fan of pirates, period drama or general fantasy (and bored with wizards and dragons) then this is a book I'd happily recommend :)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 11 May 2011
Pirates: check
Fighting aplenty: check
Blackbeard: check
Voodoo and magic: check
Zombies: check

Okay, I can't think what else Mr. Powers could have added to this book to make it more appealing. If you don't like any of the above, then this book is probably not for you, but for the rest of us, this is a good'un.

I felt the story started quite slowly, I wasn't convinced I would enjoy it despite several glowing reviews and the knowledge that it'd been adapted to become the fourth instalment in the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films. It only took a couple of chapters though to get my pirate head on and start to enjoy this book. I think perhaps I was unsure because it starts in a way that made me feel it was a continuance of an earlier book - but perhaps this was just because I was trying to marry it up with the PotC films, which was silly.

Some of this book reminded me of Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton, which I also found enjoyable.

The story itself flows nicely. There is plenty of swashbuckling fun, voodoo curse flinging and zombie shenanigans to keep the book moving at a healthy pace. The plot was well thought out and the characters believable - but it did leave me with a couple of gripes hence only 4 stars.

Firstly, was the main character. John Chandagnac starts the story as a puppeteer. It takes very little time for him to work his way up the pirate ladder until he's suddenly captaining a pirate ship and crew. unbelievable in my opinion, although I've not met any pirates so perhaps this is perfectly ordinary. It's a small issue though and doesn't make the story any less enjoyable for it.

My second gripe is even smaller, but I just have to say - a pirate captain called Phil Davies? Really? Okay - I haven't checked my history books, so it could be that this was a common name for pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. It just doesn't sound like a good pirate name to me. Blackbeard: great pirate name. Phil Davies - not really instilling any fear.

Overall, an excellent read. As another reviewer suggested, it would be a good idea to read this before seeing the film.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The Caribbean, 1718. Jack Chandagnac - Jack Shandy - is sailing to Haiti to reclaim some property when his ship is boarded by pirates. Shandy is recruited onto the pirate crew and becomes aware of a bizarre conspiracy that is unfolding between one of the passengers, Benjamin Hurwood, and the feared pirate Blackbeard, involving Hurwood's daughter Beth and the mythical Fountain of Youth. Shandy is soon drawn into a strange and magical quest set against the backdrop of the dying days of piracy in the Caribbean.

On Stranger Tides is arguably Tim Powers' most well-known and influential novel. Published in 1988, it has been quoted as one of the primary inspirations behind both Ron Gilbert's splendid Monkey Island computer games and also the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, to such an extent that the film producers bought the rights to the novel and the imminent fourth film in the series is both named for and draws on some of the plot elements of the book. Yet it's not quite the swashbuckling, good-time adventure that the those later works would suggest.

On Stranger Tides is rich and full of vibrant colour that brings alive the setting, but it's also weird, offbeat and often downright bizarre. Jack Shandy is a reluctant hero who spends a fair amount of time moping around and musing on his bad luck rather than getting on with business (especially in the second half of the novel, dissipating dramatic tension rather than building it up) whilst Beth is a fairly weak character lacking much motivation, rather disappointing given there aren't many female characters in the novel (in this regard the inspired works have done a better job; Beth is no Elaine Marley and isn't even an Elizabeth Swann). On the plus side, the likes of Blackbeard and Davies make for more interesting characters, though as one of the main villains Ben Hurwood lacks any real defining characteristics beyond being insane.

The writing is crisp, clear and flows nicely, with Powers conjuring up some dark and threatening vibes whenever seriously weird voodoo goes down. He's also good at the skirmishes, with cutlasses flashing in the sunlight and pirates and navy crewmen urgently reloading their pistols and boarding one another's ships with wild abandon. There's also a nice maudlin feeling evoked at the dying of the pirate culture in the face of increased colonisation of the islands from Europe, though Powers never lets the reader forget that, for all its romantic image, piracy was built on theft, pressganging and murder.

