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Tigerman

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Overview

Sergeant Lester Ferris is a good man in need of a rest. After a long career of being shot at, he’s about to be retired. The mildly larcenous, backwater island of Mancreu is the ideal place to serve out his time, a former British colony in legal limbo, belching toxic clouds of waste and facing imminent destruction by an international community concerned for their own safety. The perfect place for Lester is also the perfect location for a multinational array of shady businesses. Hence the Black Fleet of illicit ...

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Overview

Sergeant Lester Ferris is a good man in need of a rest. After a long career of being shot at, he’s about to be retired. The mildly larcenous, backwater island of Mancreu is the ideal place to serve out his time, a former British colony in legal limbo, belching toxic clouds of waste and facing imminent destruction by an international community concerned for their own safety. The perfect place for Lester is also the perfect location for a multinational array of shady businesses. Hence the Black Fleet of illicit ships lurking in the bay: spy stations, arms dealers, offshore hospitals, money-laundering operations, drug factories and torture centers. None of which should be a problem, since Lester’s brief is to sit tight and turn a blind eye.
           
Meanwhile, he befriends a brilliant, Internet-addled street kid with a comic-book fixation who will need a new home when the island dies. When Mancreu’s fragile society erupts in violence, Lester must be more than just an observer: he has no choice but to rediscover the man of action he once was, and find out what kind of hero the island—and the boy—will need.
           
From the award-winning author of Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World, Tigerman is a novel at once deeply heartfelt and headlong thrilling—about parenthood, friendship and secret identities, about heroes of both the super and the everyday kind.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 05/19/2014
All his tours of duty can’t prepare British army Sgt. Lester Ferris, a veteran of the War in Afghanistan, for life on an island facing certain ecological destruction, in Harkaway’s poignant morality tale, equally fueled by emotion and adrenaline. Though the fictional island of Mancreu, located somewhere in the Arabian sea, is no longer officially under the thumb of the British government—the Brits ceded control to an international peacekeeping force—Ferris is appointed brevet-consul, a largely ceremonial post that’s supposedly a last stop for him before he can leave army life behind for good. Mancreu is anything but an island paradise. Long exposed to harsh mining involving the island’s volcano, it’s a ticking time bomb, with the residents waiting for the next in a string of toxic events, known as “Clouds.” The sergeant’s only real friend, and surrogate son, is a comic-book-loving, Internet-slang-spouting teenage boy he calls Robin (think Batman), who helps him navigate Mancreu’s social and political intricacies. With a mishmash of countries all fighting for a piece of the island, either under the auspices of national pride or scientific experimentation, it’s no surprise that Mancreu has a thriving black market, operating out of a flotilla of ships moored just outside the harbor. The murder of one of Ferris’s acquaintances sets off a chain of increasingly violent events that coincide with an incoming Cloud, all of which threaten to destroy not only the bodies but the minds of Mancreu’s inhabitants. Harkaway (Angelmaker) adroitly explores the lengths one man will go to save what he’s come to love, even in the face of almost-certain failure. (July)
From the Publisher
"[Tigerman] is, in short, awesome. Read it immediately. . . . Abundantly funny. . . . And incredibly moving, too. . . . All in all a much softer, sweeter and more surprising something than I had imagined. . . . For all that Tigerman seems to be about a superhero on the surface, appearances are deceiving indeed: Harkaway is markedly more interested in the relationship between Lester and his friend. . . . In Harkaway’s hands, this friendship is as gripping as any mystery."
     —Niall Alexander, Tor.com
 
An adventurous romp of a thriller which, like [its] hero Ferris, at its core contains a bit of longing. . . . But rest assured, Tigerman is full of win.”
     —Reader’s Digest

“Yet another bravura performance from a writer whose imagination knows no bounds. Nick Harkaway is at it again, celebrating pop culture, mixing genres like a mad scientist, and producing a book that is both profoundly moving and deliriously entertaining. . . .  [But] Harkaway throws a spanner in the comic-book works, adding depth and complexity to the mix, more Haruki Murakami than Stan Lee.
    —Bill Ott, Booklist (starred review)

“Brilliantly imagined. . . . A hoot and a half, and then some: hands down, the best island farce since Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.”
     —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"[A] poignant morality tale, equally fueled by emotion and adrenaline. . . . Adroitly explores the lengths one man will go to save what he’s come to love, even in the face of almost-certain failure."
     —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Advance Praise from the UK

