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Book Review: Tyger by SF Said (David Fickling Books)

Illustrated by Dave McKean

For ages 9+

It took 9 years for SF Said to write this book. SF Said is a scholar who is an entity unto himself, an oracle of learned wisdom evoking higher awareness through his multi award-winning works of children's literature. If you're a fan of apocalyptic literature soaked in symbolism you're going to love 'Tyger'. The cover artwork and plentiful illustrations throughout by the incredible Dave McKean are soul-clenching, jaw-dropping.

Imagine London in the 21st century where a day about town resulted in you experiencing prejudice, being racially profiled, discriminated against because of your religion or class. Rewind selector… I don’t have to imagine it. I don’t have to imagine it at all. I see it, hear it and feel it around me every single day, whether online, in the newspapers, in lyrics, film scripts, chat on the streets, from loved ones… Now imagine that our world is one of many parallel worlds? What if this world hasn't just one reality; Earth has been born an infinite number of times over with every possible reality existing in the same nanosecond of time across the universe? Knowing this, would it change your philosophy about life, would you feel hopeful to be created within an alternative reality in a next life or might phrases like “I wish I wasn’t born into this reality” or “if only I could pass through the gateway to a better reality and then my life would be so much better” become commonplace? How might this change human perception - would it make all the human beings on this planet feel as one body and thus negate prejudice, borders, war, social injustice?

About the book

I hypothesised in the introduction for a reason, to put you in a certain frame of mind, ready to enter ‘Tyger’s world, an alternate reality of our very planet in our own time. For, in this story you will be based in London with familiar landmarks and places (Tottenham Court Road, Soho, London Bridge, Highgate, Hampstead, Marble Arch and more). ‘Tyger’s protagonists are living their everyday lives with similar struggles, originating from familiar countries in Africa and the Middle East, identifying with the Abrahamic religions we know well (Islam, Christianity, Judaism), with professions and skills akin to our own.

Key differences to our known reality?

(1) Slavery has NOT been abolished. An attempt was thwarted in the 1700s. The city has many “dark-skinned slaves”.

(2) London is divided by checkpoints guarded by soldiers, if you are not ‘British’ you belong in the ghetto side of town and may only visit the other side if you have the correct paperwork and purpose. The other side of town has schools, wider streets, clean living. You catch my drift.

(3) The British Empire rules. There is an Emperor.

(4) Capital punishment has NOT been removed from the justice system. What we now know as the Marble Arch monument is a place of public hangings.

You may wonder what a ‘tyger’ has to do with any of this whatsoever. The lead character in this story is a young teenager called Adam. Adam Alhambra. He is a Muslim, born in Soho, London, living with parents who originated from the Middle East. His parents own a fabric/tailors business in the Soho ghetto and and together with his siblings, they have to work tirelessly to survive with Adam making daily deliveries around London for them. One day he passes through a checkpoint into the ‘other side’ and is tailed by a shady looking man that quickly turns into a dangerous pursuit into a rubbish dump where a knife is drawn and Adam is defenceless. His life hangs in the balance.

Illustration © Davd McKean
Illustration © Davd McKean

Out of nowhere comes a huge tyger, growling and Adam is saved. The tyger doesn’t want to harm Adam and speaks to him in a tongue he understands. The tyger is waiting for ‘Guardians’ to save her, to fight alongside her in a war, but she is wounded and her mortal body is being slowly drained of its life-force. This mystical being has come into Adam’s life, into Adam’s world, and he can’t leave her to die, he needs to help her. He is afraid for her - “The enemy’s agents draw closer every day…”, she says. Unknowingly, Adam is drawn into a fight (think the apocalyptic Book of Revelation) for freedom and equality he never realised he believed would happen let alone that he might ever win.

The reader ponders… What might the tyger represent for Adam? Light, hope, freedom, a saviour? There are various symbolic meanings for tigers in our world and some include: strength, cunning, majesty, independence and immortality. She’s associated with a secret order of protectors, warriors and she needs to find them, she needs Adam’s help to find them, as she herself is hunted. What can one boy do, how can he possibly be her champion when he is a target himself - not considered ‘British’, looked down upon because of the colour of his skin, the ‘foreign’ nature of his family name?

When we ourselves are hopeless and we feel powerless, oppressed, lost, a guide (spiritual or not) can help us to find our inner strength, our fighting spirit, our hope for the future so that change can happen for the better. In this story, for Adam and human civilisation, Tyger is that guide = channel = way. How does Tyger ‘test’ or ‘prepare’ Adam for the war between good and evil? Throughout the book, the tyger leads Adam through a series of ‘doors’ in order for him to discover his true potential, powers that he will need to ultimately use to save the world, and the tyger’s immortal self. Armed with powers of perception, imagination, creation, and revelation, Adam eventually becomes the ultimate Guardian.

