Sunday, September 24, 2023

Review: The Square of Sevens by Laura Shepherd-Robinson


by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
Release Date: September 5, 2023
2023 Atria Books
Kindle Edition; 528 Pages
ISBN: 978-1668031124
Audiobook: B0BY3LCKYH
Genre: Fiction / Historical / Mystery / Magical Realism
Source: Review copy from publisher

4 / 5 Stars

Cornwall, 1730: A young girl known only as Red travels with her father making a living predicting fortunes using the ancient Cornish method of the Square of Sevens. Shortly before he dies, her father entrusts Red’s care to a gentleman scholar, along with a document containing the secret of the Square of Sevens technique.

Raised as a lady amidst the Georgian splendor of Bath, Red’s fortune-telling delights in high society. But she cannot ignore the questions that gnaw at her soul: who was her mother? How did she die? And who are the mysterious enemies her father was always terrified would find him?
My Thoughts
The Square of Sevens follows Red, who is left in the care of an antiquarian after her ''cunning-man'' father passes away from an illness when she was seven-years-old. Having learned an ancient method of card-reading that had been passed down through generations, Red's heritage must remain a secret, along with a document containing the secret of the Square of Sevens technique. Personally, I thought this book was quite cleverly plotted and although a lot of people complained about the slow pacing of the book, I am a huge Dickens fan and enjoyed the highly descriptive prose the author tried to emulate in this book.

The story is set in Georgian England, and with The Witchcraft Act having been passed in 1735, it is very dangerous to practice anything to do with fortune-telling. When Red's fortunes change after the death of her benefactor, she has to rely on her cartomancy skills to survive which puts her in incredible danger. I loved the descriptions of London and Bath during this time period and was quite content to just read along and immerse myself in the time period. There was this level of tension that existed throughout the pages as Red tries to figure out who her parents were and what she discovered could alter the lives of two very prominent families.  And while the search was interesting, I actually preferred the scenes when Red was at the fair and interacting with the various different people who were there as I found that much more interesting. It was also refreshing to learn how dangerous it was for so many people simply trying to make a living and the danger of being put in the stocks was a constant threat to people's livelihoods.  So often history books focus on the lives of the wealthy, but I actually prefer to read about the less fortunate as I sometimes find it much more fascinating.

The plot itself, while interesting, did take a long time to get going, and if you are not one to enjoy descriptive prose, this may have proven challenging to get through. I enjoyed the Gothic vibes included through the atmospheric and descriptive writing and I liked how cartomancy was incorporated throughout the book, even used as headings for each chapter.  If you paid attention to the chapter descriptions, it gave you clues as to what was happening in the story and to each character, even perhaps their significance to Red and her life. 
With all of that, I did think the story could have been more tightly woven as the main mystery didn't really start until about a quarter way into the book.  The pace of the book was somewhat uneven, and if not for the fact that I like descriptive writing, would have been annoyed by the really slow pace of the story in many of the sections.  I also found the actual mystery predictable, but I really enjoyed the ending and how it got there, and I especially like how it made you think about the main character and what you actually knew about her as well as the assumptions you make along the way.

There was a large cast of characters in this book and naturally Red was the most developed being the MC. I wasn't always thrilled with the choices she made as she could be quite impulsive and seemed to be led by this idea that her unknown family would welcome her no matter what. And although I wasn't thrilled by this impulsivity, I'm glad it was written this way as it showed how sheltered she actually was, even though she lived quite roughly on the road with her father until he passed away,  She was constantly telling people how she wasn't naive, but then she would go and trust the oddest people.  It wasn't until about halfway through the book that I started to become suspicious of her motives and really started looking at her behaviour in a much different way that I began to realize what was really going on. That AHA moment, of which I will say nothing more so I don't give away any plot points.  I enjoyed the rest of the characters as well and thought they rounded out the story quite well, even if there were some I wished to know a bit better as they were so interesting.
The Square of Sevens was well-written and well thought out, with more of a descriptive and lyrical type of style.  The unique plot and the wide range of characters made for some interesting twists and turns and I really enjoyed the use of cartomancy woven throughout the narrative. But because I paid so much attention to that, I also think it gave away some interesting plot points that I may have otherwise missed.  If you enjoy descriptive historical details, this may be right up your alley.