As much a homage to Graham Greene as to Stan Lee. . . . There are plenty of scrapes and escapades, lots of derring-do and derring-really-don't, building to a morally satisfying conclusion that unites the disparate plot elements. . . . Through social media and the disconnection between inhabitants and governments, to the emotional difficulties of ex-servicemen and the way in which power is the display of power, Harkaway uses the story of a disappointed man and a disenfranchised boy to examine matters of real import. His great gift as a novelist—one he shares with writers such as China Miéville, Lauren Beukes and even Eleanor Catton—is to merge the pace, wit and clarity of the best ‘popular’ literature with the ambition, complexity and irony of the so-called ‘literary’ novel. Tigerman is in some ways all about the stripes: the distinctive becomes camouflage.”
    —Stuart Kelly, The Guardian
 
“Will move you as powerfully as it will enthrall you. . . . 5 out of 5 stars.
     —Jenny Barlow, The Daily Express (UK)

Astonishingly imaginative… Graham Greene would have treasured this book. . . . Outlandishly larger than life, with a cast of characters written in Technicolor…Nick Harkaway has all the writerly skills to pull it off. His Tigerman lives because of his wit and daring intelligence, and his empathy. Words quiver whenever he writes.”
     —Tom Adair, The Scotsman
 
Extraordinary. . . . The action sequences in Tigerman are some of Harkaway’s best. As ever, the writing is economical but lively, revelling in modern idiom. . . . [Has] the cinematic scope and dynamism one has come to expect from Harkaway. . . . The ending of Tigerman is pitch-perfect, thrilling and dramatic.”
     —Frank Brinkley, Literary Review (UK)
 
“A peculiar but winning combination of a Graham Greene-like end-of-empire tale and lots of Lee Child-style baddie bashing. . . . Full of fine descriptive passages and memorable figures.”
     —John Dugdale, The Sunday Times
 
“Tedious is the last word you could use to describe [Harkaway’s] writing…He tops his intellect in a ringmaster’s hat. But for all the entertainment to be had from the reading, the serious stuff is in there…Harkaway is a writer who nests big ideas inside bigger ideas.”
     —Teddy Jamieson, The Herald (Scotland)
 
“Uses politics in the service of outsized entertainment. . . . Harkaway mashes this [up] with a hyperactive, quite possibly deranged, apocalyptic imagination to produce novels whose mind-splitting pile-up of subplots usually involve various corrupt governments, a ninja or two and at least ten explosions.”
     —Claire Allfree, Metro UK
 
“An offbeat drama. . . . Harkaway has crafted an engaging story that examines the nature of heroes and the tropes of old-school pulp fiction, mixing sharp characterisation with an energetic portrait of a society heading for apocalypse. . . . Often hilarious but with an undercurrent of dark violence, this is an impressive novel that conceals provocative questions inside an old-school tale of ripping adventure.”
     —Saxon Bullock, SFX magazine

“A captivating and emotional real-world superhero tale.”
     —Jack Parsons, SciFiNow
 
“As entertaining and imaginative as you’d hope. . . . Clever and confidently written. . . . A treasure chest of brilliant and barmy delights. The end of the story seems to come too soon and that’s usually the mark of a great novel. Nick Harkaway takes the reader on a wild adventure and, though you know it’s all fiction, there’s a little part of you that wishes that Tigerman was actually real.”
     —Natalie Xenos, CultureFly.co.uk

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-06-18
Imagine Superman in Grand Fenwick and you’ll have some idea of Harkaway’s (Angelmaker, 2012, etc.) brilliantly imagined latest romp.“It’s amazing being a superhero,” says Lester Ferris as the action winds down at the end of Harkaway’s latest. “It’s totally mad.” Ferris, aka the Sergeant, hasn’t been on Mancreu for long, but he’s lived 10 lifetimes there. Posted to a supposedly quiet patch of earth after long, soul-shattering duty in Afghanistan (“the Americans called it a Total Goatfuck”) and Iraq, he’s found himself on a spit of land out in the Arabian Sea that, thanks to climate change, is in danger of receding under the waves—but until that time is a convenient entrepôt for drug dealers, arms smugglers, pirates, spies, defectors, flimflam artists, multinational corporatists and all the usual suspects, not least of them numerous powers NATO and otherwise: “[V]arious interests,” writes Harkaway, “were making use of the lawless nature of the Mancreu waters for things they might not otherwise be able to do.” Mancreu’s hub is a cafe owned by a fine fellow named Shola, who’s mowed down by gunmen for no apparent reason. The Sergeant, aided—or perhaps not—by shadowy figures flying the stars and stripes and the tricolor, is at a loss until, visited of a night by a tiger, he takes on the superhero guise of the title, suggested to him by a comic-book–loving, lonely teenager helpfully named Robin. The ensuing showdown is full of in-jokes, knowing nods to the headlines and miscreant Belgians, which will please fans of Monty Python if not necessarily the good burghers of Antwerp. The cast of characters is straight out of a Milton Caniff cartoon, with names like Bad Jack, White Raoul and the Witch, but the burdens poor Mancreu has to bear, from land rape and gang war to toxic dumping and international intrigue, are thoroughly modern millstones.A hoot and a half, and then some: hands down, the best island farce since Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle half a century ago.
From the Publisher
Tigerman is an irresistible delight, something like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand as played by James Bond. . . . What really makes Tigerman roar is its captivating blend of tones—from the light hues of domestic comedy to the bold colors of Spider-man. And Harkaway doesn’t stop there: Like some Marvel mad scientist, he has crossed strains of a modern-day environmental crisis with the sweet story of a veteran of the Afghan war trying to adopt a little boy. . . . [Tigerman] is ultimately no comic-book fantasy, just as a poisoned island is no paradise. You won’t see the next punch coming.”
     —Ron Charles, The Washington Post

