Historically, the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII are as follows: divorced (Catherine of Aragon), beheaded (Anne Boleyn), died (Jane Seymour), divorced (Anne of Cleves), beheaded (Catherine Howard), survived (Catherine Parr).
But in The Dead Queens Club, a new YA novel by Hannah Capin that reimagines the six wives as a modern-day teenage girl gang, their fates go like this: dumped (Catalina “Lina” Trastámara Aragón-Castilla), died mysteriously (Anna Boleyn), moved to a different town (Jane Seymour), friendzoned (Annie “Cleves” Marck, from Cleveland), died mysteriously (Katie Howard), and fate undetermined (Cat Parr).
Cleves is our narrator here, which is a fantastic choice on Capin’s part. In a lot of Tudor stories, Cleves is ignored in favor of sexy Anne Boleyn or tragic Catherine of Aragon, but historically, Anne of Cleves got the best deal out of all Henry VIII’s wives.
Her marriage to Henry lasted only six months, either because Cleves was uglier than her portrait suggested and gouty, middle-aged Henry couldn’t stand being married to someone so gross (Henry’s story), or because poor little sheltered 25-year-old Cleves was Not Into It when gouty, middle-aged Henry showed up at her house unannounced and wearing a mask before their wedding to try to kiss her, and then Henry got offended and immediately began plotting to get rid of her (what other contemporary accounts suggest).
Either way, Cleves wisely put up absolutely no fight in the divorce, and out of gratitude, Henry gave her a handsome settlement and spent the rest of his reign treating her as “the King’s Beloved Sister.” She outlived all the other wives, even Parr.
In The Dead Queens Club, Cleves is a fierce and funny indie kid with a strong feminist streak and a weakness for magnetic personalities. From the moment she meets prom king Henry, she immediately falls for his big aspirations (he wants to rebuild his tiny Indiana hometown, which went into recession after Henry’s dad’s factory failed) and his romantic stories about his perfect girlfriend, Lina.
Even after Henry’s stories about perfect Lina are replaced by stories about wild and exciting Anna Boleyn, and then by stories about how Anna Boleyn is definitely cheating on him and is probably some kind of crazy witch psycho, and then by stories about how he’s really over Anna and wants to be with someone more mature like Jane Seymour, Cleves automatically takes Henry’s side. And when Anna and her brother George die in a tragic fire, Cleves feels even worse for Henry. His relationship with Anna might have grown toxic, but no one deserves to lose someone they care about like that.
The rest of the school isn’t so sure the fire was an accident. Rumors begin to fly that Anna set the fire herself as a way to get back at Henry for cheating on her with that dull-as-dishwater Jane Seymour. After all, hadn’t Henry always said Anna was a crazy psycho bitch?
Feminist Cleves never liked Anna, but she isn’t going to take that kind of rumor-mongering lying down. So she sets out to clear Anna’s name and find out what really happened to her. Cleves doesn’t think there’s any way Henry could be implicated in the tragedy, but when Henry’s current girlfriend, sweet party girl Katie Howard, also dies under mysterious circumstances, Cleves finds herself with two deaths to investigate.
Throughout the novel, Capin translates the byzantine politics of Tudor England into the byzantine social climbing of American high schools with seamless ease. Easter eggs abound: Poor Catherine Howard’s predatory music tutor becomes Katie Howard’s sketchy guitar teacher; Jane Boleyn (née Jane Parker), the Viscountess of Rochford and lady-in-waiting to all of the queens but Parr, becomes Parker Rochford, the scary-brilliant head cheerleader and the chief ally to all of Henry’s girlfriends as they struggle to weather their boyfriend’s shifting temperaments.
But The Dead Queens Club never reads like a history textbook. Cleves’s first-person narration is charmingly breezy, and while history has pretty much spoiled the whodunnit here, Capin maintains a thriller-like pacing all the way through to the end. The tension comes not from the reader’s desire to know who killed Katie and Anna, but from the reader’s knowledge that while Cleves remains determined to think the best of her BFF Henry, he’s definitely a killer.
What’s most striking is just how easily Henry’s tactics translate to a contemporary high school. Henry VIII didn’t just get rid of his wives by divorcing them and executing them: He laid the groundwork first by trashing their reputations, and he did it so effectively that for decades after their deaths, Anne Boleyn was described as a whore and a witch who probably screwed her brother, and Anne of Cleves as a gross uggo no one would ever want to touch and hence effectively worthless as a woman.
Henry’s MO, in other words, was that of a petty high school kid who wants people to stop judging him for dumping his girlfriends. It’s unnervingly believable that in contemporary America, a popular, football-playing prom king would be able to spread those rumors without hurting his own reputation just as easily as a Tudor king did.
But in Capin’s world, the girls have the power to fight back against Henry’s rumor mill. And that’s where things get really compelling.
Cleves isn’t fond of most of Henry’s significant others — mostly because Henry likes to isolate the women in his life and play them off one another — but as her investigative findings start to look worse and worse for Henry, she finds herself drawing closer to his four surviving girlfriends, both ex and current. And gradually, she realizes that they’re all a lot more interesting than the stories Henry would have had her believe.
For Tudor buffs, The Dead Queens Club is full of nerdy references to geek out over; for the rest of the world, it’s a taut and gripping teen thriller. For everyone, it is a joyride of a book. Long live the queens.