Published by Harlequin Australia
Published on 29 January 2019
Genres: Contemporary, United States, Young Adult
Source: my home library
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Mean Girls meets The Tudors in Hannah Capin’s The Dead Queens Club, a clever contemporary YA retelling of Henry VIII and his wives (or, in this case, his high school girlfriends). Told from the perspective of Annie Marck (“Cleves”), a 17-year-old aspiring journalist from Cleveland who meets Henry at summer camp, The Dead Queens Club is a fun, snarky read that provides great historical detail in an accessible way for teens while giving the infamous tale of Henry VIII its own unique spin.
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…
In a world where I rarely pick up books for my own reading pleasure – and by that I mean I’m usually so guilt-wracked over my unread ARCs that I have 600 books on my TBR (at least!), I just could not stop thinking about this book. I knew I wanted to read it from the very first time I saw the description of high school Henry VIII’s wives told from the point of view of Wife #4, Annie ‘Cleves’ (because she’s from Cleveland, get it?!) Marck.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this book all through even when I was forced into hiatus due to my university workload suddenly getting much more intense. If you can pine for a book you haven’t read yet, that was me.
When I was really struggling mentally, I just thought, Fuck it! Imma read this bitch.
I instantly fell in love from the very first page. Just a personal note – I tend to like books Harlequin Australia/Inkyard Press publishes, so I’m really not surprised.
The narrator Cleves has the most hilarious voice. Not only is she witty and sarcastic, but she’s genuinely funny in a way that doesn’t try too hard. It’s really easy to like her, even though she remains best friends with Henry as he runs around fucking with the hearts of too many teen girls to name.
Henry is basically the walking epitome of trash, which, if you know anything about Tudor history isn’t a surprise (and I confess here I do have a deep fascination with the Six Wives). This is a guy (the actual king, not the teen heartthrob in the book) who tore apart his country for a girl only to literally rip her reputation to shreds and have her murdered. What a prick! But Cleves is able to justify her ongoing friendship with him, even when her close friends and even enemies fall into his predatory search for the perfect girlfriend.
There’s so many clever reinterpretations in this book. I went in to it with probably a better knowledge of the Six Wives than most people (not bragging, just truth – I was actually surprised to find out how little people know or care about what I consider to be one of the most important kings in British history – if only because he was Elizabeth I’s father). I loved how the author shaped the retelling versions: for example, Katherine Howard is Katie, a popular sweetheart party girl with a troubled history and literally the victim of assholes guys. Katelyn ‘Cat’ Parr is the uptight editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, which is run pretty much like a real newspaper. Anna Boleyn is dead and gone by the time we join the story, but Cleves is on the never-ending search for the truth when it comes to the horrible rumours surrounding her.
I did sometimes think that this book was acting way too grown up. Parents in this book are basically non-existent, as are teachers. All the drama and action is based around the teens. Henry acts in bizarrely adult ways: hell-bent on ‘saving’ the town’s economy through business acumen (you’re in high school kid, chill!), worried about depreciation on a car, searching for the perfect life partner when he’s all of seventeen or eighteen. Anna Boleyn basically matches with him ‘for tax reasons’ and acts far too mature as well. Similarly, Cat Parr runs a very tight journalism ship and acts like she’s about 40 years old, even dressing in power blazers. Everyone is too old to be a teen, basically, except for Cleves. It’s like they went ahead and cast 30-somethings to play teenagers, you know, like they used to do in 90s TV shows.
“But in your life you’ll do things greater than
Dating the boy on the football team
But I didn’t know it at fifteen”
Taylor Swift, Fifteen
The plot is pretty solid: Cleves, even though she is in denial about Henry, is determined to uncover the truth about Anna’s death, which happened under bizarre circumstances. The book flashes back a lot since Cleves wasn’t around when Lina (Katharine of Aragon), Anna, and Jane Seymour (ugh, Jane Seymour!) were, so she has a lot to discover about these girls too, and talks to a lot of different characters to build up the story for us. It was super easy to follow the flashbacks and they were seamlessly integrated. To make matters a little more complicated, Cleves and Henry go way back from summer camp, where they became best friends, only to later try dating as Henry slingshots from one girlfriend to another.
Despite Henry being the character that all the girls connect to, it’s largely a feminist book. As I said earlier, Cleves is pretty much the only one acting like a teenager, so her ongoing defence of Henry even as she’s investigating the death of his ex is understandable, as is his manipulation of her and why she can’t reconcile those feminist thoughts and the nonsense noise in her head when he looks at her the right way. I think choosing these certain portrayals of not only the queens but Henry and his court of cronies is creative and even a little risk-taking, certainly at risk of people jumping on this book as being inspired by real-life history then not telling it the ‘right’ way (you really want us to believe Anne Boleyn was ugly and slept with her brother? Please!) – but remember, history is written by the victor, and as literally the king, Henry VIII wrote exactly what he wanted to about his wives. Which is maybe why early feminist Katelyn Parr is the one to outlive him, the wily wench.
I just loved hanging out with Cleves and seeing all the relationships between her and the queens and Parker Rochford (a re-imagined Jane Parker/Boleyn/Rochford), and her ongoing internal battle with Henry, who on the surface seemed like quite a cool, popular guy. I loved seeing them gossip and seek truth and plot and work together. There was surprisingly little slut shaming, at least from the other girls – mostly from the guys to be honest. At least, Cleves seemed always up to defend allegations of slut shaming – possibly because Henry was actually screwing around while in committed relationships, and she even confronted him about it a few times. There was so much drama! Which, to be honest, is exactly what I like in YA, and even in places it seemed over the top, just think of the source material!
Don’t you just want to be part of this girl gang? I know I do!