For reals, guys, this book is amazeballs.
It's set in the 1660s, in Charles II's court. And according to Ladies in Waiting—and Wikipedia—in Restoration Era England, they were all about the sex. Seriously, the amount of sexual innuendo in this book puts every other YA book I've ever read to shame, including, like, Be More Chill and any other book narrated by a horny male protagonist.
I loved it. But judging by the 2.5 stars it currently has on Amazon (*flails with outrage*), there are many readers who don't enjoy reading 300+ pages peppered with gems like this bit, which occurs when Eliza first dresses up like a man:
"It takes more than pants to make the man. It takes"—she made a suggestive movement of her hips—"bollocks. Clapping flesh-bells. Dangling—"
"Stop!" Beth pleaded. "However did you get like this? You, growing up in the country."
ANYWAY. Ladies in Waiting is about the adventures, trials, and tribulations that three young women—all named Elizabeth—have while serving King Charles' wife, Queen Catherine. They are:
Eliza: Although she's the perfect picture of a sweet Puritan lass, she's an aspiring playwright with a quick wit and a bawdy mind... and regardless of what her father wants, she has absolutely no intention of setting her dreams aside in order to get married.
Zabby: A budding scientist who grew up on her family's plantation in Barbados. She's in England to continue her studies and has very little experience with courtly customs—which makes life especially difficult when she becomes an especially close friend of the king... so close that his mistress considers her a rival.
Beth: A young, sweet beauty, Beth is being used as a pawn by her syphilitic, noseless, man-hating* mother to regain the family fortune. Unfortunately, Beth is in love with her childhood sweetheart... who is the son of the man who caused the fortune to be lost in the first place.
Things I loved about this book (in addition to laughing my brains out over the sex stuff):
The dialogue: It's snappy and smart and very often funny, it flows and each character has a distinct voice. (And, as the book is written in the third person, the strength of each voice is all the more impressive.)
The period details: Here's an example! There's a brief description of the dudes who have to navigate the dance floor during balls holding plates attached to sticks in order to catch the wax from the chandeliers before it falls on the dancers. WORST JOB EVER. Pepys and Nell Gwynn both appear, and after I finished the book, I read a bit more about the period, and realized JUST HOW MUCH real-life stuff Sullivan incorporated into the book. It made me want to read even more about the period, which, for me, is a great sign of Good Historical Fiction.
The lack of condescension: The author never comes close to condescending to her audience. As I've already mentioned, she doesn't pull punches in regards to sexual content—Charles II's court was full of scandalous scandals, and he, himself fathered at least a dozen children (all illegitimate) with seven (or eight?) different mistresses—but it should also be noted that she never resorts to infodumps, either (readers will either get the joke about Caligula or they won't). And, despite the assumptions that some people make about the YA, the vocabulary is joyous.
The serious stuff: I've mainly focused on the fun aspects of the book, but it also really addresses the difficulties of being female in this era. For instance? One of them overhears her father PLOTTING TO HAVE HER KIDNAPPED, RAPED, AND FORCIBLY MARRIED (NOT TO MENTION BEING DRUGGED UNTIL HER WOULD-BE HUSBAND IMPREGNATES HER). I don't even. And while the book's main focus is on the three girls, Queen Catherine and Barbara Palmer (Charles' mistress) are also very well drawn, and it's very easy to see how very much their positions depend on the whims of men***. But Sullivan never comes off as preachy or didactic, either.
The lack of easy fixes: Well, two of the girls are in pretty good positions by the end, but the third is in a TERRIBLE spot. And I haven't seen word one about a sequel, so... yeah. On the one hand, some readers are going to be FURIOUS, but on the other, it's a more realistic (not to mention surprising!) ending, I think.
LONG, LONG, LONG STORY SHORT: DON'T LISTEN TO THE AMAZON REVIEWERS. THIS BOOK IS BOSS.
*You know, because of the syphilis. This is from her first appearance:
"You're a Catholic heathen like the last queen, but at least you're not like these others." She jerked her flashing beak** at the courtiers, who were torn between mirth and revulsion. "In those idolatrous nations like Portugal you know men for he evil creatures they are, scourge of women, carriers of filth, great hungry maws that drain us of all our virtues and leave us as you see me now. Your husband is such a man. You don't believe me, I see in your eyes, but those eyes will open soon enough."
**She wears a metal hawk's beak over her lack-of-nose.
***For that matter, Charles comes off as quite sympathetic as well.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.