"The kind of good that makes you wonder why every book isn't this smart and joyous and beautiful and heartbreaking; that makes you a little bit pissed off that you ever gave away bits of your life to reading worse books, and sad that so many trees get wasted on authors with less grace, less surety, less confidence than this man who can throw comic books, video games, post-colonial guilt, the longing ache of the childless, murder, tea drinking and mystical tigers all together in a big hat, shake it vigorously, and draw from the resultant, jumbled mess something so beautiful."
    —Jason Sheehan, All Things Considered, NPR

“This fantastic book deserves to be widely read and long remembered. . . . Harkaway writes with such a wonderful mix of humor, erudition, sensitivity and appreciation for a good bit of decidedly English fun.”
     —Nicholas Mancusi, The Miami Herald

“Harkaway takes over where guys like Kurt Vonne­gut left off. He walks the line between reality and fantasy and writes with a charming cynicism. . . . [A] mad genius.”
     —Andrew Blom, The Boston Herald
 
"[Tigerman] is, in short, awesome. Read it immediately. . . . Abundantly funny. . . . And incredibly moving, too. . . . For all that Tigerman seems to be about a superhero on the surface, appearances are deceiving indeed: Harkaway is markedly more interested in the relationship between Lester and his friend. . . . In Harkaway’s hands, this friendship is as gripping as any mystery."
     —Niall Alexander, Tor.com

“A funny, touching and meditative page-turner that will leave you thinking about what it really means to be a hero for days after you’ve finished it.”
     —Matthew Jackson, BookPage
 
An adventurous romp of a thriller which, like [its] hero Ferris, at its core contains a bit of longing. . . . But rest assured, Tigerman is full of win.”
     —Reader’s Digest

“With his playfully erudite vocabulary and whizz-bang action plots, Harkaway, son of John le Carré and jiu jitsu practitioner, brings to mind the meaty thrills of Neal Stephenson. . . . [In Tigerman he] writes of an Afghanistan vet who ends up in a former tropical colony where he meets a young boy drunk on comic books. We’re betting things get a little weird.”
     —TimeOut Chicago, “14 Books You Must Read This Summer”

“Packed with sharp wit and quick humor. . . . Harkaway’s novel offers big rewards: a world slightly skewed from our own, and yet still recognizable as the backdrop for a story that asks big questions about parenting, friendship, family, heroes and how to go on living when the world is ending. The resulting novel is a rollick of a read, packing emotion, hilarity and a dose of self-deprecation into a story that is, to borrow a phrase from Lester’s young friend, ‘full of win.’”
     —Kerry McHugh, Shelf Awareness
 
“A splendid book, literary fiction that defies genres as it tells a timely superhero story with intelligence and warmth.”
     —Largehearted Boy

“Yet another bravura performance from a writer whose imagination knows no bounds. Nick Harkaway is at it again, celebrating pop culture, mixing genres like a mad scientist, and producing a book that is both profoundly moving and deliriously entertaining. . . .  [But] Harkaway throws a spanner in the comic-book works, adding depth and complexity to the mix, more Haruki Murakami than Stan Lee.
    —Bill Ott, Booklist (starred review)

“Brilliantly imagined. . . . A hoot and a half, and then some: hands down, the best island farce since Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.”
     —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"[A] poignant morality tale, equally fueled by emotion and adrenaline. . . . Adroitly explores the lengths one man will go to save what he’s come to love, even in the face of almost-certain failure."
     —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Advance Praise from the UK

