Strange Devices Of The Sun & Moon

Lisa Goldstein (Tor Books, 1993)

London, 1590.  Elizabeth is on the throne, her court a roiling mess of intrigue, intelligencers and their paymasters.  Playwrights, pamphleteers and poets gather, drink and feud in taverns across the plagued city.  And the Fair Folk have come to Finsbury Field. Lisa Goldstein’s Strange Devices Of The Sun & Moon takes a setting popular in Fantasy, Elizabethan London, with its familiar characters and its familiar faerie intrusions, but Goldstein’s touch is different to many.

Alice Wood is a widow, trying to maintain her husband’s business as a bookseller inSt. Paul’s.  One morning a mysterious stranger in black starts asking about her son, Arthur, missing for some years. Aliceis also visited by a Brownie, who cleans her home, and one night leads her to see the Fair Folk and their queen Oriana. Aliceis surprised to see her odd, cat-loving friend Margery at the queen’s side.


Meanwhile a young man in a Shoreditch tavern claims to be the king.  Christopher Marlowe and Tom Nashe interrogate him, Nashe suspecting him of beingAlice’s son, Marlowe under orders to report possible treason to Sir Francis Walsingham.


Unlike many similar fantasies Goldstein focuses more on Alice, a determined woman in a mans world, than on the Court.  Her relationships with fellow booksellers including George who proposes marriage to merge their businesses and is angered by her refusal, and with the writers whose work she sells are as important to her story as the conspirators of court and the marriage of Queen Oriana.  Goldstein’s style in all her novels is generally quiet, but suffused with wit and pointed remarks.  Quite early onAliceconsiders the playwrights:

“She liked the young men who visited her, but they seemed very much like the plays they wrote, glorious and fantastical but not really fit for daily life.”

It is a line which raises a smile, but it also hints at a feminist comment on the daily concerns of women contrasted with the heroic pretensions of young male writers.  More obvious isAlice’s riposte to George when he tells her

“A woman must have a man above her to guide her, just as a country must have a sovereign.”

“The country does quite well with a woman to guide it.”

Alice Wood is notably a strong female character, not a kick-ass teen, but a 50-year old with opinions, hesitations, confidence and doubt whilst her friend George is seen to be shallow and self-centred.  Margery dismisses him as “that foolish-looking man.”

“Do you truly think he looks foolish? He seems to me just the opposite – a man who can never laugh at anything.”

“Aye, and that’s what makes him a fool.”

Accusations of witchcraft, the intrigues of court, the rivalries and literary feuds of young writers, and the greed-fuelled power struggle to become Master of the Stationer’s Company take the plot on whilst the revelation of Arthur’s heritage and Oriana’s battle to remain queen run deftly through all the other strands.  As with most of Goldstein’s novels there is a subtle linkage of scholarship and magic, and a sense that events occur around protagonists rather than to them.

Strange Devices Of The Sun And Moon is a deeply human fantasy, full of historical detail in the bookseller’s trade, and yet contemporary in concerns both in feminism, and in its jibes at the masculine posturing of some writers.  It is a thoughtful novel yet it flows at a steady pace to an unforced reconciliatory climax.  Perhaps not Goldstein’s most acclaimed novel but in taking familiar tropes and telling an enjoyable story with subtle wit and subversion she has created a neglected fantasy classic nevertheless.



About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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