Book Review: Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer

This young adult book was recommended to me by a writer friend (who obviously knows my preference in books). I read it (mostly during one snuggly sitting) during a snow day. Bloody Jack is the story of a girl named Mary (later, Jack, Jacky, Bloody Jack, and a handful of other nicknames) who grows up on the streets of England in the 1700s. Although she was raised in a “proper” family, her parents and sister died in an epidemic, and she was left on the streets. There, she encounters extreme prejudice, with adults believing she (and her “gang” of children) were simply begging to earn extra money, or at least that’s how they justified not giving money to her.

She sleeps in a “kip” with her gang of children. They huddle together to keep warm, and they share any food they’ve been able to find at the end of the day. She is constantly losing friends, however, because of starvation and other dangers. The most disturbing danger is a young man named Muck, who sells dead bodies to doctors for use in science experiments and dissections. At times, it seems Muck encourages the death of children so he can get paid for their bodies.

When her best friend, a boy she has a sort-of crush on, dies, Mary decides to run away to better her life. She decides on joining a ship in the Royal Navy tasked with defeating pirates. She cuts off her hair and dresses like a boy. She is chosen from among a pack of “street urchins” because she is able to read. On the ship, she becomes one of six ship’s boys, and she learns about sailing, fighting, music, and reading. Obviously, being a girl presents a special set of problems while aboard a ship full of men, and she struggles to keep her gender a secret. In addition, with no female role models, Jacky is confused about what’s happening to her body, and she has to pay a prostitute on one of their shore leaves to explain it all to her! I won’t reveal too many details here, but I love the concept of a certain boy on the ship developing a crush on “her” and then hating himself because he thinks “she” is a “he.”

I enjoyed Jacky’s voice. She’s honest and genuine. While she grew up educated as a young girl, living on the streets caused her to tone down her dialect a bit (even though she is reprimanded for it at many points through the novel). Her willingness to do uncomfortable things to better her position made her a likable character, and although she’s not outwardly brave, she has a quiet desire to survive that allows her to do things others would not. Though she’s a girl, the book was written by a male author, and the adventures are quite masculine, so I think both male and female young adults would enjoy this book. It’s the first in a series, so the resolution leaves a lot to be decided. Based on a short preview, the second book seems a bit more “quiet” when it comes to plot, so I’d be interested to see what “Bloody Jack” does next.