On Stranger Tides is the fourth of Tim Powers’ mature works, preceded by The Drawing of the Dark (1979), The Anubis Gates (1983), and Dinner at Deviant’s Palace (1985). These books share a common plot structure, in which the protagonist faces supernatural or superhuman forces, struggles with them for a time, and then lapses into drunken despair. A realization that it is almost too late to achieve his objectives galvanizes the protagonist for one final confrontation. In some of Powers’ books, including On Stranger Tides, there are two distinct drunken episodes rather than one.
Powers has two great assets in his writing: vivid prose and attention to detail. He is a master of fast-paced action. His vivid and detailed descriptions of supernatural beings, magic, and everyday life in historical settings create great emotional intensity as well as a high degree of realism. Comparisons of the external and internal worlds are almost a signature and are quite effective. Reliance on vivid realism to generate intensity characterizes the slasher-film style of contemporary horror, but Powers does not fall into the trap of relying on too-powerful supernatural forces that can be neither comprehended nor escaped. His villains are humans (or nonhumans) with understandable motives. Thatch wants power and immortality. Leo Friend, sometime associate of Benjamin Hurwood, seeks power and a positive self-image. Hurwood cannot...
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