On Stranger Tides is thus a mixed bag: the central plot starts and stops a bit erratically, and some well-rounded, three-dimensional characters with well-explained motivations sit uneasily next to cliches and cyphers. The dark and foreboding atmosphere evoked by the magic is impressive, but then tends to be undermined by the 'science' of voodoo, which sometimes reduces it to just another fantasy magic system. The action sequences are rousing, but infrequent. But overall the novel has a strange, offbeat atmosphere that is interesting and, if the plot doesn't flow as well as it could, the weird collection of characters and their antics makes for an enjoyable, if not entirely page-turning, reading experience.

On Stranger Tides (***½) is available now in the UK and USA.
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on 11 July 2011
This is the book that the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise drew inspiration from for it's 4th outing. I wanted to read the book before seeing the film and as a result of my tardiness, will now have to wait for the film to come out on DVD.
I love pirates, I wish there were more novels surrounding pirates, (anyone that wishes to point me in the right direction please feel free). However, the few I have read, all seem to leave me feeling the same.
It is very rare I finish a book and can't decide whether I enjoyed it or not. "On stranger tides" joins this list. Like other pirate novels I have read, there were moments where I really enjoyed the experience and other moments where I was reading but not really taking the story in.
For example, the whole Fountain of Youth episode stood out as a really good piece of writing, Tim Powers really portrayed a great sense of atmosphere and claustrophobia. The sense of voodoo magic poured through the swamp like settings and the character's distress at their real or imaginary visions was quite disconcerting. However, if you asked me what the purpose of the whole scene was and what the characters achieved, I would struggle to tell you.
There are also some good characters. The pirate captain Phil Davies, the evil Leo Friend and the loyal Skank spring to mind. However it is difficult to route for the main character Jack Shandy who spends long periods feeling for himself and drowning his sorrows.
I think the biggest problem with the novel is the lack of direction. I like my plots to be clear, I don't mind complicated but I like to know the motivations of the protagonists and their overall objectives. With "on stranger tides," the main character "Shandy " seems to stumble from one scene to another with no real purpose. There is some vague mention of an uncle he wishes to confront and then later he wants to rescue a girl who at the beginning of the novel he did not care for.
The timeline is never consistent. A chapter might end and the next may start up immediately after the event or some months after. I found myself not discovering which until I had read a good few paragraphs of the chapter first. This is probably summed up in the loosely entitled epilogue, which is really just the final chapter of the book taking place seconds after the ending of the previous chapter and in no way representative of an epilogue whatsoever.
It sounds as if I really didn't enjoy the book, but I don't think that is a fair reflection. I just felt the story was more of a mesh of cool scenes loosely tied together than a clever tale. The only constant being Shandy's half hearted pursuit of a girl he did not want to encourage in the beginning. Overall, I enjoyed it then... I think.
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on 12 October 2011
John Chandagnac travels to the Caribbean to claim his rightful inheritance from a scheming uncle. On route the ship is taken by pirates -with help from fellow-passenger and deranged academic Benjamin Hurwood. John is forced to join the pirates or forfeit his life and so he is taken to the New Providence Island pirate settlement and renamed Jack Shandy. Jack ends up travelling with the fearsome Blackbeard, the sinister doctor Leo Friend, Hurwood and Hurwood's daughter Elizabeth to the Fountain of Youth.

The way that the supernatural occurred in the book reminded me of both The Anubis Gates and Declare. It was like Declare because there were powerful, spiritual beings in existence that knowledgeable humans had to work with - though in this book they were based on voodoo (or vodoun) rather than middle eastern mythology. It was like The Anubis Gates because it suggested that magic was inimical to technology and had gotten progressively weaker over time. I liked this because it felt as though all the books took place in the same world, and given the well-researched settings and characters, it all felt like secret history.

Overall it was an excellent, intelligent book full of high seas adventure, suspense, thrills, intrigue, magic, nastiness and puppetry.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
What's not to like about this book? It has pirates, voodoo, Blackbeard, and a man who plays with puppets. It's thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, combining flights of absolute fantasy with the occasional bit of fact and history, tying it all into a more or less coherent narrative.

It's not perfect - for one thing the ending a little anti-climatic, and the action scenes are somewhat inelegant. On the whole though, I would be happy to recommend this to anyone who finds the premise intriguing.
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