Come one, come all to the new year in Leafing Through Life book reviewing, wherein I attempt to perform the astonishing feat of reviewing the last book I finished before flipping the last page of my current read. In keeping with the new year, my very first book, Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks came from my very own shelves (or maybe I mean "from a cardboard box that's become an extension of my shelves"). Actually, it was not quite the very first book of the year seeing as Greg Iles' Blood Memory and Massimo Carlotto's The Goodbye Kiss both got the axe before Tiger, Tiger finally passed the 50 page test with flying colors. Here's to at least making room for the books in the boxes. Oy.
Tiger, Tiger starts off with a bang as two young tiger cubs are torn from their lush jungle home and dropped into the unknown of Ancient Rome. One is destined to fight for its life in the Colosseum, the other is bound for a much cushier life as the showy pet of the Caesar's beautiful young daughter Aurelia. Little does Caesar know that his twin tigers will prove the catalyst for some most unusual and unwelcome happenings, and that when circumstances bring the two cats together again, the results could change an empire.
The tigers, who are important enough to the story that they command a portion of the narration all to themselves, are ultimately a backdrop for young Aurelia's story. Aurelia, daughter of the most powerful ruler of the most powerful empire, at 12 years old is already beautiful and even wise for her age. She knows that even though she is young, the effect of her power on servants and slaves is profound. She is too beautiful to be even be left alone with any man without her father's express permission, so when her new pet tiger comes with a young male keeper, the chain of events is not unsurprising, but young Julius is a slave, and Aurelia, while just within reach, is strictly off-limits.
Tiger, Tiger, though it tends toward the overly predictable, is still an enchanting piece of middle grade historical fiction that follows a princess as she comes of age in Ancient Rome. Banks' Rome is vividly portrayed both in its opulence and its barbarism. Aurelia's personal space is vast, and her tiger, Boots, is given a bejeweled collar even while slaves, gladiators, and Christians are sent into the Colosseum to be mauled to death by Boots' brother Brute all at simple thumbs up or thumbs down from Aurelia's father, the all-powerful Caesar.
Through Aurelia's eyes, the terrors of the Colosseum are revealed with happenings so awful and disgusting that Aurelia is left unable to so much as look her father in the eye with love. The love story is sweet, chaste, and ultimately more powerful than expected. Aurelia herself is a great character, gentle and caring and quite unprepared for the barbarism that sustains her father's empire. She possesses the perfect marriage of childish foolishness that has far-reaching implications and a wisdom beyond her years as she navigates her growing knowledge of the awful things her father's and her own power is built upon.
Tiger, Tiger is a captivating story of much more than just tigers that opens a window on Rome that will make ancient history accessible and even enjoyable to younger readers - and older ones, too.