Sci-fi Novel Review: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Tigerman is a book that had come highly recommended by a blogging friend, and I’d certainly heard a fair bit of praise of Nick Harkaway. But it’s nearly a decade old and isn’t the sort of book that gets recommended all too often in the wild, leaving it to languish on the fringes of my TBR. Enter Bingo, with a Superhero square that looked particularly daunting for someone who almost never reads superhero stories. Fortunately, Tigerman was the perfect fit. 

Tigerman takes place on a small, fictional island, a former British colony somewhere near where the Arabian Sea meets the Indian Ocean. The whole island is slated for destruction, to prevent environmental contaminants beneath its surface from spreading to the rest of the world. Until then, it’s in a sort of legal limbo, and a middle-aged British Sergeant serves as the only diplomatic representative from its former colonial masters. His job is to be seen and to not embarrass the Crown. But it’s hard for him not to love the place, to mourn as its population dwindles, and to feel protective of a precocious tween orphan with a voracious appetite for comic books. And when a friend of both him and the boy is murdered, it’s hard for him not to do his best to get to the bottom of it. 

I saw the superhero tag and expected a light airport read, and this is not that. Reviews name-check Catch-22, and I certainly see connections in both the style and the themes. Despite third-person narration, it’s highly introspective and is written in the sort of way where one scene will call to mind certain backstory elements that lead to pages of reminiscence that may make it hard to remember exactly what is happening in the present scene. To be clear, the plot isn’t hard to follow, but neither is the prose made for skimming. And while this is undoubtedly a superhero story, it’s far from action-packed, with a character focus and plenty of reflection on authority and leadership. 

With a military lead, one might have certain expectations about how reflections on authority and leadership might go. But while the Sergeant may fit the expectations of middle-aged soldier in some ways—with a penchant for boxing, difficulty with emotionally-charged conversations, and a tendency to fantasize about the eligible women in his life—he’s remarkably clear-eyed about the dangers of stepping into situations and unilaterally taking charge. For all that his government would prefer he keep his head down and avoid an international incident, his reluctance to take matters into his own hands mostly stems from a respect for the local population. He may have ideas about what they need, but he doesn’t want to impose those ideas without a pretty clear indication that they’re shared. 

This internal struggle shapes a fascinating lead character and compelling reflection on what it is to be a leader and role model. He wants to be a father figure to the boy, but he doesn’t want to muscle into the place of the boy’s little-discussed biological parents. He wants to work for the safety of the island, but he doesn’t want to be an imperial police force. The boy wants him to be a superhero, but he’s not quite sure of his place. 

It comes together in a work that’s thematically fascinating, with a slow-developing plot that accelerates in the second half to something that’s truly difficult to put down, with ever-expanding stakes and plenty of commentary on the ostensible post-colonial attitude of Western powers. There may be an improbable gambit or two that comes together a bit too neatly, but perhaps there must be some concession to the comic book inspiration. It didn’t prevent Tigerman from being a great read, often fascinating, sometimes thrilling, sometimes heart-wrenching. I imagine this will be especially appealing to comic book aficionados, but it’s also a superhero novel fit for those who rarely venture into superhero literature. 

Recommended if you like: reflective, character-driven stories, anti-colonial themes. 

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for Superheroes and Coastal/Island Setting. 

Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads. 

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