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Fingersmith - Sarah Waters Bad blood carries. Bad blood comes out.

Sue was born in a cramped house of thieves and orphaned when her mother was hanged for murder. Mrs. Sucksby has raised her as her own and tried to keep her out of harm’s way, but now that she’s nearly grown, an acquaintance called Gentleman has suddenly appeared to ask Sue to help him carry out the ultimate grift. He aims to seduce and marry the wealthy young Maud, steal her inheritance, and then get rid of her by committing to a madhouse, but he needs Sue’s help. She’s to be hired as Maud’s lady’s maid, gain her trust, then convince her leave her uncle’s country estate to marry the handsome and charming Gentleman. In return, Sue will be paid enough to make herself and her adopted family rich and comfortable for the rest of their lives. Simple, right?

Of course not!

Sarah Waters has not only written an astounding homage to Charles Dickens, but she may have also surpassed him. She even name-drops him within the first few pages when one of the neighborhood pickpockets — or fingersmiths — takes six-year old Sue to see a staged version of Oliver Twist. Waters sets her story in the same 19th Century England, switching between the seedy labyrinth of London and the genteel yet lonely and often severe countryside, and much like Dickens, she explores the very nature of destiny, asking whether we can escape our fates, whether we have any control over our own lives, especially when we’re born poor and alone. The story itself is sensational and gripping, yet also convincing, in no small part because of her skillful pacing, detailed characterizations, and shrewd use of literary irony to build almost suffocating levels of tension and dread. Fingersmith is a sometimes lovely, sometimes tawdry, always enjoyable read, one of my favorites of the year.

(This review was originally posted as part of Cannonball Read 10: Sticking It to Cancer, One Book at a Time.)