Upstairs/Downstairs: Cinders & Sapphires by Leila Rasheed

I’m a fan of period film and television in general. I love all the various adaptations of Jane Austen’s books and my favorite movie is The Age of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis. Downton Abbey is my new favorite. I love the costumes, the intrigue, and the upstairs/downstairs intersecting storylines between the lives of the servants and the wealthy elite they serve.

Cinders & Sapphires by Leila Rasheed is a young adult novel made for Downton Abbey fans.

Cinders&Sapphires

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.

The blurb focuses on Rose, a servant at Somerton who has just been promoted to serve as a lady’s maid, and the eldest of the Averley girls, who has just returned with her widower father and sister from India, but there are a dozen others competing for the stoplight in this intricately plotted novel. Though these two young women are the center of much of the action, there is an enormous cast of characters with equally intriguing story lines that intersect throughout the story. Ada’s father is to be married upon their return to their ancestral home, to a widow who enjoys high society and has a daughter and two sons of her own that she brings into the household, as well as a scheming lady’s maid with social ambition of her own, and these additions to the household bring a new level of drama to Somerton.

Though Ada has aspirations of attending Oxford, her father would rather see her well married, and not to the exciting Indian boy she meets aboard their ship returning home–a boy who is going to England to attend the school of her dreams.Their paths continue to cross once they arrive in England. Their clandestine romance definitely kept me turning the pages, but it certainly isn’t the only secret affair at Somerton. The most compelling romance (in my opinion) was not between Ada and her Indian scholar Ravi, but between her stepbrother and his valet. Though sadly there is no on page kissing like what we get from Ada and Ravi, I was pleased to see a same-sex romance in a historical setting.

Predictably, the main conflicts are a result of the mean stepmother, Lady Templeton, her eldest daughter, who is jealous and feels threatened by Ada, and Lady Templeton’s conniving lady’s maid. While I would have been more impressed had these characters been more nuanced or had motives beyond selfishness, they still caused sufficient trouble to keep the story interesting. No matter how many times they are told, stories of blackmail and deceit and those trying to hold onto power clashing with those who reach for more will always find their audience. Not only were the social complexities related to class, gender, race, and sexuality of the time period well-treated, the political problem of a colonized India was also nicely developed and explored.

This books was highly readable. I started it at 10 pm thinking I’d read a couple chapters before going to sleep, and ended up staying up an extra couple hours and finished it in one sitting (my favorite way to read a book). The unexpected murder at the end left me anxious for the sequel, though enough plots were tied up to make it a satisfying read on its own. Fans of historical lit, especially early 20th century British history, will enjoy the first installment of this series. If you’d like a second opinion, check out the review in Publisher’s Weekly or this review from teen librarian Megan. 

Cinders & Sapphires will be available January 22, 2013.

Note: I received a copy from the publisher.

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