In which the heavens open and I find a naval novel I can recommend unambiguously
Bloody Jack is the first volume in the YA historical fiction series of the same title. Set during the same time period as the Hornblower and Aubrey-Maturin novels, the series follows the adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber.
This is another series, like the Vorkosigan books, where each volume is sufficiently distinct as to warrant its own post, although I will dip into discussing the series as a whole below.
Brief plot description
After the death of her parents, Mary “Jacky” Faber finds herself living on the streets of London, part of a gang of similarly orphaned children. Struggling to stay alive, Jacky decides to pose as a boy and join the Royal Navy in an attempt to secure a regular meal for herself.
So how is it?
This is exactly what I was looking for. Meyer has written a series that has all of the high points of the big names (Forester, O’Brian, Kent) but without their low points. The series portrays the racism and sexism of the dominant culture of the time, but Jacky herself never endorses or expresses these views. A major theme of the series is Jacky’s struggle with prejudice and closed-mindedness, but this focus doesn’t seem out of placed or forced despite the setting. Bloody Jack captures all of the fun and adventure of Hornblower, and certainly doesn’t sugar-coat history, but still doesn’t make morally questionable pronouncements.
Jacky’s great strength as a character is her perspicacious independence, which stands in stark contrast for the way women were “supposed” to behave at the time. Jacky’s frequently scandalous behavior provides much-needed humor, as the everyday realities of shipboard life are portrayed fairly unflinchingly. It’s a pretty intense read, but it’s never too intense. Meyer peppers the series with references to music and movies (a pair of characters in the fourth volume are named Tupelo Honey and Honeysuckle Rose), history, folklore, and other fiction. Missing these references does nothing to detract from the book. It comes across like an American YA League of extraordinary gentlemen, presenting an alternate history where all fictional characters really existed.
Bloody Jack also improves on previous naval novels in its treatment of class issues. It’s heavily implied that Jacky’s parents were relatively affluent before they died, but Jacky has lived with the poorest of the poor for most of her life. This heavily informs her outlook, and the tendency of 19th century novels to largely treat servants and other working-class characters as set dressing, villains, or comic relief is continuously subverted. Class issues become much more important in this book’s sequel, but are present here as well.
One more point that is worth addressing is the way different sides are portrayed. Unlike with Hornblower, it’s not exactly clear that the British are the Good Guys and the French are the Bad Guys. Jacky frequently observes that the various people she encounters on her travels are all real people, and calls into question the way that others grab onto superficial differences (skin color, national origin, etc.). There are villainous British characters and heroic British characters aplenty, despite Jacky’s nominal allegience to the Royal Navy. No one side is depicted at being wholly good or evil (with the possible exception of slave traders), which adds greatly to the versimilitude.
A memorable protagonist
Hits all the high points of the naval adventure genre without the genres frequently problematical aspects
Presents a significantly more nuanced and well-rounded view of the Napoleonic wars than any of the fiction targeted at adults
Narrated by Jacky herself, so the dialect may be a struggle to comprehend at first. This issue goes away gradually in the series as Jacky becomes older and more educated
Some parents might find the content a little too “mature”. Parents who don’t want their children learning about menstruation or who are uncomfortable about the level of violence inherent in the setting should probably look elsewhere.
I recommend this book to just about everybody. It has a wide appeal and a great main character, equally well suited to teens and adults. It’s not-so-great for people who make blanket claims about YA fiction. It’s also not good for people who refuse to read books with a female main character, or who don’t enjoy historical fiction. But outside of an active distaste for some element of the setup, it’s a great crowd-pleaser.
Here are a few of my recommendees:
female, late 20s: checked it out several times without reading it. Once they finally did read it, they raved about how great it was and immediately demanded to have the next two books, which they returned unread.
female, late 30s: a busy professional who enjoys reading but whose professional resonsibilities require lots of highly specialized reading, they felt like it was the perfect compromise in that it was interesting enough to keep their attention but not so involved that it required too much effort
female, early 50s: loved the book but was frustrated that their local library did not have the sequels
male, mid-20s: devoured the first half-dozen books in the series more or less immediately after reading this one
an assortment of teenagers of any and all genders: Reaction has been largely positive. Even readers who usually aren’t interested in female leads were drawn in by the setting and the action.
Other books recommended for fans of this one: