The May Queen Murders by Sarah Jude

Guys! September is here, and you know what that means! That’s right, it’s YKU’s annual Eat Halloween Candy Until We’re Sick of It and Want to Puke Extravaganza, which is to say, the Halloween Spooktacular! Eight weeks, eight spooky books written by white women or people of color. And this year, we’re kicking it off with The May Queen Murders.

…and well, we’re kind of off to a lackluster start.
Stay on the roads. Don’t enter the woods. Never go out at night.

Those are the rules in Rowan’s Glen, a remote farming community in the Missouri Ozarks where Ivy Templeton’s family has lived for centuries. It’s an old-fashioned way of life, full of superstition and traditions, and sixteen-year-old Ivy loves it. The other kids at school may think the Glen kids are weird, but Ivy doesn’t care—she has her cousin Heather as her best friend. The two girls share everything with each other—or so Ivy thinks. When Heather goes missing after a May Day celebration, Ivy discovers that both her best friend and her beloved hometown are as full of secrets as the woods that surround them.
So, May Queen Murders. It’s not what I expected, not exactly in a bad way, but not in an ‘exceeds expectations’ way either. It was compelling while I was reading it, but that statement has to come with a qualifier, because I’m one of those people for whom the need to know What Happened is usually enough to see me through these kinds of books. Dangle any kind of mystery in front of me and I’ll race to the finish to find out what it is, but if that’s not enough for you…well, May Queen doesn’t have a whole lot else going on.

And if it is, well, I raced my way to the end and was still left vaguely unsatisfied.

It wasn’t bad up and down the board – there’s a lot of mood here, a lot of atmosphere, starting with that gorgeously evocative cover, and carried along nicely by Ivy’s internal monologue. It’s not quite scary, not quite creepy, but there’s a definite sense of unease, of waiting for the ax to fall, that illustrates the world that Ivy lives in, and the way she experiences it.

The primary focus of the book is the relationship between Ivy and her cousin/best friend Heather, and it’s something that I enjoyed, for the most part. Real love, the book asserts, is ugly and messy, and Heather and Ivy’s love is no exception. “Codependent” seems an understatement, and we see their sisterhood in its most troubled time, as the girls begin to grow apart and find different love in other places – but it’s still there, still the driving force of the book, and it’s still profound.

SPOILERS – albeit pretty obvious ones – TO FOLLOW

So, I don’t like that Heather dies. Even if it seemed a foregone conclusion, it still falls into too many tropes to sit well with me – real sick of pretty little dead girls, to start with – but I was genuinely struck by Jude’s portrayal of the depth of Ivy’s grief.

Granted, I don’t read books that deal with grief all that often, but for what I do read, Ivy’s reaction to Heather’s loss was singular. A lot of genre things just gloss over the grieving process because the heroine can’t afford to think of it right now or there are more important things to focus on, so the rending of Ivy’s soul when Heather died caught me off guard. I didn’t expect the book to give her death that much weight, and I was gratified by how deeply Ivy was allowed to grieve for this girl, in the kind of deeply depressive way that’s usually reserved for lovers.

Like, to be clear, I don’t think it’s good for an actual real-life person to, say, literally want to die with their loved one, or spend weeks afterwards in a drug-induced haze, obviously that’s not healthy. But I appreciated that Ivy was affected to such an extent, and that the narrative followed her through that. I appreciated that for fucking once, love for an almost-sister was allowed to mean more to our heroine than her budding romantic love for a boy.

So emotional core, pretty solid for me, at least on Ivy’s end. Atmosphere: present, foreboding, appropriately retro-horror and cultish. May Queens even gets bonus points for depicting teenage sex in a frank and realistic way. So where does it all go wrong?

The twists. The twists is where shit starts rolling downhill, and fast. Starting with Heather.

Look, I am super uncomfortable with the revelation of Heather’s sexuality being a twist. We learn towards the end that Heather’s secret lover was a girl from town, not the boy that Ivy assumed, and while I get that we’re seeing things from Ivy’s perspective, and you could blame her heteronormative attitude for the “shock” of the revelation, let’s be real: the book still treats it like a twist. If it didn’t, we’d have found out about it in the middle of the book and given it time to breathe, instead of whipping it out at the end.

At the very least, it’s gross and Othering. We should be working to normalize queer relationships in fiction, not treating them like something to be surprised by.

Perhaps more importantly, it turns Heather into another Dead WLW, and makes her relationship another example of tragic queer love. On the list of things we don’t need more of in fiction, this kind of shit is pretty fucking high.

It’s not like there weren’t more twists to go around, either. MQM has a real Return of the King cluster fuck of fake-out endings.

– First, we find out that the mythical killer we’ve been lead to believe it was has been dead for twenty years.

– There’s some family stuff that leads to Heather’s outing, the third in our ongoing chain of reveals.

– Then we’re told someone has been arrested for the murder. It’s not anyone who’d been properly set-up, so you know that something else is probably coming.

– BAM, second killer reveals himself, and simultaneously implicates ANOTHER character in the murders as well. So now we have three murderers, and the motivation of our Climax Fight Murderer (Murderer #2) are still a big fat ????? to me. I think it might unfortunately just boil down to “he’s crazy”.

– Big fight, shit goes down, Murderer #2 is killed, and just when you think it’s over, yet ANOTHER dude reveals himself as a murderer (making him #4 now). This guy isn’t even responsible for Heather’s death, but a completely different one that’s been built up as part of the world lore.

The kicker is that there’s no reason that I can think of for this guy to have revealed himself in the first place. He says it’s because Ivy knew too much, that she endangered the life he’d built, or whatever, but she didn’t know a damn thing that implicated him, and I honestly couldn’t tell you why he’d have thought she did. He proceeds to try to murder her, all through town and in front of her family, to keep people from finding out his secret. Natch.

It’s just too much and too nonsensical and too scattered to be satisfying. It feels like twists for the sake of twists, like one murderer wasn’t surprising enough, so to compensate, half the fucking town has to coincidentally be in on it. It’s ridiculous in exactly the way you don’t want a murder-mystery-type book to be.

So look: this is a decent enough read while you’re in the thick of it, but the resolution just really doesn’t work for me, and the stack of late-game reveals weaken and cheapen the book that came before enough that ultimately, I don’t feel like it was worth the read.



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