It’s not often you find a book series that you fall so in love with, you just can’t stop reading and you jump straight from one instalment to the next. But that’s how I’m feeling right now. The book series in question is the Bloody Jack Adventures by the late L.A. Meyer, a series of twelve books published between 2002 and 2014. I find myself wishing I’d started reading these books sooner, when the author was still alive and the fanbase was more active, as not many people seem to be talking about this series these days. Well, I’m going to talk about it now.
The series has many things that I enjoy in fiction. First, these are historical novels, set in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, obviously an exciting time; indeed, the Battle of Trafalgar is depicted at the end of the third book. Historical details are used to enrich the narrative without bogging it down, and Meyer doesn’t shy away from less savoury aspects of the time such as slavery. They are adventure stories, though the first five books at least have very different settings and contexts. Although there are some very dark moments (including attempted rape), there are plenty of very funny ones too. And then there’s the protagonist herself, Jacky Faber.
Jacky is a beautifully complex character, believable in her thoughts and traits, and easy to get behind. She is intelligent and funny, with a charming Cockney voice, though she certainly has her share of flaws, being impulsive and occasionally outright mean. While she sometimes suffers from bouts of what we would recognise as depression and PTSD, she is generally a very positive and proactive character. She is extremely adaptable, able to make the best of just about any situation, even if some of her accomplishments require some suspension of disbelief. We also see her change a great deal as the books progress, experiencing a clear development from a child into a young woman.
When we are introduced to Jacky – or Mary, as she is originally known – in Bloody Jack, her entire family has died from an illness and she is turned out into the streets of London, where she spends several years as part of a gang. After the leader of the gang is murdered, Mary decides to leave and pursue a new life; changing her name to Jack and pretending to be a boy, she is hired as a ship’s boy onboard HMS Dolphin, which goes on patrol for pirates in the Mediterranean (later heading to the Caribbean). Bloody Jack is a fairly straightforward adventure, with the occasional nautical battle and plenty for problems for Jacky to deal with onboard ship, not least maintaining her deception as she starts going through puberty. The book also sees the beginnings of Jacky’s romance with shipmate Jaimy Fletcher, who remains her primary love interest in the books to come (though Jacky gets several secondary ones in the meantime – she’s very popular with the lads). It’s a will-they-won’t-they romance, as they are repeatedly torn apart by misunderstandings, the machinations of others, and plain bad luck, and while it certainly keeps you reading, it’s getting a bit wearing by the fifth book.
In Curse of the Blue Tattoo, having been exposed as a girl, Jacky is placed at a high-class girls’ school in Boston. While the story of a crude commoner being dropped into a group of prim and proper snobs has been done plenty of times before, Curse of the Blue Tattoo manages to be much more than what you might expect. There’s a lot more to the story than how Jacky survives at the school; we see her trying to acquire some financial independence, helping her friend Amy with her own problems, and investigating a sinister preacher. There are plenty of twists and turns, with Jacky going from highs to lows repeatedly. In ths book, I became even more invested in Jacky as a character than in the first one, and concerned about what was going to happen to her, despite logic dictating that since this was the second book in a series of twelve, she would probably come out alright.
Under the Jolly Roger was the first instalment where I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Katherine Kellgren, rather than reading – unfortunately, only half of the series is currently available on Audible. Many of the reviews and comments I’d read talked about how brilliant the audio versions of the books were, and Under the Jolly Roger certainly didn’t disappoint. Kellgren’s performance as Jacky sounds exactly as you’d imagine from the prose, and she also does a beautiful job with the other characters, who require her to perform a wide range of social classes and accents (Irish, Scottish, etc). She puts all the right emotion into the more intense scenes, making them even more gripping than they would be ordinarily, and captures the humour and light-heartedness as well; the scene where Jacky and another character pretend to be drunk is a highlight of Kellgren’s performance. This is a definite example of the story being enhanced by the audio format.
As the title suggests, Jacky is back at sea in this book, though initially not by choice; after returning to England, she is press-ganged and forced into service aboard HMS Wolverine, which is blockading the northern coast of France. (An interesting plot element by this time is that Jacky’s friend Amy has written and published Bloody Jack in-universe, earning Jacky a level of fame and noteriety for her previous service in the Royal Navy.) It is at this point that the suspension of disbelief starts to become necessary, as Jacky, a fifteen-year-old girl living in 1804, actually ends up in command of the ship. But to Meyer’s credit, he makes the situation as plausible as he possibly can, through various technicalities and plenty of cunning on Jacky’s part. Under the Jolly Roger feels like two books combined into one, with the first focussing on Jacky’s time aboard the Wolverine; the second sees her acquiring her own ship and becoming a privateer. It’s a delight to see Jacky happy and in her element, though of course, it can’t last forever.
In the Belly of the Bloodhound sees Jacky returning to Boston and finally sorting out her unresolved issues with the characters she left behind in Curse of the Blue Tattoo. But trouble soon rears its head again, as she and her schoolmates are kidnapped, imprisoned onboard a slave ship, and begin sailing toward Africa to be sold into slavery. Once again, this is a very different sort of adventure from what we have seen before: we have a large cast of characters who all react to their situation in different ways and inevitably come into conflict with each other; they have to make do with limited powers and resources; and they are facing a time limit to escape. It’s grim and very tense, but as thrilling as ever.
In Mississippi Jack, Jacky – who has rubbed quite a few people up the wrong way at this point – is forced to flee west to the American frontier; acquiring a riverboat, she and her companions begin a long journey down to New Orleans, figuring out how to get by and attracting more trouble along the way. This is the most flawed book in the series so far: some parts are dragged out a little too long, and of the many new characters who are introduced, not all feel especially relevant to the story. But the good parts more than make up for that: the setting – along the Allegheny, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers – is presented in rich and colourful detail, with multiple opportunities and conflicts presenting themselves, and Jacky gets to learn new skills and have some fun once again. Meanwhile, Jaimy – who doesn’t get a great deal to do in Books 2 to 4 – gets to have an adventure and some character development of his own, as he pursues Jacky into the wilderness; well out of his comfort zone, he has a rougher time of it than she does, and the frustrating but engrossing romantic subplot continues as he and Jacky continue to get so close and yet so far.
So far, the books have seen Jacky leaping from one adventure straight into the next, which is one reason for the urge to keep going as soon as each book is finished. However, since Mississippi Jack ends on less of a cliffhanger than the previous books, I feel able to take a short break and read something else – though I intend to return to the Bloody Jack Adventures soon!