As much a homage to Graham Greene as to Stan Lee. . . . There are plenty of scrapes and escapades, lots of derring-do and derring-really-don't, building to a morally satisfying conclusion. . . . Through social media and the disconnection between inhabitants and governments, to the emotional difficulties of ex-servicemen and the way in which power is the display of power, Harkaway uses the story of a disappointed man and a disenfranchised boy to examine matters of real import. His great gift as a novelist—one he shares with writers such as China Miéville, Lauren Beukes and even Eleanor Catton—is to merge the pace, wit and clarity of the best ‘popular’ literature with the ambition, complexity and irony of the so-called ‘literary’ novel. Tigerman is in some ways all about the stripes: the distinctive becomes camouflage.”
    —Stuart Kelly, The Guardian
 
“Will move you as powerfully as it will enthrall you. . . . 5 out of 5 stars.
     —Jenny Barlow, The Daily Express (UK)

Astonishingly imaginative… Graham Greene would have treasured this book. . . . Outlandishly larger than life, with a cast of characters written in Technicolor…Nick Harkaway has all the writerly skills to pull it off. His Tigerman lives because of his wit and daring intelligence, and his empathy. Words quiver whenever he writes.”
     —Tom Adair, The Scotsman
 
Extraordinary. . . . The action sequences in Tigerman are some of Harkaway’s best. As ever, the writing is economical but lively, revelling in modern idiom. . . . [Has] the cinematic scope and dynamism one has come to expect from Harkaway. . . . The ending of Tigerman is pitch-perfect, thrilling and dramatic.”
     —Frank Brinkley, Literary Review (UK)
 
“A peculiar but winning combination of a Graham Greene-like end-of-empire tale and lots of Lee Child-style baddie bashing. . . . Full of fine descriptive passages and memorable figures.”
     —John Dugdale, The Sunday Times
 
“Tedious is the last word you could use to describe [Harkaway’s] writing…He tops his intellect in a ringmaster’s hat. But for all the entertainment to be had from the reading, the serious stuff is in there…Harkaway is a writer who nests big ideas inside bigger ideas.”
     —Teddy Jamieson, The Herald (Scotland)
 
“Uses politics in the service of outsized entertainment. . . . Harkaway mashes this [up] with a hyperactive, quite possibly deranged, apocalyptic imagination to produce novels whose mind-splitting pile-up of subplots usually involve various corrupt governments, a ninja or two and at least ten explosions.”
     —Claire Allfree, Metro UK
 
Often hilarious but with an undercurrent of dark violence . . . an impressive novel that conceals provocative questions inside an old-school tale of ripping adventure.”
     —Saxon Bullock, SFX magazine

“A captivating and emotional real-world superhero tale.”
     —Jack Parsons, SciFiNow
 
“As entertaining and imaginative as you’d hope. . . . Clever and confidently written. . . . A treasure chest of brilliant and barmy delights. The end of the story seems to come too soon and that’s usually the mark of a great novel. Nick Harkaway takes the reader on a wild adventure and, though you know it’s all fiction, there’s a little part of you that wishes that Tigerman was actually real.”
     —Natalie Xenos, CultureFly.co.uk

The Barnes & Noble Review

Does anyone but me remember Dondi? Debuting in 1955, for over thirty years this immensely popular newspaper comic strip by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen portrayed the adventures of a hapless, big-eyed war orphan (later adopted into a family) as he made his Little Orphan Annie way in the world without benefit of his own Daddy Warbucks. The sentimental strip had legs, even becoming a notoriously bad film with David Janssen in 1961, but eventually faltered in a sadder, more complex world where such microcosmic treatment of mass refugee problems came to seem antiquated and beside the point.

Dondi's mutable origins — he was first an Italian boy from WWII, then a Korean, then even a Vietnamese, as those conflicts superseded each other — adumbrated the eternality of war and smashed families, the ceaseless quest for new connections of the heart in the face of loss. The notion of a charming gutter waif's plight still being able to make an appeal to a contemporary audience is not so far-fetched.

Surely Nick Harkaway, author of the gonzo The Gone-Away World and the Pynchonesque Angelmaker, remembers Dondi and is hip to the lad's enduring charms, for in his third novel, Tigerman, he has created just such an icon, fully reengineered for the twenty-first century. With additional heartfelt and savvy lashings of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, as well as a soup&ccedile;on of William Burroughs and Bogart's Casablanca (and maybe just a dash of that madcap "Occupying Forces Meet Native Guile and Indolence" cinematic farce, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?), Harkaway delivers a book that is simultaneously lighthearted yet full of wounded gravitas; satirical yet earnest; hard-edged yet sentimental in the best possible way. This novel manages to be, all at once, a piercing comedy, a suspenseful thriller, a critique of industrial capitalism, and a domestic melodrama about parenthood, without ever feeling like a farrago or patchwork. It's an instance of storytelling where the narrative engine and voice are so sincere, authentic, and strong that the reader has no choice but to revel in the ride and hang his head out the window in the slipstream.

