Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cinders and Sapphire, by Leila Rasheed: Fishing with (recycled) bait

Cinders and Sapphires (at Somerton series)
Leila Rasheed
Hyperion: New York, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-42317891-0
ARC through NetGalley, available 1/22/13

A landed English noble family and their servants struggle to keep the estate running, marry the daughters off, and avoid ruinous social scandal, amidst new turn of the century inventions, ideals, and international political concerns.  Gay valets, inappropriate romances with radical foreign men, the Season, calculating ladies maids, spendthrift heirs, and secret illegitimate children abound at  Somerton Court, an English country estate.  Sound familiar?  Riding off the wave of Downton Abbey furvor, Leila Rasheed’s first book in the anticipated At Somerton series liberally reuses plot-points from the TV series, but does surprise with some new ones.  Lord Averley has returned home from India with his two daughters, Ada and Georgiana in scandal after abruptly leaving his post.  Ada, the elder daughter, struggles with matching her progressive thoughts on women’s rights with the world she lives in, including the necessity to marry a man she does not love, instead of the one she does, to save her family estate.  Meanwhile, below-stairs, a surprise arrival throws the estate into arrears when it is announced there will be a wedding that will bring a new family to the house, along new servants who threaten to expose long-hidden staff secrets.   Rasheed’s writing is engaging and incorporates much of the language of the time, though the big reveal (no spoiler here) seems to be slightly unrealistic, and optimistic for the time.  Recommended for fans of Downton Abbey, aged 12-112 who’d rather read Jane  of the “You Pierce My Soul” Austen’s than Edith of the nothing ever ends well Wharton’s. 

A few quick thoughts on this one.  In things not at all shocking, judging from the slightly cheesey title and definitely cheese cover (sorry cover designer, except not, because you have eyes – you had to know), this was never going to be heavy lifting.  It wasn’t!  It was, however, surprisingly better written than I assumed it would be.  Kudos to Rasheed for not phoning it in…even if 9 out of 10 plot points are so, so clearly recycled from Downton, though they are repackaged.  (Ahem: Branson is now Ravi, Ireland is now India, Mary+Sybil=Ada, Thomas+Bates=....you get the idea) Some characters are hugely two dimensional, but this could be something fleshed out in later entries to the series.  Things seem to be a little more upstairs skewed; we don’t get as much of a look downstairs as I’d like; we primarily experience downstairs in interactions with the upstairs world.  

Despite my earlier grumblings about style, I did enjoy the font and chapter headings.   I enjoyed the historical look at Indian autonomy as a hot political topic for the Empire, through the character of Branson ahem, Ravi, exploring Oxford, and the shout out to Charles Worth’s dominance in the ladies fashion game.  Still want a dress!  In short, this is a fun, light read (appropriate for younger readers too - nobody gets Pamuked), especially if you’re in the market for a fun Downtonesque book and made it all the way through season two without throwing in the towel – and I’ll probably pick up the rest when they come out!  Methinks they’d make a great fireside OR beach book.  AKA, vacation! 

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