I've just finished as exciting a book as I've ever read, all the more remarkable because it's nonfiction: The Tiger by John Vaillant. Subtitled A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, it tells the story of a poacher killed in 1997 by a tiger near a remote village in extreme eastern Siberia, and of the tracker who must take action.
Written with the careful unfolding of a detective story, it is filled with elements of an adventure yarn, a travel guide, and a history book. We learn about a wild region, the Primorye, and its people: some (like the Nanai) live off the forest in a way that hasn't changed for hundreds of years; others have been stranded since the fall of communism and live bleak existences, lightened only by sardonic humor and vodka. Poaching is common; China is relatively close, and has a large appetite for illegal tiger parts. Surprisingly, the tiger has its champions and protectors as well.
Amur tigers — also called Siberian tigers — are remarkable and awe-inspiring animals, essentially unchanged for hundreds of millennia. As we learn in the book, they are excellent hunters, able to stalk their prey with an unmatched cunning and fierceness, and they are perfectly adapted physically to reign supreme in the "boreal jungle" of the taiga:
To properly appreciate such an animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grossly muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons of a velociraptor. Now, imagine the vehicle for all this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature. (The tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin.) Able to swim for miles and kill an animal many times its size, the tiger also possesses the brute strength to drag an awkward, thousand-pound carcass through the forest for fifty or a hundred yards before consuming it.
Vaillant's writing is consistently vivid and compelling, his asides providing illuminating background that give the characters depth and context without overwhelming the central story or its thrilling conclusion. Vaillant's extensive research and interviews provides detailed recreations of places and events that allow us — almost — to enter the minds of the experienced woodsmen who eke out their rough years at the margins of a dense northern forest where temperatures often reach 40 below zero, and of the tigers with whom they maintain a careful and usually distant rapport.