Cinders & Sapphires

Cinders & SapphiresI enjoy Downton Abbey, so a book loosely inspired by it is bound to get my attention. Cinders & Sapphires is a soapy Edwardian read that very much evokes Downton Abbey while still telling its own story. There are more characters and subplots than I could easily keep track of (here’s where the lack of visuals in a book can be a detriment), but the scandal and conspiracy filled plot kept me hooked.

Our main character is Ada, the oldest daughter of Lord Westlake. After ten years in India, she’s returning to England with her father and her younger sister, Georgiana. Her father is about to marry Fiona Templeton, who brings her sons—Sebastian and Michael—and her daughter Charlotte to the family. The housekeeper at Westlake and her pretty daughter, Rose, clash with Stella, Charlotte’s lady’s maid. The season is approaching, and Ada and Charlotte are about to make their social debuts, which of course leads to all kinds of scheming.

In many ways it reads like lots of other historical fiction—the themes aren’t significantly different than similar books set in the Victorian or Regency eras. Classism, some racism, a healthy dose of sexism with feisty heroines to strain against all these constraints. However, it does explore some more modern trappings and issues. The book ends with many threads left hanging, like any good TV show intended to draw you back.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Class and Station

One of the worst sins is reaching above your station. One of the biggest scandals is being involved with someone below you. Rose is the maid we get to know best. She’s inherently musically talented, both as a musician and a composer. But all of that is above her station and she must keep it quiet. Ada and Sebastian help her go to a concert to see a world famous musician, but then the truth comes out and she loses her position on the staff.

We know that Rose is more than she seems because she’s so beautiful and graceful. Plus she has a great talent. Of course she’s more than just the housekeeper’s daughter. However, it’s apparently pretty easy to hide this because no one really looks at a servant.

Stella does her best to get Charlotte to confide in her—having blackmail material is one of the few things that offers a lady’s maid any security.

Racism and Imperialism

Lord Westlake and his daughters have been in India for years and in many ways it’s home. However, they’re very much part of British Imperialism. They believe they’re bringing culture to a people who sorely need it.

Lord Westlake is better than many, losing his position because he stood up for the native Indians. Ada thinks she’s very openminded, but she still sees India as exotic and in need of British superiority. Ravi, an activist student from India, helps her recognize the privilege she’s operating under, and she starts to have sympathy for those seeking Indian independence.


Sebastian is gay, and he falls in love with Oliver, his valet. This is of course highly scandalous, because they could be arrested as well as socially destroyed. One of Sebastian’s former flings is blackmailing him, because Sebastian’s orientation is a secret that must be kept at all costs.

Sex and Romance

Ada kisses Ravi at the beginning of the book. This is terribly shocking on so many levels, and if her indiscretion was known, it could ruin her. But they meet again and fall in love. However, they’re entirely unsuited to each other. This is less about race and more about class and politics—Ravi is a lowly student and a bit of an activist for Indian independence. They conspire to send each other letters and meet in secret. But their relationship is ultimately put on hold when Ravi goes back to India.

Sebastian and Oliver have a relationship, although it’s mostly hinted at. Sebastian has to keep it secret due to the illegality of homosexuality, the scandal that would ruin his family, and the fact that Oliver is his valet and therefore below him in station. But it is true love, and at the end of the book, Oliver goes to jail to protect Sebastian.

Lord Westlake had an affair with the housekeeper while he was married to his first wife. When the truth comes out, he’s upfront about the fact that he respected but never loved his wife. The housekeeper was a childhood friend and his only true love.

As Lord Westlake proves, love and marriage have nothing at all to do with each other. Marriage is a political union. Ada has several marriage proposals that would be good for her family. She’s not expected to accept one that makes her miserable, but there is a lot of pressure to accept one that seems ok.

Georgiana has a crush on her stepbrother, Michael. He’s enamored of the Indian nanny. Although Georgie is kind of crushed by this, she gives good advice for him not to tell the maid of his admiration yet—wait a year to see if his feelings change before risking both his reputation and the maid’s situation by saying anything.

Charlotte apparently got into a compromising situation the previous year and obviously expects a marriage proposal. It doesn’t come, for which she’s bitter.


This is a time of change. To a great extent, women are still supposed to make good marriages and have babies. However, there are some women at Oxford—they’re permitted to take classes, but they can’t get a degree. There’s a lot of talk about women being allowed to vote. Ada wants an education more than anything, but her father doesn’t see any point in that.


Family is kind of complex. Lord Westlake has just remarried, bringing three kids into his family. The kids are pretty old, so there isn’t really a stepfamily vibe. His wife, Fiona, has agreed to help Ada get ready for her first season, but she also doesn’t want Ada to outshine her daughter Charlotte. Charlotte is downright evil, bringing much of the drama and scheming to the story. Michael sees Georgiana as a sister, but she definitely doesn’t see him that way. Sebastian and Ada become friends.

At the end of the story, Sebastian realizes his mother has always known he’s gay. The fact that she says nothing and tries to cover for him is as much acceptance as she can offer in this time, but when he realizes that she really does understand what Oliver means to him, he also realizes that his mother really loves him.

Violence – Physical and Societal

There is some physical violence, including a skirmish that ends with a blackmailer falling to his death through a window.

Most of the violence, though, is societal—scheming intended to destroy reputations. There are constant and potentially disastrous threats along these lines.


If your child enjoys Downton Abbey or historical romance with modern sensibilities, this will be a fun read. It really does want to be a TV show, and there are a ton of characters introduced in pretty quick succession. Visuals would really help keep them straight! Like Downton Abbey, it handles historical issues with a modern perspective, which can be a good way to start conversations about these topics.


Cinders & Sapphires by Leila Rasheed
Published in 2013 by Disney Hyperion
First in the At Somerton series, followed by Diamonds & Deceit
Read on Kindle

Speak Your Mind