Cinders & Sapphires (At Somerton)
Set in pre-World War I England, Leila Rasheed’s new YA series offers all the mischief and melodrama of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs for the younger set. After a decade in India, the Averleys are returning to their English estate. The eldest daughter, Ada, meets and falls for the handsome and intelligent Ravi Sundaresan during the return voyage. But Ada understands the impossible challenges posed by the lovers’ difference in status and ethnicity. In the aftermath of her father’s political disgrace in India and her cousin’s reckless gambling, Ada is acutely aware of her duty. The Averleys cannot endure another scandal.
"The ending of CINDERS & SAPPHIRES, with its unforeseen complications and violent confrontations, will leave readers anticipating the next book in the At Somerton series. Not to worry: the new season of Masterpiece Classic should more than tide fans over until then."
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of activity below stairs at Somerton Court as the servants prepare for the family’s return and the master’s remarriage. At 16, Rose Cliffe is promoted to ladies’ maid. Rose feels out of her depth serving Ada and fears she will disappoint her mistress. The more experienced maid, Stella, shows her the ropes, all while plotting to bring about Rose’s disgrace. Rose seems destined for trouble when she agrees to be the go-between for Ada and Ravi, delivering secret love letters. At every plot twist, we learn that the lives of the family and their servants are closely intertwined. Jealousies build and still more scandals emerge as Ada anticipates her first season in London.
Rasheed introduces a large cast of characters, which proves a bit hard to follow, especially in the opening chapters. But thanks to the author’s attention to motivation and backstories, the characters soon become familiar. Packed with suspense and intrigue, the novel shows Rasheed’s gift for pacing. Once the plot and numerous subplots get going, there’s no letting up in this period drama.
From the first pages of the novel’s prologue, it’s clear that Ada Averley is an appealing and unconventional heroine for her time. We meet Ada on the first-class deck of a steamship at midnight without hat, gloves or chaperone, reading an article on the hot button issue of women’s suffrage. All of this is deemed improper behavior for a lady of her era. Ada continually challenges the social norms and the limited opportunities available to women. No matter how stunning she looks in a silk gown, or how many suitors she attracts, her priority is to attend Oxford and become a journalist. Although Ada’s father insists that her duty is to find a husband, she refuses to become yet another commodity in the marriage market.
In the midst of all the heated gossip and romance, Rasheed manages to tackle bigger issues in Edwardian England, from gender roles to imperialism and class. Colonialism --- an issue at the margin of many Victorian novels --- is here treated with significance in the articulate and passionate voice of Ravi. Though the novel is set entirely in England, the debate over British rule versus Indian autonomy seems ever looming. Rasheed raises insightful comparisons between the struggles of women and Indian subjects for independence. The talented and ambitious Rose is herself emblematic of the servants that are not content with their place in the social hierarchy. The author expertly balances her commitment to historical realism with a flair for delicious (if improbable) scandal. As a result, the fictional characters and their struggles feel that much more genuine.
The ending of CINDERS & SAPPHIRES, with its unforeseen complications and violent confrontations, will leave readers anticipating the next book in the At Somerton series. Not to worry: the new season of Masterpiece Classic should more than tide fans over until then.
Reviewed by Emma Kantor on January 2, 2013