The cover for the book Tyger for review, showing a close-up of the Tyger's face looking straight at the viewer with orange eyes, surrounded by orange, black and white striped fur.
Book Reviews

Tyger | Book Review

Written by S.F. Said, illustrated by Dave McKean (published by David Fickling Books)

‘Nothing is ordinary,’ said the tyger. ‘Everything is extraordinary. In all of infinity and eternity, that flower exists only in this world; this precise position in space and time. Everywhere else, there is a different flower, or no flower at all. And the same is true of you. Nothing special? You are miraculous beyond measure, both of you.’

Adam is a delivery boy for his family’s business in London, in a world where the British Empire never collapsed and slavery was never abolished. The “foreigners” – which includes Adam’s family – live and work in the Ghetto, fenced into Soho and forced to show their papers at the border. It’s a hard life, but they do what they can to get by.

However, Adam’s world is turned upside down when he finds the tyger. She is beautiful, bold, free, and unlike anything he has ever seen. But she’s in danger, being hunted, and needs his help. And it’s not just her – the whole world is at stake. Can Adam and his new friend Zadie help the tyger, and perhaps save their world in the process?

Tyger is a brilliant book that is gripping, maddening (in a good way!), touching, and more. I found myself having to go back and reread sections after skimming ahead in my eagerness to know what happens next – something I tend to do with the most striking stories.

A black and white drawing of Adam in the foreground, and the wounded tyger curled up in the background. By Dave McKean.
Adam finds the wounded tyger (illus. Dave McKean)

The tyger is an immortal, a cosmic being that has watched over humanity in any number of realities since the dawn of time. But now she is trapped and wounded, cut off from the infinite which can save her. It’s this same infinite that can save the world; cut off from it, eventually the world will darken and die, something which it is already on its way towards.

Guided by the tyger, Adam and Zadie must learn to use the power that lies inside them to save her – the power to perceive the world as it is and as it could be, to understand the feelings of those around them, and to turn possibilities into reality.

However, this is complicated by the fact that they are “foreigners” and so treated differently, despite both being born and raised in London. Sometimes that means simply being ignored, but sometimes that means being questioned, probed, verbally abused. And this is before we even speak of the cold, calculating hunters who are chasing the tyger, and by extension them, willing to do whatever it takes to capture the magnificent creature for their own nefarious plans.

Both Adam and Zadie are beautifully complex characters despite their youth, struggling to survive and wrestling with their place in the world – both British, but treated as outsiders simply because of the colour of the skin. They could be any child or teen in our own world, scared but brave in the face of adversity.

They are not entirely alike though, as their upbringing has been very different. Adam has been raised to try not to stand out; keeping his head down, being deferential, and using an Anglicised name. By comparison, although Zadie hides her face to avoid unwanted attention, she has been raised with an understanding and appreciation for her family’s history, language, and culture. I felt this did a good job of showing the ‘choice’ many immigrants face, the fear of not fitting in (or worse) causing them to push down any uniqueness or ‘foreignness’ for their own protection.

A black and white image of the city of London in the rain, with tall smokestacks releasing smoke into the sky. By Dave McKean.
The city of London (illus. Dave McKean)

The London Said portrays is both like our world, and not. We may not have first class lanes on the roads for the lords and ladies, and the gentry may not ride around on horses carrying whips with literal slaves in tow, but we still experience classism and racism. Sometimes it is more insidious, but sometimes it is just as overt as the yelling of “FOREIGNERS OUT!” that Adam hears.

Like ours or not, the descriptions are by turns both familiar and chilling, from the grand mansions and dingy alleyways, to the stark horror of the gallows in Tyburn for the Midwinter hangings. This is beautifully contrasted with the world of magic the tyger shows them, full of light, colour, and nature.

This dystopian reality, and the magical world beneath it, are perfectly illustrated by Dave McKean, who has an amazing knack for imaging the uncanny. Although there are no ‘monsters’ in the obvious sense, his pictures do a fantastic job of mirroring the unspoken monstrosity of the world and the suffering it enacts upon people, but also the possibilities of beauty and hope that shine through.

Said does a painfully excellent job of depicting how people are kept divided, their fear and anger being twisted and redirected upon innocent others. He doesn’t place blame upon most of the commoners (though there are one or two who just seem like bad people!), rather he portrays them as innocents as well, who have been pushed and trodden on until they’ve reached a breaking point.

I won’t lie, it was hard to read at times, wondering how far off reality it is. But throughout the story runs a thread of hope, of a better future, of wonderous possibilities if people are willing to stand up and work together. The themes of understanding and humanity are strong; the message isn’t subtle, and it works all the better for it.

I keep adding more to this review, and I’m aware it’s getting a bit long…I’m not sure I’ve done the book justice (apologies S.F. Said!), so I urge you to grab a copy to read yourself. And if you happen to have the hardback version, slip off the dustcover so you can see the golden stripes of the tyger underneath!

The tyger speaks of the power inside Adam and Zadie, inside the other humans too if they only knew of it. It’s a power that lives inside all of us – the power to change the world, to inspire others, and to do what’s right, even when it’s hard or we feel overwhelmed and scared. It’s a powerful message to take away from the story, and I hope people do…I’d like to think I will too.

A black and white image of Adam and Zadie sitting on the tyger's back as it climbs a set of stairs over a street in London. By Dave McKean.
Adam and Zadie ride on the tyger’s back through the streets of London (illus. Dave McKean)

If the idea of Tyger burns bright in your mind, you can grab a copy at the link below.
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Looking for more books on current issues (or reflections thereof)? If so, you can see our previous reviews here.