Review - Rips and roars but slips up on detail

15th June 2012 at 01:00

A confession: I wanted to review Tiger Wars because it is being promoted as "Willard Price for today's readers".

I spent many of my childhood years obsessed by Price's Adventure books, with their joyous mix of rip-roaring adventure and zoological fact. I read them so many times that family trips to the zoo were simply an excuse for me to recite animal facts, lecture-style, outside every cage. (Yes, I was that kind of child.)

So I was ready to love Tiger Wars, a children's novel by television wildlife expert Steve Backshall. And the book does not want for rips or roars. It tells the story of Saker, a renegade member of the Clan, a secret group of boys who have adopted the hunting techniques of wild animals.

Escaping the Clan, Saker teams up with Sinter, a runaway Indian girl. Together, they travel into the Himalayas, to find and save a pair of stolen tiger cubs.

This is proper edge-of-the-seat stuff. And, in true Price tradition, Backshall weaves interesting anthropological and zoological facts into his narrative. But here is the major difference: many of Backshall's facts are wrong.

I will start with Sinter. She is from a rich Hindu family and was forced into an "arranged marriage" at the age of 15. First, forced marriage and arranged marriage are two very different things. Has Backshall missed the endless awareness campaigns around this? Second, rich girls in India simply are not forced into early marriages. They are expected to acquire MAs or become doctors: steps that ultimately enhance their marriage potential.

There is more. Sinter refers to Aisha Rai, the famous Bollywood film star; her name is Aishwarya. In this book, dosas are deep-fried, Hindus build flag-decked stupas, and Indians regularly drink tea with no milk. None of these things is true in India.

And Backshall's ignorance is not limited to the subcontinent. Officials in his mainland China speak Cantonese, not Mandarin. And a Chinese character actually refers to "when the Chinese invaded Tibet". (The Chinese consider it a liberation, not an invasion.) "This heap big mess," says one character. If I weren't so busy wondering whether he was about to call a powwow, I would agree.

It is true that there are some lovely animal facts along the way: for example, sprinkling pepper in your footprints is a sure-fire way to confuse sniffer dogs. But, given Backshall's record, how can we be sure that this - or any of the other animal-related facts in this book - is true?

Oh, Steve. You have taken the name of Willard Price and you have mauled it more effectively than any tiger might. I feel desperately, desperately betrayed.

Tiger Wars by Steve Backshall is published by Orion Children's Books.

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