Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon by Lisa Goldstein
Alice Wood, a recently widowed middle-aged woman, is continuing her husband’s bookselling business in his stall in the courtyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Though Alice is liked by the other vendors in the courtyard, most think that, as a woman, she’s not equipped to run a business by herself. One of her competitors, a man named George, insists that she should sell her stall to him, or at least that she should marry him and let him run their combined businesses. Everyone knows that, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth, a woman needs a man around to run things.
But Alice is determined to prove George and her other detractors wrong and she continues to work with publishers to sell books and pamphlets (such as those by Thomas Nashe) to Londoners. Things are going well until her son Arthur, who seems to be a bit addled in the brain, reappears after a long absence and claims that he’s the rightful king of England.
Meanwhile Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, the playwright and poet, is spying for the crown. One of his tasks is to find and bring Arthur in for questioning. During his investigation, Kit begins to realize that there are conspiracies to unseat Queen Elizabeth and the Fair Folk may be involved.
Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon (1993) is a charming historical fantasy with likeable characters (especially Alice), a slow and sometimes rambling plot, and a satisfactory ending. The real historical events (e.g., Thomas Nashe’s feud with the Harvey brothers, Kit Marlowe’s spying, the torture of Thomas Kyd, etc) are creatively incorporated, as are Lisa Goldstein’s explanations for how the Fair Folk became weak and cut off from our world, though still obsessed with mortals. Also included in the story is a battle between dragons as well as an explanation for the alchemy that produces the Philosopher’s Stone.
But I think Goldstein’s greatest success with Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon is her contrast between Alice’s two suitors and the depiction of a relationship based on mutual admiration and respect.
I listened to Tantor Audio’s edition of Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon which is 10.5 hours long. I found narrator Mary Sarah’s sometimes breathy voice and sing-song prosody to be irritating at times. She has a pretty voice, but I did not think she was well-cast here.
This rarely happens, but I actually like the cover of the audiobook better than the cover of the original edition of Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon. The dragons on that edition (shown here) have nothing to do with the plot. It’s a totally unsuitable cover.