Picture an island named Mancreu, "a wild island port halfway between French North Africa and British South-East Asia:" Abundantly tropical, shaped like "a seagull sketched by a child." Centuries of history. Polyglot, picturesque, its citizens charming and/or mildly venal, happy with small pleasures, abiding by a philosophy of "live and let live." Kswah swah is the island's motto: What happens, happens. Never an international player or a scene of any great deeds. A backwater, alternately ruled by the French and the British. A Ruritanian paradise, lovingly elaborated by Harkaway with many intimate details.

Then, some years before the start of our tale, chemical and mining companies arrive, seeking resources. They dig, pollute, cover up, then pollute some more. The analogy with controversial fracking practices is plain. Strange subterranean microbes are encountered and are accidentally introduced into the bottled-up toxic slurry, helping to create something truly dangerous and unpredictable. Then, a series of Cloud Discharges sparked by tectonics and vulcanism, sending weird metamorphic vapors across the island. The world takes notice: this stuff could escape and contaminate the entire planet! Mancreu is declared a stateless place, subject to cauterizing vaporization by nukes, once the world powers can get past their bickering and offload the native population.

Meanwhile, Mancreu is a William Burroughs Interzone, a Peter Lamborn Wilson Temporary Autonomous Zone, a Bogartean Casablanca. The spontaneous Black Fleet of pirates and criminals lies anchored in the bay. The citizens try to continue their accustomed existences, but they're always watching over their shoulders for nukes, the ultimate Cloud Discharge, or the promised evacuation.

Into this, introduce the Sergeant: Lester Ferris, career UK army guy, follower of orders, solitary placeholder in Brighton House, the echoing Consul HQ. (And note the hint of iron in that surname. Mild on the outside, he's the essence of competence and willpower within, though not unassailed by typical doubts and fears.) Lester has little to do in his official post. He's appointed himself a kind of policeman, rescuing stray dogs and settling the odd dispute. With him on the island are a cast of eccentrics and quirky officials: Kershaw, the man in charge of the UN protectorate mission, assisted by a scary Ukrainian named Pechorin. The Witch, a beautiful American woman doctor with some unconventional remedies. Beneseffe, the Portmaster, who might have dealings with the Black Fleet. Dr. Inoue, the ultra-smart, very wry Japanese female researcher in charge of studying the Cloud Discharges. Shola, a native, owner of the best bar in town. White Raoul, a scribe with magical abilities. Like a Devil's Island colony, or White Mischief enclave, they rely on each other for company amusement, and profit, in a tangled web.

And then there's the Boy. No name but the jokingly applied one of Robin, after Batman's partner. A resourceful guttersnipe, Robin is besotted with comics and video games, computers and movies. His English is a unique pidgin, his body scrawny, his mind sharp. His existence speaks directly to Lester's heart, and they have formed a bond. Can Lester possibly rescue him before the big blow-up and/or exodus? Will the proudly independent kid submit to being rescued? Army regulations never covered this.

Before Lester can possibly help Robin, he and the boy will have to survive an accelerating cascade of murderous attacks, riots, drug smuggling snafus, storms, and firefights. And to deal with all this, Lester will become Tigerman, the superhero of Robin's dreams. Kitted out with stuff from the consular armory; a magical shield inscribed by White Raoul, and a bedizened gas mask invented by Robin, Lester Ferris will discover that the superhero life is rather to his fancy — except when it promises to kill him.

There have been a spate of SF novels recently that incorporate the tropes and riffs of comics into their prose narratives. Tigerman is both part of this pack and not part of it. The comic book motifs, while expertly rendered (Harkaway knows his Invisibles from his Transmetropolitan), are ultimately a convenient vehicle for Lester's heroism. Great fun, but rather makeshift and even a little arbitrary. The conceits and clichés are winked at by the characters rather than fully endorsed. Not that any campy irony intrudes either. But if things had gone down differently, say, Lester might have dressed as a knight or a cowboy and served the plot just as well.

