Title: The Dead Queens Club
Author: Hannah Capin
Genre: Contemporary YA
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Publication date: January 29 2019
What do a future ambassador, an overly ambitious Francophile, a hospital-volunteering Girl Scout, the new girl from Cleveland, the junior cheer captain, and the vice president of the debate club have in common? It sounds like the ridiculously long lead-up to an astoundingly absurd punchline, right? Except it’s not. Well, unless my life is the joke, which is kind of starting to look like a possibility given how beyond soap opera it’s been since I moved to Lancaster. But anyway, here’s your answer: we’ve all had the questionable privilege of going out with Lancaster High School’s de facto king. Otherwise known as my best friend. Otherwise known as the reason I’ve already helped steal a car, a jet ski, and one hundred spray-painted water bottles when it’s not even Christmas break yet. Otherwise known as Henry. Jersey number 8.
Meet Cleves. Girlfriend number four and the narrator of The Dead Queens Club, a young adult retelling of Henry VIII and his six wives. Cleves is the only girlfriend to come out of her relationship with Henry unscathed—but most breakups are messy, right? And sometimes tragic accidents happen…twice…
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Audiobook
Today I take a look at a YA retelling centering girls: a contemporary take on Henry VIII and his high school girlfriends from the perspective of Annie “Cleves” Marck, a smart wannabe journalist from Cleveland.
The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin (Inkyard Press, January 2019) follows “Cleves” as she moves to a new school – Lancaster High School – and is best friends with the school’s most popular heartthrob, Henry (Jersey number 8). Although Cleves does still have some feelings for Henry since they briefly dated, she is mostly over it, and is content in being Henry’s accomplice and wing lady as he goes through girlfriends. The problem is: some of them have met very unsavory, tragic endings, including Cleves’ good friend Katie (Howard). The other problem is: Henry is showing a tendency to stalk, threaten and overwhelm his girlfriends with his possessiveness and jealousy. Especially when they don’t do what he wants. And as the school’s journalist, Cleves decides to investigate what did really happen to the two ex-girlfriends who died, even if to prove Henry’s innocence once and for all.
The Dead Queens Club’ s greatest strength is also its greatest flaw.
Regarding the former, I love takes on Henry VIII’s that focus on his wives (what a bunch of super interesting ladies) and The Dead Queens Club is ostensibly a fun and funny, light take on the subject. The author cleverly reimagined Henry VIII’s court as a High School with its power dynamics and high stakes drama. All of the girls are presented and introduced in a way that matches their historical counterparts while still fitting a contemporary mold. Catherine of Aragon for example is a super clever and ambitious future ambassador while Jane Seymour is the hospital-volunteering goodie two shoes no one likes. Meanwhile, Cleves’ boss in the school’s newspaper – Cat Parr – is Henry’s latest conquest to Cleves’ surprise since Parr doesn’t sound like the type who would date Henry. But then it becomes clear that Parr has suspicions – and is in fact, spearheading an investigation into the suspicious fire that killed Anne (Boleyn).
Which brings me to the novel’s biggest flaw: exactly the fact that this is a take on history. There is a pre-existing knowledge of history most readers will inevitably bring into the novel and this means knowing full well that Henry is a sociopathic, abusive dirtbag and since it takes Cleves a frustratingly long time to realise this even with all the obvious clues, the novel proved to be an exercise in patience for this reader. Equally frustrating is the fact that Cleves constantly presents herself as an outspoken feminist but it takes her far too long time to actually listen to what the other girls are telling her. That said, this fits the fact that even though Cleves is our protagonist, she is an incredibly flawed character, which I often appreciate. Plus, there is an element of sad realism to this last thing as history – and we are talking about history after all – has shown how easy it is to fall prey to pretty, alluring, persuasive men.
Henry changes girlfriends like he changes clothes and no one bats an eye because boys will be boys, etc. Although the novel does examine this noxious idea toward the ending, it felt more like a superficial take than a full deconstruction.
Finally, there is also a problem with the tone – I said earlier that the novel has a light tone, and Cleves’ voice is sarcastic and even funny at times. However, this is still a story in which two teenage girls have died and as such the lightness of the tone often felt crass and callous and at odds with the story being told.
In the end The Dead Queens Club proved to be a mixed bag for me – I did really love elements of it, especially the girls’ empowerment and how the surviving girlfriends got together in the end to unmask Henry and confront him. But overall, my misgivings were far too many, just like the unfortunate wives of Henry VIII.