We begin this tale set in an approximation of 3rd century AD Rome with the capture of two tiger cubs in India. The loss of their mother, and their experiences in the hold of a ship, are handled with appropriate distance: the tigers of course have no idea what is going on. Even younger readers however may well know already that this capture means the Colosseum and the ruthless circuses where gladiators, Christians, slaves, rebels and wild animals all go to fight and die.
We then meet the spirited princess Aurelia to whom one of the tiger cubs is destined. Together with the handsome slave Julius she works hard and the tiger, Boots, is tamed with clever handling and kindness. Boots' brother Brute is meanwhile tormented into aggression ready for the arena. The royal household is, like Rome, in Ceasar's thrall and as petty jealousies run through Aurelia's circle a trick is played that means Aurelia, Julius and the tigers must all learn to stand their ground.
For me the success of this book is the characterisation. Aurelia is simply a character that you want to spend time with, and who wins your sympathy in a world where, 'the only way we women can get through our lives honourably is with courage and resignation, both.' Aureila has courage in buckets, but has to learn resignation. The tigers are also beautifully portrayed, fearsome beasts who are not over-anthropomorphised.
After a slow start the plot becomes quite dramatic in the middle and later sections and, even as an adult, I couldn't quite see how Lynne Reid Banks was going to pull of an ending both believable and not too heart-breaking. The clever plotting of this latter section is very neatly done.
Overall a good yarn with a strong female lead and great historical atmosphere. Much of the language is fairly simple but the odd challenging word (I had to look one up!), the historical setting and the complexity of the treatment of the themes of family, power, animals, belief, psychology, etc., all just about lift this into a more challenging read perhaps up to 12 year olds. After which it is an enjoyable read, no more.
Peril: from the start someone is in danger whether tiger or human. This builds into great focus with the gladiator fights, from which the reader is slightly removed as we don't even know their names, and then up to real terror for Aurelia and Julius by the end.
Death: again, there is lots of death. The tigers' mother is the first death which, whilst nothing compared to what happens later, may still upset more sensitive readers. The circus scenes are well handled: lots of death, both cruel and graphic, but viewed through the prism of the brave but sensitive Aurelia the reader learns that life is not fair but must still be faced. There is no glorifying of death in the arena: watching women faint and Aurelia's friend is physically sick.
Religion: Aurelia worships the Roman gods but starts to empathise with the Christians in the arena with their brave resignation. She questions the beliefs she has grown-up with and at one point smashes her Roman shrine and tries to make an offering to the Christian god, (all mixed up with her original beliefs in a very believable way) which is in part answered.
Relationships: Aurelia falls for the handsome slave and he for her, but their positions keep them apart. Aurelia at one point tells her mother she should 'withhold' herself from Caesar to influence his opinion. Roman children marry at 13.
Politics: there are lots of undercurrents about power and the nature of a good ruler. What is strength, what is mercy, and how to rule in front of a mob, or indeed a crouching tiger are all covered.
Anything else: the treatment of of the tigers, even the pet one, is as unpleasant as you would expected of the era. There are slaves whose treatment is likewise casually cruel.
Other reviews and useful sites:
The author's website page for Tiger, Tiger.
Kirkus review (which is much less positive than mine).