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The challenge is whether or not I can write anything about this novel without getting drunk on rum and colloquialisms. Because with Tim Powers bartending, you're liable to get a full-sized patio umbrella in your exotic drink. Most people would consider this novel a fantasy. I consider it an historical fiction that allows magic its proper steerage.
Okay, maybe Blackbeard wasn't an actual loa , but, at that time and place, I'll bet the majority of people could believe he was. Powers reasons that as mankind's dominance in Europe re-designed, destroyed, or re-named everything to suit its needs, magical evocation drowned under more rational or religious dogmas. Earth's elements were cut off from their creational sorcery by ignorance, re-directional thinking, or general quiescence. Novice mage and repugnant fatboy Leo Friend is drawn across the Atlantic after he comes “to the bitter realization that . . . though ancient magicians had been able . . . it now took almost a lifetime's strength” (Ace, Book Club Edition, c.1987, p.63) to conjure competent spells. The New World of the 1500s was “still raw and unformed . . . and bore only the most remote resemblances” (p.106) to civilized Europe. Magic was abundant and real because the Americas never went through an Iron Age.
Early man found malleable iron for spearheads and tools in meteorites and naturally considered it a gift from the Gods*. “The very oldest writers claimed that the souls of stars were in the stuff” (p.239), says a 200-year-old buccaneer who used to be Ponce de Leon. “Magic stopped being an important factor of life at around the same time iron came into general use” (p.240) because, although it is in the top 10 most common elements of the universe, natural iron oxide must be smelted from rocks before use. And, as it was heated and beaten and molded into the building blocks of a growing civilization, the magic was driven out—finished off, if you will—and what was left became cold, dead, man-made iron, so convenient, comfortable, and practical. I could rant on about this . . .
But the most popular allure to the New World was another metal: gold. The pagan natives shaped gold for religious ceremonies to absorb supernatural power through their idols. The conquistadors, however, attached a far different significance to the shiny metal. Its incorporeal worth and monomaniacal demand led to the most phenomenal and world-altering changes this hemisphere has ever known. Isn't it ironic—even somewhat magical—that an inanimate object can hold so much power?
Powers' character of Blackbeard incorporates all of the greed, obsessiveness, and hocus-pocus idiosyncrasies associated with both metals. Unfortunately, as a study, he slips through the author's fingers. The most famous pirate of all seems to be just on the outskirts of his scenes, and, by the end of the novel, he smolders out like the matches in his beard from the rescue-and-recompense plot. But that's okay, since the story has enough twists and turns beyond his presence to keep you scurrying through the quirky details and bizarre characters along its fascinating yet somewhat predictable journey.
I mean, who other than Tim Powers would throw his hero on the blood-slick planks of a pirate ship and background him as being a puppeteer who learned marionette wizardry from his street vending father? Who would create so vile a villain he would murder his own daughter so he could re-animate his dead wife's maggoty head which he carries with him constantly under his one, good arm?
So save that ticket price for the second—or third— Pirates of the Caribbean movie and buy this book. Shiver me timbers, ye won' be sorry, Matie.**
*the English word for “iron” is derived from the Etruscan aisar , which translates as “the Gods” (Etruscan Glossary , Rick Mc Callister and Silvia Mc Callister-Castillo , c.1999).
**See? I told you I couldn't do it!