‘Dead Queens Club’ Breathes New Life into History

I often struggle with YA books, and did even when I was squarely in their target audience, because it seems like most of them are built on the assumption that the reader wants to relate with teenagers. Which, yeah, is kind of the point, but high school, adolescence—it was a rough time for me and reading about angsty teens brings up bad memories and reading about classic teen fun (e.g. prom, football games, etc.) just makes me feel cheated out of what apparently was supposed to be the best time of my life.

My high school was nothing like this.
I can’t believe the Disney Channel lied to me.

But what I do like in YA are snappy, witty teenagers with problems only matched in number and magnitude by the quips. I don’t care if they’re unrealistic; they’re fun. And fun is definitely one thing that Hannah Capin’s Dead Queens Club delivers.

Annie Marck, known to everyone as Cleves, isn’t athletic or particularly skilled at anything besides pissing off the editor of the school newspaper, Cat Parr. But through her friendship to the high school quarterback, Henry, and a cheerleader, Katie Howard, she’s high enough on the social ladder of Lancaster High. That mostly seems to be giving her more responsibility, though, in keeping the peace between the school’s elites through Homecoming: word on the street is that Katie is cheating on Henry with another football player, and Henry is more than a little sensitive to being cheated on. But the ordinary drama of teenage relationships becomes eclipsed when Katie slips and falls in a river during a post-dance party in the woods, dying instantly. Meanwhile, the shadow of the previous year’s prom, when Henry’s then-girlfriend Anna Boleyn blew up a structure with fireworks, killing herself and her brother in the process.

Two of Henry’s girlfriends dying in the span of a year is enough for head cheerleader and Katie’s other best friend, Parker Rochford, to start suspecting there’s more to the story. Cleaves is dragged somewhat unwillingly into the plot—she doesn’t believe Anna purposefully blew up the structure like the official report said, but at the same time she is unfailingly loyal to BFF Henry, whom she also briefly dated and hasn’t gotten over. An investigation ensues with a consortium of Henry’s exes in a delightful sort of John Tucker Must Die and Veronica Mars mashup. When Cat starts dating Henry, pressure mounts. If Parker’s right, Cat’s in mortal danger, but if Cleves is right, then she’s about to lose her crush to her nemesis. And in high school, both outcomes are equally terrible.

Why, oh, why, couldn’t my peers have been so clever and quippy?

If you’re feeling deja vu from the story of Henry VIII and his six wives (who met famously unhappy ends), you’re exactly right. Capin flawlessly overlays historical events onto present-day high school politics—who knew Tudor-era and homecoming courts were so similar?–which gives depth and irony to what would otherwise be an effective if bubbly story about unrequited love and the power of rumors. Henry’s number on the football field is eight; other girlfriends include Catalina “Lina” Trastámara Aragón-Castilla (Catherine of Aragon) and Jane Seymore; a scheming football player with Henry’s ear is named Cromwell; and Parker’s name comes from Jane Parker Boleyn, who was the Viscountess of Rochford and lady-in-waiting for all of Henry VIII’s many wives. I have been obsessed with Henry VIII since junior high so seeing all the names and characters interpreted this way filled me with nerdy glee. Detailed knowledge of the Tudor era isn’t required for reading, though; Dead Queens Club functions just as well as a fun YA romp as it does a historical adaptation.

Of course, if you are familiar with the history, there are certain plot that won’t come as a total surprise. Capin wraps them up in pretty paper and they’re still fun to unwrap, but it’s hard to call something a spoiler when the source material is 500 years old. No matter what everyone in the book says, I couldn’t quite believe that Anna Boleyn orchestrated her own death (spoiler, I guess), or buy everything Cleves said about Henry’s sterling character and many, many positive attributes.

If only all history books were this fun.

But knowing, or at least assuming, parts of the plot doesn’t diminish the pleasure in seeing events unfold. Cleves is a wildly engaging character and Capin draws more than a few pointed parallels between easily criticized history and common current social practices. Each chapter is short and punchy, and stuffed with jokes and pop culture references and amusing observations. If this had been how my high school had been, I like to think I would have had a better time (minus the deaths). I don’t know if Dead Queens Club will be one for the ages, but I loved every minute of it.

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