Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on July 4, 2011
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ****1/2 (4 ½ stars)
Age Range Recommendation: Ages 13 and up.
As the intrepid reader could probably figure out from the cover of this YA novel and its title, Bloody Jack has something to do with pirates. Therefore, one can only deduce that I absolutely love it (and I do!). However, Bloody Jack by L.A. Mayer does not follow the roving adventures of a pirate crew. The main protagonists are, in fact, pirate-hunting members of the English Navy in the end of the 18th century. More specifically, the main character and her comrades are lowly ships boys on the HMS Dolphin, and although I traditionally spurn the actions of pirate-hunters I do make an exception for this book because it is bloody amazing.
Bloody Jack begins in the rancid streets of London, where the narrator, Mary Faber, is a street urchin in a gang of beggar children. Their main problems include hiding from a nasty fellow called Muck, who wants to sell their bodies to a doctor for dissection, and avoiding violent gangs made up of other urchins. When Rooster Charlie – the leader of Mary’s gang – is found dead, she steals his clothes and disguises herself as a boy so that she can be left alone as she wanders London looking for a way towards a better life. This better life is sought aboard the HMS Dolphin amongst some other rag-tag children as a ship’s boy, although there is a pressing problem of being discovered as a girl on the close quarters of a ship. At this point, Mary changes her name to Jacky Faber and she and the other ship’s boys set sail for adventure.
The title of the book, “Bloody Jack,” comes from the nickname bestowed by the crew upon “Jacky” after she shoots a pirate in the chest during a raid. As she insists so adamantly in her narration time and time again, Jacky is not actually brave at all. She was just trying to save the boy for whom she harbored a very very very secret affection. The adventures in this book are daring and impressive; there’s a good amount of violence and even more suspense. However, my favorite parts of the story are Jacky’s adorable and funny descriptions of daily life aboard the HMS Dolphin. She includes the science and complications of maneuvering a huge vessel, the cruelties inflicted upon ship’s boys by the bo’sun and midshipmen, and the horrors of trying to disguise one’s gender when puberty hits with full force. Her narration is by turns funny, sweet, tragic, and biting; her description of the sound the bos’un’s whistle makes had me laughing like an idiot in Starbucks, only to have me trying to disguise my sorrow by pretending to choke on a donut soon after when she tells her mates not to to watch her if she is hanged because she doubts she’ll be very brave at the end.
I recommend Bloody Jack to anyone over 13 years of age for two specific reasons.
Reason Number One: I first read the book when I was twelve or so, and while I heartily enjoyed it some of the references to things like prostitution and other such wantonness went a little over my head. A huge plot point involves Jacky going through puberty and not understanding what is happening to her, and this is much funnier once the reader does know what is going on. In the second half of the story there is a bit of romance, and although I’m not going to give much of anything away, Jacky makes a few amusing statements which would be better understood by teenagers. She is, at that point in the book, around the age of fifteen.
Reason Number Two: There are some seriously dark themes in this story. At one point, Jacky stabs a member of the crew who tries to rape her, and this is why she’s terrified that she’ll be hanged. There’s death a-plenty, even amongst the children, and the pirates they are hunting turn out to be incredibly cruel scoundrels. Jacky describes in detail a time during her life in London when a teenage girl was hanged for criminal charges and wasn’t heavy enough to die immediately, and the portrayal of how the hangman breaks the girl’s neck is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Jacky’s voice is addictive and memorable, I found myself thinking in her style of speech for days after I finished the book, and L. A. Meyer writes so convincingly as a thirteen year old girl that it can be hard to remember that he’s a Navy veteran in his 60s. The writing never ceases to be entertaining, even when the plot takes a turn for the far-fetched. At one point Jacky finds herself flying over the ocean strapped to a kite, which I suppose could be technically possible but was certainly hard to picture. However, these little deviations from the realm of realism never once impede the story’s progress. The depictions of 18th century seafaring life are accurate without being pedantic; we learn about ships as Jacky does and she never fails to see the HMS Dolphin in a humorous light. Unlike in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, which are also very good, the reader doesn’t need to keep a diagram of a ship handy (although there actually is one in the front of Bloody Jack.) This being a book originally for children, things are presented clearly and amusingly, and it’s easy to feel as though the life of a ship’s boy is totally where it’s at.
There is a whole slew of Jacky Faber novels, the second of which is called The Curse Of The Blue Tattoo. I shan’t mention the plot of the sequel as it contains massive spoilers for Bloody Jack, but it’s almost as good as the first book. Although Bloody Jack comes from the point of view of a teenage girl, I would recommend the book to anyone who likes sea-faring adventures and anyone who likes coming-of-age stories which are both uproariously funny and deadly serious.
In a week your devoted Morgan shall be voyaging up to an island in Maine to stay in the town where Bloody Jack was written. I go there every year and I’ve met Meyer’s wife a few times. She works in the shop which sells his paintings, which are marvelous and very nautical. I will think of you fondly during my adventures, dear readers, and I will wish very hard that my life were as awesome as that of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy on the HMS Dolphin.