Cat Royal was left on the steps of the Royal Theater of London when she was a baby, and grew up amid the actors, stage hands, street gangs, and aristocratic patrons of Drury Lane. As a result, even though she's only fourteen, she's very plucky and independent, and has lived through a vast array of adventures. Now she's taking part in a traveling production of Shakespeare's plays that is touring the Caribbean. But with slave revolts, pirates, kidnappings, and Cat's arch-nemesis Billy Shepherd roaming around, it's doubtful Cat can stay out of trouble for very long.
It's been over a year since I read the novel previous to this one in the Cat Royal series, Cat O' Nine Tails (review here), and it wasn't because I had to order Black Heart of Jamaica from the UK; it was because I was so disappointed in Cat O' Nine Tails that I couldn't face another Cat Royal adventure. After finishing Scaramouche, however (review at PGP), I was in the mood for more swashbuckling and Black Heart of Jamaica sounded like it might fit the bill. Here's the good news: it definitely did!
The bad news? I have to order the next book from the UK now, and it's going to take FOREVER to get here.
I've said before that I want to live in these books, and Black Heart of Jamaica renewed that sense of stepping into a fully-realized world. This time, Julia Golding brings to life Kingston, Jamaica, in 1792; and while I had some issues with her research in the past two Cat Royal novels, in Black Heart of Jamaica I thought she did an excellent job. Admittedly, I'm already interested and know quite a bit about this time and place in history; but even if you don't and just want to take a Caribbean trip by proxy, Black Heart of Jamaica should be the cure fer what ails ye.
Of course, considering that Cat's adopted brother, Pedro, is a former slave, and the Haitian Revolution is underway on Saint-Domingue--literally right next door to Jamaica--Golding isn't going to shy away from issues of slavery in the Caribbean. As this is a basically a middle-grade adventure novel, I thought she did a fair job. One of the things about the Cat Royal novels is that Cat always struggles to be recognized as a human being, both because of her gender and the fact that she has no family and therefore no status. As far as the law is concerned, she barely even exists--anyone can do whatever they want with her. Because of that, Golding often draws parallels between Cat and outsiders or underdogs, like Pedro in Cat Among the Pigeons (review here), and the same thing happens in Black Heart of Jamaica. Cat gets into a horrible situation and I was literally on the edge of my seat, wondering how she would get herself out of it.
Which brings me to Billy Boil Shepherd, my favorite character in a series filled with great characters. Billy is a Covent Garden street thug who's branching out into "respectable business" and has an itsy-bitsy obsession with Cat. Cat, meanwhile, finds him completely repulsive--OR DOES SHE? Black Heart of Jamaica is the first book where Cat's willing to think Billy might not be completely terrible. Although I thought Cat forgave him a little too easily (and that it was awfully convenient for her to do so), I love that Golding managed to tie them together without any reference to physical attraction at all. Plus I still have no idea where their relationship is headed--it could become a romance, or they could go back to being mortal enemies. You just don't know!
Black Heart of Jamaica restored my faith in the Cat Royal books. You can read it in a day and it's highly entertaining, especially if you've read the other books already. I can't wait to read Cat's Cradle and think I'm due for a reread of The Middle Passage, the free novella that got me started on the books in the first place.
PS-When you read the Cat Royal series--when, not if--make sure to check out the "The Critics" and "Glossary" sections at the beginning and end of each of book. They are so cute and clever I can barely contain myself. Here's a sample of the funnier ones from Black Heart of Jamaica:
'She is a tyger burning bright in the forests of literary night'--William Blake
'Mademoiselle Royal strikes a blow for emancipation.'--Toussaint L'Ouverture, slave revolt leader on Saint-Domingue
'Give Cat Royal your vote and I'll kiss you!'--Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, political campaigner
'Another book from Cat Royal? She's always worth a gamble.'--John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich