The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin
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…
The Tudors are my favourite English dynasty to read about. Everything from the outbreak of the War of the Roses through James I dynasty is just Juicy Gossip. It’s just fun, and Henry VIII is the most fun. The Dead Queens Club turns all the drama surrounding Henry VIII and the English Reformation into, essentially, a high school AU. It works surprisingly well.
You may have heard the words “divorced, beheaded, and died; divorced, beheaded, and survived” when it comes to Henry VIII’s six wives. For a recap, or a soundtrack to this book, I highly recommend listening to “Ex-Wives” from Six: The Musical. The Dead Queens Club is narrated by Number Four, Anne of Cleves. Here, she’s Annie Marck, nicknamed “Cleves,” Henry’s best friend and Girlfriend Number Four. I honestly found her such a delightful narrator: she’s sarcastic and genuinely funny. I may or may not have been reading this in an Early Modern English history class and having to smother laughter.
It was fun spotting all the easter eggs to history, and so much of it has to do with the huge cast of characters. There are the girlfriends: Catherine of Aragon becomes Catalina, or Lina, Henry’s first long-term girlfriend. Anne (Anna) Boleyn and her family shows up, including George and Mary, the story of whom Philippa Gregory fans may know from The Other Boleyn Girl. Jane Seymour doesn’t get a name change, but she’s presented as the most boring of the six, which I feel is kind of unfair? Fifth is Katie Howard, it-girl and cheerleader. Lastly, we have Cat Parr, a stuck-up newspaper editor. There’s also Parker Rochfort and several Thomases (which was a common gripe when I was first learning about the English Reformation.)
One thing that frustrated me throughout most of the book, though, was the sheer amount of girl hate there was, despite Cleves constantly trying to point characters away from arbitrary girl hate. I felt like she didn’t follow her own principles; I feel like the only girlfriends she didn’t hate was Katie and maybe Lina. Yes, the wives of Henry VIII constantly undermined each other, but reading a contemporary version it all felt very unnecessary about how much hate there was between all the girls. I also feel like this book, despite trying to subvert it, takes the story of Anne Boleyn as a seductress at face value, and definitely puts her up on a pedestal, which is fairly common in narratives about her but still frustrating. We’re all fascinated by Anne, yes, but I’m tired of all the focus always being on her.
If you know the story of Henry VIII and his six wives, the plot is fairly predictable and goes more or less as it did in history, or as much as it can when the main players are teenagers in high school. There were times when I couldn’t figure out what kind of book this wanted to be: a comedic retelling or a dramatic retelling? It mostly feels like the former because of Cleves’ sense of humor, which can definitely be a bit immature at times, but the overwhelming comedy makes the real dramatic moments seem too dramatic.
I also wish that this book wasn’t so overwhelmingly white–just because it’s based off of English royal history doesn’t mean it needs to star only white people. I do believe Cleves is Chinese, or at least the book briefly mentions she was adopted from China, but it’s honestly such a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, and nothing else in the story indicates it, which makes the representation feel half-hearted.
The Dead Queens Club is definitely a fun retelling of the Henry VIII story, but the lack of real character depth made a lot of the book feel shallower than I wanted it to be. It is a quick and fun read, and for English history enthusiasts there are a lot of fun easter eggs. If you’re interested in the concept of The Dead Queens Club, definitely check out Six: The Musical, a modern-day pop concert retelling.
content warnings | [spoiler: character death, domestic emotional abuse]
representation | chinese adopted main character
have you read any other modern-day history retellings?