The Square of Sevens

Written by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
Review by Louise Tree

A girl called Red writes a memoir. It begins in 1730 with her hard, nomadic life as the child of a gypsy fortune teller. She learns to read people’s futures with ordinary playing cards, using her father’s system of cartomancy called the Square of Sevens. When he dies, she becomes the ward of an antiquarian, who now possesses not only the secret to this ancient method of divination, but also – she later discovers – possesses hidden papers which hold the only clues to who her mother was. Determined to discover this truth, Red deploys her fortune telling abilities to penetrate London’s high society. She makes friends and enemies in two aristocratic families who are at war over an inheritance. Lazarus Darke, an agent for one of these families, provides a counter-narrative to Red’s memoir, but has his own past to reconcile.

Organised into four books which illustrate a card reading for a main protagonist within Red’s parentage puzzle, each chapter tells of an event predicted by each card. Red must manoeuvre her way through the dilemmas of a Gothic heroine: an orphan vulnerable to fortune; the forced choice of marriage or poverty; a labyrinthine ancestral home. She traverses the twilight world of travelling fair folk – susceptible to deprivation and barbaric punishment for practising magic – and the world of extreme privilege. Red’s narration is appropriately mercurial and exemplifies the Dickensian technique of avoiding one-dimensional likeability.

The plotting plays with narrative form and genre and engages us in two conflicting points of view, which really should keep us alert. The twists are unpredictable but align with characterisation, not authorial manipulation. Laura Shepherd-Robinson has been acclaimed for her historical thrillers, and this does not disappoint. This is an impressively clever, entrancing novel about truth and lies which keeps the reader guessing right to the end.