What is central to the book is Lester's sense of duty — to his country, to Mancreu, to his friends, to himself, and to Robin, probably in that ascending order. Through subtle, sharp touches and back-story details, Harkaway builds up a portrait of Lester's nature that is insightful and deep. This is a fully rounded man you would go out of your way to meet. Likewise, though necessarily with more plot-driven opacity, Robin is conjured up off the page, as are the subsidiary cast. The dialogue — especially between Kershaw and Lester, and Dr. Inoue and Lester — is scintillating. And of course Lester's longing for Robin as adopted son, to fill out a life whose emptiness he never previously realized, is the draft horse of the tale. His half-understood emotions propel every action, right up till the unforeseeable end.

All of this highly affecting and effective material is conveyed in a prose that owes something to Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and other plainspoken poets of the dark actions of the principled loner hero. There's a kind of actinic, merciless, partly mocking self-awareness in Lester's pronouncements and understandings of himself and others: "There came a time with any unconsummated desire of whatever sort when you simply had to speak up or let it go." Neal Stephenson exhibits something of this angle of attack as well. In another era, we might have assigned this voice to Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart. It's the eternal Lancelot mode, and Harkaway has it down by heart.

Just before everything goes pear-shaped for Lester and Robin, the boy tries to tell his hero how great he is. Harkaway delivers the metaphor in his narrator's paraphrase of Robin's voice:

If Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of 50 Shades of Grey starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy.
That's a pretty good summation of the greatness of this book.

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385352413
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/29/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 66,944
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Nick Harkaway is the author of two previous novels, The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, and a nonfiction work about digital culture, The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World. He is also a regular blogger for The Bookseller’s FutureBook website. He lives in London with his wife, a human rights lawyer, and their two children.

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Read an Excerpt

1.Pelican
 
On the steps of the old mission house, the sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican.
 
The whole business had come as a surprise to everyone involved, not least of all it seemed to the pelican herself, who had engaged in the attempt almost absently and now appeared to be wishing it was over and done. She was by nature a placid bird, slow to take wing and hard to rile, but the pigeon had been presuming on her good nature for several months now, scooting between her and the pieces of bread that people tossed in her direction as they wandered by, fluttering down to snatch treats of fish almost from her beak.
 
This morning, the pelican had had enough, and when the pigeon came between her and a bit of tuna, she had just opened to the fullest extent and engulfed the fish fragment and the pigeon both, to squawks of outrage and alarm from her antagonist. To the Sergeant’s eye, her swollen gullet had possessed at that moment the dreamy smugness of a trick well played, but he acknowledged inwardly that the faces of birds were impenetrable, so it could as well have been the foreknowledge of indigestion.
 
The boy had been very impressed, which is to say that—contrary to established practice—he put down the comic book he was reading on the wall beside him and stared, his attention entirely taken up by the drama unfolding. The Sergeant had never seen him do this before. Even last year, when the volcano had briefly erupted and ash and fire had been falling all around, and the Sergeant had scooped him up under one arm and run like hell for the shelter of a convenient cellar, the boy had retained a desperate grip on Planetary no. 7, and clamped his other hand to the elderly Nokia cellphone which he kept in his left hip pocket.
 
These items were the only evidence that someone else cared for him. The phone kept working and every so often he had a new comic, worn about the edges but with all its pages, and rarely more than three months out of date. Sometimes he carried a knapsack which contained several at once, when the supply had been irregular and he’d been hoarding two or three while waiting for the previous issue, so as not to have things happen out of order. He was very particular about continuity, he had told the Sergeant in so many words. Events should happen in their proper time.
 
“Otherwise the story will not work,” he said. “Totally bogus narrative structure. WTF?” He actually spoke the letters “WTF,” and rolled his eyes.
 
That was just how it was. The boy’s English was self-taught and uneven, peppered with guest appearances from movies and TV, from online games whose players were in America, Europe and China. When he spoke he could shift in one moment from the manner of a too-serious Harvard freshman to that of a teenaged Shanghai gold- farmer sweating in a vast warehouse of machines.
 
On the topic of stories and character, he was particularly donnish and sniffy: “There must be development-over-time or it is just noise.” And when it appeared that the Sergeant was not entirely following this line of discussion—it was one of their earlier conversations and the older man’s education in these matters was not yet properly begun—he had changed tack and demanded whether the Sergeant might have any lightweight twine that would work for a kite string. Which he had, and had happily given up.
 
The pigeon’s head disappeared, and the noises of protest from the pelican’s throat began to fade. The boy picked up the comic again and read with his usual intensity. The Sergeant leaned back against the stone in such a way as to suggest that the affair had been nothing special, though in all honesty he’d never seen anything to compare with it.
 
