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…
Warnings: gaslighting, physical violence, gun violence, partner abuse, slut-shaming
A modern historical retelling of Henry VIII and his six wives, The Dead Queens Club feels like a cathartic answer to one wondering what would happen if Henry got what he deserved. Relevant even in a contemporary context, the novel is told from the point of Henry’s best friend (as well as girlfriend #4) Annie, as in Anne of Cleves, who takes way too long to realize that her womanizing best friend may also be a literal ladykiller. Occasionally jumping back and forth on a two-year timeline, the story comes during the time of #5 and continues into #6, merging a murder mystery-ish plot with a girl-squad-seeks-justice plot.
Annie, aka Cleves, has known Henry for a couple of years from summer camp, and when she moves to Lancaster, Indiana from Cleveland, she is readily accepted by the popular kids (mostly because Henry rules the school), and finds an easy friendship with Parker and Katie, the latter being #5. Her friendship with Henry is formed on a mutual love for pranks, and doing daredevil things. She has been with him through all of his breakups and though she calls herself a feminist, she has a glaring blindspot when it comes to him, and is much more ready to accept that Anna Boleyn may have accidentally caused her own and her brother’s death.
She finds it unfair, though, that the general consensus in the school is vitriol towards Anna, (even though she herself calls her a boyfriend-stealer) and tries to mend the dead girl’s reputation through her position as a correspondent on the school newspaper (also, BTW, I loved how the chapter titles are framed like headlines). When Katie, too, dies ‘accidentally’, Cleves is devastated and is frustrated over how the school once again tarnishes Katie’s image and thinks she had it coming. As the novel progresses, she is roped into Parker’s scheme to get justice for Katie, and eventually has to contend with the fact that Henry is shady AF. Bonus: they make a girl squad out of the living ‘queens’ + Parker in order to get the truth.
As a retelling, it works really well to translate the story from its historical context to a modern one – there are plenty of references that tie it back, as well as little nods to the fates of the original people. The names being similar, or in some cases, same as historical figures warranted at least one joke about history repeating itself, but maybe that’s just me. Annie is a wonderful narrator with some quippy lines, and the best part about the book – she keeps the book lively with her sarcastic and dry humor, and is human in that she finds it difficult to believe her best friend could be a killer (still, shouldn’t have taken her 400 pages to open her eyes!) and struggles with her feminism (a lot) but grows through the book. The other girls in her squad, though archetypes in some ways, are well-fleshed out characters, and the friendship and solidarity between them is played so well. It also touches upon consent and slut-shaming, in a topical manner.
Somehow it’s the most stinging thing anyone’s ever said to me. Ever. As in, I need to unload the ice packs from the mini fridge and put them on my face and also my soul.
With regards to the murder aspect, I still feel it wasn’t as clean as it made it out to be. For a supposed ‘crime of passion’ it was too easily dismissed as accidental, and I don’t think Henry was charming enough to make even investigators not suspect him (especially not a second time). It would have probably made more sense if his father was bribing officials or something, to be honest. The drama may have been a bit exaggerated for a high school setting, even if it was entertaining. The ending, though, is satisfactory enough to make the book an enjoyable read overall.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Inkyard Press, via Netgalley.
Releases on January 29, 2019