Illustration © Davd McKean
Illustration © Davd McKean

In the book ‘evil’ presents itself through the appalling racism and classism, the treatment of slaves, the division of society and the superiority of ‘white’ humans above all other life on Earth. Ultimately, it is a white-skinned character known as Sir Mortimer Maldehyde who must be felled - he is portrayed in the style of a ruthless overseer, a fallen angel, an Empirical war-lord; I’d even go so far as to say that he represents a far Right extremist, Hitler-esq. His alter ego is ‘Urizen’. If you aren’t familiar with the mythology of English writer William Blake (1757-1827), ‘Urizen’ is a character from one of his prophetic books - ‘The Book of Urizen’ - a creation parody of the Book of Genesis. In a nutshell, Urizen is a fallen Eternal who represents oppression - the limitations placed upon human mortal existence within the constraints of law and society, without hope or imagination. Sir Mortimer Maldehyde rides with his ‘four horsemen’ - the symbolism here taken from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament to represent conquest, war, famine and death or in the Old Testament as sword, famine, wild beasts and plague.

It has been both incredibly challenging and enlightening to review this book, thoroughly exciting. You probably know by now that I take the written word to heart and my interpretations of someone else’s mind poured into a story has provenance from their own lived experiences, hopes and dreams, fears and warnings.

Illustration © Davd McKean
Illustration © Davd McKean

Those who are familiar with ‘Tyger’ will know that I have not mentioned or gone into detail about any of the supporting characters, and in particular, Zadie/Scheherazade True/Traoré who Adam befriends and who becomes a supportive part of his journey and life thereafter. Why? I’m not completely sure, but I feel deep down that this is Adam’s story, and SF Said’s interpretation of ‘Adam’ gives rise to deeper thinking on temptation, sin, and the cycle of ‘creation’. Regardless, it has to be said, all the characters in the book are representative of the urgent need for more global knowledge and understanding - we need to take their stories as a lesson learned to reflect back to the British people of today and tomorrow true 'British' history that reflects our established diverse cultural and religious/irreligious society that has grown from deep and ancient roots around the world. I want you to read this book for yourself to unwrap the gift of their stories for yourselves.

The importance of SF Said’s ‘Tyger’ cannot be underestimated; it is a conductor of faith, and hope for unity and peace in a world yet to come.

About the creators

SF Said (author)

S. F. Said is a British children's writer. His first novel was Varjak Paw, illustrated by Dave McKean and published by David Fickling Books in January 2003; four months later in the U.S., Varjak Paw won the 2003 Nestlé Smarties Book Prize. The sequel, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, won the 2007 Blue Peter Book of the Year. SF's third novel, Phoenix (2013) was also shortlisted for and won many awards. Tyger has been nine years in the making and was picked as The Times Children's Book of the Week and was described as "spectacular" and "another roaring success"!

SF Said is a Fellow of Royal Society Of Literature, and is active in the wider world of literature and the arts. He has judged the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, the Whitbread Book Awards (now the Costa Book Awards) and the Amnesty CILIP Honour. He has given talks at the British Library, the British Film Institute, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and on BBC Radio 4. He has also written extensively about children's and young adult fiction for both the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph.

Dave McKean (illustrator)

David McKean is an English illustrator, photographer, comic book artist, graphic designer, filmmaker and musician. His work incorporates drawing, painting, photography, collage, found objects, digital art and sculpture. As well as illustrating all SF Said's children's books, McKean's projects include illustrating books by authors such as Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Heston Blumenthal, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, and directed three feature films.

Key themes







religious symbolism






Grab a copy

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Publication date: 6 October 2022

Format: Hardback

Praise for 'Tyger':

"You wait years and years for a masterpiece, and then one comes along." – Frank Cottrell-Boyce

"Tyger is next level excellent – and Dave McKean's illustrations dovetail perfectly and beautifully with the story. This book is a gem." – Malorie Blackman

"A profound, Blake-inspired novel, that's also a simple, thrilling tale of a boy and a girl and a Tyger. A triumph!" – Jacqueline Wilson

"It will still be read in a hundred years. This sublime, shimmering Blakeian fantasy - for children and adults alike - thrills, enlarges and heals the soul in equal measure. An out and out masterpiece." – Piers Torday

"Readers will fall in love with Tyger... a timeless classic" – Sita Brahmachari

"An extraordinary read" – Jamila Gavin

"Spectacular"The Times Children's Book Of The Week

Also written by SF Said and illustrated by Dave McKean - for ages 9+:

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