They were an unlikely twosome. The man was of medium height and craggy. He was still six months shy of forty, but he looked fatigued and even a little lost. His face was leathered by a life of actual soldiering in inclement places, and he had scars, about which he was self-conscious. Scars were supposed to be narrow white lines which looked raffish, not puckered worms slithering forever across your shoulder and itching abominably. They should be discreet, so that a man could boast about them to girls. He was thickset—and some of that was this recent bout of soft living, he had to concede, even if the rest was working heft—but he seemed to move carefully, as if the world was fragile and he didn’t want to break it.
 
The boy meanwhile was androgynous in the way of boys, with no fat on his body at all, and scruffy black hair cut short. He seemed to be interested in everything, had a restless intelligence which might even qualify as genius. The Sergeant guessed his age as between ten and fourteen, but could not narrow the range. There was dust on him always, and often grass stains or splashes of oil. His forearms were corded with child’s muscle from whatever work it was that he did—and it seemed he did a bit of everything—when he wasn’t reading comic books and spending time with his friend. He wore a long smock which was rather too big on his shoulders, so that on a bad day he looked like a match-stick man in a lampshade. In the late- afternoon light and under the cracked façade of the mission house, he resembled a monk, and the Sergeant expected him at any moment to lift his head and preach from the Book of Superman. Chapter 9, verse 21: the world shall know thee as a blur and as a sign upon the heavens, as a hope and an earnest of good things.
 
When the boy had finished reading, he looked up to assure him- self that nothing of importance was taking place with the pelican, and then glanced over at the Sergeant. It was the hour of the day when they usually went to Shola’s and took tea. The island of Mancreu had very few customs left, but tea had somehow clung on, and of all the cafés and bars—and as far as these two were concerned the remaining living rooms and campsites and samovars as well— Shola’s made the best tea. Shola had a proper kettle and he didn’t leave the dregs in the pot or the scale in the water. He was a dandy and a gambler, but he knew tea.
 
The sergeant had left his car at the fish market, ten minutes away along the seafront. This was also customary. Walking along the front allowed him to say hello to everyone. The afternoon greeting was important for social order. Like tea, a British sergeant taking his ease along the promenade was a solid, familiar thing. It said that there was still sense in the world. In theory, of course, the British presence here had been withdrawn three years ago, claims of sovereignty having been yielded to the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu, NatProMan. The Sergeant was technically the senior officer (albeit non-commissioned) in the United Kingdom’s Mancreu Command, and as a side job he was a senior consular staff member, too. “Just don’t issue any bloody passports without checking the rules,” the actual Consul had told him as he left, “and for Christ’s sake don’t let anyone talk you into signing any treaties.”
 
“Could I?” the Sergeant asked.
 
“No,” the Consul said. “But you could make a frightful mess, so don’t. Take the keys, enjoy the house, and rest up. I understand that’s why you’re here. Just nod to everyone and don’t annoy Kershaw at NatProMan and this’ll all be done in a few months. They can’t keep the place around much longer. It’ll be nice for you.”
 
“Yes, sir.”
 
Saying hello, therefore, was the greater part of the Sergeant’s official function. He was to keep the consulate open and ensure that assistance was forthcoming to any British citizens who needed it, though this essentially meant calling the British Embassy in Yemen, and in any case had never actually been required. In many ways his real job was simply to occupy Brighton House, the sprawling, haunted old manse on a hill overlooking Beauville—the only town of any size on the island—which had in former times been the seat of colonial power. With its back to the mountains and the jungle, and its pocked face to the sea, Brighton House was almost identical to every British holding in the various candle ends of Empire—even if perhaps the coming destruction of the island did make it dolefully unique.
 
And so these were his days, week in and week out, and had been for more than two years: walk, take tea, and say hello. As the inheritor of what remained of British authority, he could additionally marry anyone who for some unlikely reason wanted him to officiate rather than a local priest, and he could facilitate adoptions and divorces for EU passport holders. Other than that, he could if he chose investigate local crime at the behest of a relevant person (it was unclear who was relevant so he tended to interpret this according to his lights) and he had the right to sit in on NatProMan Strategic Board meetings as representative of the United Kingdom—which had chosen firmly to abrogate such representation and therefore he was under orders not to.
 
Seen on the map, the island of mancreu was a double arc, the shape of a seagull sketched by a child. The central segment, the beak, was thirty miles deep, the wingspan perhaps a hundred. Along the concave edges, mountains reared out of the restive water of the Arabian Sea. Mancreu was a first-and-last isle perched on the lip of the great mid-ocean ridge, midway between Socotra and the Chagos Islands. The people were an unbothered ethnic jumble of Arab and African and Asian, with the inevitable admixture of Europeans. France and Britain had held Mancreu alternately for centuries, with the French coming off considerably better, until late in the Victorian period it fell almost by accident under the Union Flag once more, and British it had remained thereafter, far flung and men- tioned mostly in the footnotes.
 
