by L. A. Meyer
First book in the Bloody Jack Adventures.
Mary Faber is orphaned at a young age and forced out onto the streets of London. She joins up with a gang of grubby urchins, led by a clever teenager called Rooster Charlie, and for a time they all struggle along together. However, there are unsavory characters lurking in the shadows of London who prey on parentless children, and the gang is eventually broken up. Mary decides to strike out on her own, so she dons the disguise and attitude of a boy (because after all, a girl can't survive very long on her own in the late 18th century). Her literacy proves to be a huge advantage when she goes hunting for work, and before long Mary – now “Jack” - signs on as a ship's boy with the British Navy. She makes friends with the other boys and even begins to develop a crush on one, but it's a dangerous world out there: one of the crew members wants to kill her, and murderous pirates sail the seas.
The story is told through a first-person narrative, and Mary/Jacky is a fantastic storyteller. One of the things I liked best about her is that even though she's disguised herself as a boy, she remains very girlish at heart. When the other boys suggest that they all get matching naked lady tattoos, Jacky frets over the awkward conversation such a design will lead to with her future husband. She still dreams of being a beautiful lady that wears lovely dresses and has a family. The cross-dressing and adopted role of a boy is only a means of survival until she is old enough to fend for herself.
Some of the funniest moments in the book come from Jacky's attempts to balance the emerging woman with the man's world on board an English warship. As eventually happens to all girls in their teens, Jacky starts her period – but having no women in her life to explain menstruation to her, she's convinced that she's picked up some terrible disease and will die dreadfully. When it goes away after a few days, she's relieved but also puzzled; the next time the ship's in port, she goes hunting for an explanation. Where does she go to find answers? The local whorehouse, where a sympathetic prostitute explains the birds and the bees. Naturally, Jacky's visit doesn't go unnoticed by the other ship's boys, and she returns to the ship with quite a reputation.
So it's a very funny book, but it's also not afraid to explore the darkness of humanity. On the mean streets of Cheapside, a cruel body snatcher is not above killing orphans if it will get him a few more coins. On board the HMS Dolphin, one evil sailor stalks about beating and threatening to rape the young boys, and for the most part the rest of the crew averts their gaze. This isn't Pirates of the Caribbean, where a good heart lurks beneath a veneer of bad-assery. Sometimes, life just sucks. But it's a fantastic adventure story, and Jacky's just the sort of girl you want to follow on the journey.
5 out of 5 stars
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