"... What you call magic is all about us, to be seen by everyone. The world of the Fair Folk and our world are the same ... and more and more people are coming to see that. London becomes daily more fantastical." (p.214)
London, 1590. Alice Wood is a sensible widow of fifty who sells books in St Paul's Churchyard. She had a son, Arthur, but she hasn't seen him for years, and has grown accustomed to thinking of him as dead -- then a strange man comes asking after him, saying that he and his people owe Arthur a great debt.
Some of Alice's friends and acquaintances (that riot of young men, Nashe and Kyd and Marlowe, "very much like the plays they wrote, glorious and fantastical but not really fit for daily use" (p. 19)) have mysteries of their own to solve. Who is plotting against Queen Elizabeth? Can an intelligencer's work ever be over and done with? Is Gabriel Hervey worth apologising to?
And out past Finsbury Fields, a court in exile is gathering.
This is very much Alice's story, and the quiet grace of the prose fits her well. Through her eyes the alchemical marriage of Oriana and the Red King, the nature of the boy she raised as a son, and the arts of her cat-loving friend Margery are given a human dimension. The petty nastinesses of everyday life -- institutionalised sexism, a spurned suitor, London in the heat of a plaguey summer -- are obstacles that Alice is equipped to overcome.
I wanted to like this book more: I probably shouldn't have read it so soon after Elizabeth Bear's account of Faerie's interaction with Elizabethan playwrights. Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon is a more measured work than Bear's, subtler, less headlong and less packed with plot: I didn't really feel that her characters -- except Alice Wood and Tom Nashe -- came to life.