Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tiger Wars, by Steve Backshall

Saker, a highly trained and dangerous teen warrior is on the run from the only life he has ever known. When an attack of conscience during a 'job' causes him to question the motives of the mysterious "Clan" to which he has always belonged, Saker must flee for his life. Riddled with amnesia and pursued by mercenaries and assassins, hunting dogs and other Clan members, they will not stop until he is caught- and his former friends are every bit as trained and as deadly as he is.

After accidentally kidnapping Sinter, the feisty daughter of a tea plantation owner, Saker's memory begins to return in lumps and patches. As he shares his history and his reasons with Sinter, her hostility and haughtiness begins to melt away. Aligning herself to his cause, their shared mission takes them both from humid India to the magnificent Himalayas and the highest settlements of Tibet. Using all the survival skills, knowledge and bravery they possess between them, Saker and Sinter must risk everything to save Asia's most fearsome and majestic (not to mention unfortunately valuable) of predators- the Tiger.

Tiger Wars is the sort of book that combines pretty complex emotional themes seamlessly with moral themes, all wrapped up in action, suspense and interesting characters. The plot is full of peril, danger, terrible decisions and breathtaking escapes but also makes a huge effort to celebrate the power of friendship, the strength of overcoming adversity and bravery. It also has a really vital conservation message that focuses on the protection of the last of the world's wild tiger population from the illegal Asian medicine trade. So all in all it has a lot to say, a really engaging voice with which to say it.

Firstly, I loved the setting of this novel. It's an arm-chair tour of some of the world's most hostile but beautiful territories. Saker and Sinter's flight takes them through dense forests, dusty cities and impassable mountains into some of the most inhospitable and isolated areas of the world. The reader learns a little of the culture of these places and the challenges that their inhabitants face. The unusually exotic locations make a really welcome change to the Victorian London or the English Secondary School setting that feels so prominent in Middle Grade fiction. Reading it, I felt I had been somewhere new.

Another of the book's strengths was the detailed and intricate characterisation of the two main characters. To begin with they are thrown together by circumstance and bad luck, nobody is particularly happy and both want to scarper as soon as possible- but a mutual respect and understanding soon develops. Eventually, Saker and Sinter prove to be a formidable and unbreakable team- each bringing their own skills and unwavering loyalty and determination to the duo. Both are displaced and alone; Sinter is fleeing an arranged marriage and a future of unfulfillment and servitude and Saker has known nothing but life in the Clan, which until recently seemed fun but now is filled with deadly enemies.

One of the most appealing aspects of the book is the sheer enthusiasm of the author. Steve Backshall's love for nature, for the environment and for the wilderness is infectious. What's more he knows his stuff. Backshall skillfully sprinkles the story with facts and information about survival skills, ecology, geography, Asian spirituality, geology and natural history, so I think this book will also appeal to fans of non-fiction- there's plenty of quiz friendly trivia in here. These additions are genuinely interesting, they work within the context of the narrative and add weight and authenticity to the book. It also proves you're never too old to learn new things!

In conclusion, I was immensely impressed with this book and look forward to the rest of the series. It has good characters who share a strong, genuine bond, loads of action and danger and a really pacy story. It's an inspiring tale about doing the right thing even when it seems impossible and about caring for the natural world, as well as the transformative power of friendship. Top stuff.

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