To the north, the water grew pale green and warm. To the south, it turned blue, the bottom falling away into a frigid darkness which was the site of the indigenous population’s hell. The south coast was known to be peopled with demons: fish-finned men and feral women ruled by Jack the Wrecker, Mancreu’s resident fairy king. Bad Jack was capricious. If the milk turned, Jack had molested the cow. If you left honey on the doorstep, Jack might trade it for cash or rum or even a hunting rifle. He was known to rescue lost travellers, but also to rob them, and if a ship went down in bad weather, well, no doubt Jack had stood on the cliff with his lantern and seen it onto the rocks for spite. He was, in other words, the warm-water image of every bogeyman up and down the British coast, and likewise an object of knowing derision until the night drew in, after which people were discreetly more circumspect. Bad Jack, Mauvais Jacques, Jack Storm-eye—and even, by some strange twist, Jack of the Nine, the bitter memory of a colonial governor’s justice.
 
The name, Mancreu, had been given by mariners grateful for the sandy beaches on the lee side. Those early sailors thought the island was an image of the Grail carved into the face of the Earth. On embroidered pieces of canvas cloth, sometimes crude, some- times alarmingly intricate and ethereal, they showed Mancreu as the curved palms of the Virgin catching the blood of Christ. In Beauville, this perception was still a matter of known fact. Elsewhere in the world it was less well understood, but from time to time a ship out of North Africa would put in, crewed by tyro seamen from missionary towns baked dry and starving, and somewhere near the bow would be a benediction in French:
 
Hail, Madonna of the Gull’s Wing. Hail, Madonna. Let your mark be upon us sinners, and your voice upon the deep. Bid the blue water roll softly. Speak to the clouds and hold their thunder. Guard us from men of ill-intent and from plagues and sorrows. Hail, Madonna. Hear us, Madonna. Bring us home.
 
There was still a scrivener’s office on the harbour front, where a holy sign-painter hung his papal warrant. He was an albino— or something like it—named Raoul. He was subject to strange in- firmities, either in consequence of his condition or from overuse of magic inks, but was said in person to be magnetic, like a poet or a prophet. He was also said to have been a mercenary, a leader of men, or perhaps a great pirate before the calling found him and the writing of God’s word on ships became his life. The Sergeant had never ventured into his lair. It was his experience that one did poorly by involving oneself in matters of local religion. The world looked one way if you believed, and another if you did not, and that was all there was to it.
 
The scrivener’s beautiful daughter was famous around Beauville, and famously out of bounds. White Raoul’s girl: what might the father do, should her heart be broken? Or worse: should harm befall her? What might he not do? Take down his sign, for sure, and close his shop—but what else? Might he not write maledictions with the same strength as blessings? Or call upon whatever armies he once commanded to avenge her tears? Might not the papal warrant, conferred in the name of mercy, give equal prominence in God’s eyes to a father’s rage? Beautiful Sandrine must live a lonely life, uncourted and unkissed, because it was not known where Raoul’s disapprovals might begin. The Sergeant had never seen her. He wondered some- times if she were a myth, a sort of running joke on the big foreigner. More likely he’d walked past her a dozen times and not realised it, and her beauty was more to be found in its own fame than in her face.
 
“Tea,” the boy said firmly.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 21, 2014

    A toxic tea is brewing in the aquifers beneath the tiny island o

    A toxic tea is brewing in the aquifers beneath the tiny island of Mancreau -- a former British colony that now awaits the death sentence of incineration in order to hopefully prevent further eruptions of the noxious clouds of mutating bacterium that are cooking in those subterranean kettles. In the meantime, a fleet of black ships goes about all sorts of internationally illegal activities in waters that are, for the time being, beyond the reach of any legal authority. It’s a tiny Gotham with no Batman. Its villains don’t wear grotesque makeup or bizarre costumes — because they are real. And it’s there that Tigerman is born. He’s a reluctant superhero with no real super powers beyond being a good Sergeant who wants to take care of this smart little tramp of a kid who might or might not be an orphan. He is a man, and a hero, who is full of win.

    Like his other novels ("The Gone-Away World" still being my favorite) Harkaway’s stories are difficult to categorize. They are what might come from pouring comic books, spy thrillers, and the works of Kurt Vonnegut into a brain and then giving it all a vigorous stir. If that sort of thing catches your interest, then Nick Harkaway’s "Tigerman" is the book for you.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2014

    Tigerman Terrific

    A great read. Timely, witty, compelling.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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