Title: Cinders and Sapphires (Secrets and Sapphires UK)
Author: Leila Rasheed
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion (US) / Hot Key Books (UK)
Publication Date: January 2013 (US & UK)
Hardcover: 400 Pages
One house, two worlds…
Rose Cliffe has never met a young lady like her new mistress. Clever, rich, and beautiful, Ada Averley treats Rose as an equal. And Rose could use a friend. Especially now that she, at barely sixteen, has risen to the position of ladies’ maid. Rose knows she should be grateful to have a place at a house like Somerton. Still, she can’t help but wonder what her life might have been had she been born a lady, like Ada.
For the first time in a decade, the Averleys have returned to Somerton, their majestic ancestral estate. But terrible scandal has followed Ada’s beloved father all the way from India. Now Ada finds herself torn between her own happiness and her family’s honor. Only she has the power to restore the Averley name—but it would mean giving up her one true love . . . someone she could never persuade her father to accept.
Sumptuous and enticing, the first novel in the At Somerton series introduces two worlds, utterly different yet entangled, where ruthless ambition, forbidden attraction, and unspoken dreams are hidden behind dutiful smiles and glittering jewels. All those secrets are waiting . . . at Somerton.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the At Somerton series
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print ARC
Why did I read this book: Like many people, I’m a fan of Downton Abbey – even with some of the more ridiculous twists and protracted storylines, there’s something undeniably fun, deliciously soap-opera-ish and compelling about the show. And, like fans in the United States, I’m eagerly consuming every episode of Season 3 each week. When I heard about this book, positioned as a YA series in the spirit of Downton Abbey, of course I was intrigued.
The year is 1910, the place the grand estate of Somerton. Lady Ada, her younger sister Georgina and her father, Lord Westlake, have left India amidst whispers of scandal and disgrace – Lord Westlake has resigned from his post without explanation, inciting the worst possible rumor-mongering – and return to Britain for the first time in many years. Despite the hints of scandal that follow them to Somerton, it is a happy return for the Averleys as Ada’s father prepares to marry the glamorous, beautiful and well-connected widow, Mrs. Fiona Templeton. With the marriage comes an expansion of the family, with Mrs. Templeton’s three children: Matthew (the devil may care younger son), Sebastian (the rakishly handsome eldest son, with a secret that threatens to ruin him), and Charlotte (the polished and conniving daughter determined to make the most of her station). As the families converge, much drama ensues – Lady Ada struggles to find ground with her new relatives, to prepare for her first Season out in society, and all the while grapples with the demands of her heart as she yearns for Ravi, a young Indian man on scholarship at Oxford (and someone she will never be allowed to marry).
Meanwhile, below stairs, the return of the Averleys and arrival of Mrs. Templeton also threatens to upset the careful balance of order at Somerton. Rose Cliffe – beautiful, quiet, but ambitious for her love of music and composing – is given a chance to advance herself and promoted overnight to become lady’s maid to Ada and Georgina. Of course, such a leap does not go unnoticed, and Stella, Mrs. Templeton’s lady’s maid, begins her own manipulations for power.
These many lives intersect and tangle, as secrets are revealed, proposals are made, and machinations put into motion, with the future of the Averley family and Somerton itself at stake.
Well. If I had to condense my experience with Cinders and Sapphires into a single word it would be: FUN. Because, truly, this is the perfect guilty pleasure read, chock full of scandal and excess (in a good way). Cinders and Sapphires is very clearly, obviously influenced by and riding on the coattails of Downton Abbey, and that is not a bad thing. On a superficial level, there’s the fact that the Averleys are without a direct male heir and the estate will pass to a male cousin, there’s a Lady Edith, a pair of scheming servants downstairs that plot the demise of their enemies, and so on. That said, there is so much more that is unique to Cinders and Sapphires – for example, take the thoughtful, considered examination of British colonization of India from the Indian perspective. Lady Ada hears the arguments about Indian independence for the very first time – for even though she lived many years in India, she has a very sheltered and colonist-minded view of the country – and she begins to question and challenge her belief system for the first time.
Somehow the At Somerton series manages to pack in crazy, melodramatically entertaining twists on par with its BBC counterpart, too – there’s a homosexual young man and a bribery case against him, a murder (but of course), numerous illicit/forbidden romances, a secret half-sibling working on the estate as a servant, a scheming stepmother and horrible Caroline Bingley type character of a daughter…
Which brings me back to my thesis, if you will. In sum, Cinders and Sapphires is wonderfully melodramatic, over-the-top soap-opera fun.
Yes, it has some utterly implausible aspects, and there is NO freakin’ way certain things would ever logically happen (especially the father’s actions at the end of the book!), but I found myself thoroughly, completely entertained and loving every second of it.
On the con side, however, the characters are perhaps not the most developed – Ada is predictably kind, intelligent, and beautiful, as is her counterpoint Rose. Neither heroine buckles in the face of ruin or danger, and they are both excessively sweet and good. And that’s all fine and dandy, but to me, the more interesting characters are the ones who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty – I want to know what happened with Charlotte to make her so venomous, I want to understand how Stella’s conscience hardened and what she has done to come as far as she has. I want more of Sebastian and valet Oliver, I want more of Priya and why she has left India for England to work as a governess. There is plenty of room to explore these many different characters at length, and I am eagerly awaiting the next adventure at Somerton to see just where the drama goes next.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the prologue:
Lady Ada Averley leaned on the rail of the steamboat Moldavia, feeling the hum of the ship’s huge engines through the steel, a rhythmic shudder like a giant’s breathing. The black sea glittered with the reflection of the stars above her, and the wind tugged at her hat and loosened the dark curls that framed her pale face. Her features were a perfect mirror of her late mother’s, but the gray eyes and the proudly lifted chin were pure Averley.
This steamboat had carried many young Englishwomen to India in its time, just as it would have carried any other commodity that was in short supply in the colonies. Less frequently did it bring them back again. Even less frequently was the Englishwoman in question as attractive and eligible as Lady Ada, eldest child of the Earl of Westlake. The wild romantic shores of Italy lay behind them; tonight they were passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. Before Ada lay England, and the prospect of her first season this coming spring. But she was not looking forward to the dances and the attention of young men.
Her mind was as restless as the sea. She knew what her late mother’s friends said about her. “Quite beautiful,” they agreed, “but too serious.” It was understandable, they said, with the tragedy of her mother’s death and the responsibility she had inherited for her delicate younger sister.
That was not all. The news about her father’s resignation from the post of lieutenant-governor only added to her worries. Georgiana was too young and too naturally lighthearted to understand the severity of the rumors that circled like kites, but Ada understood what they meant for her, on the eve of her first season. At least the other debutantes would be relieved: another contender out of the race meant more chances for them. It seemed her parents’ efforts to bring up a perfect lady would be wasted.
Additional Thoughts: Make sure to check out our Q&A with author Leila Rasheed for a chance to win a copy of Cinders and Sapphires!
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Doomed by Tracy Deebs
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