The Case of the Dead Princesses: Against A Brightening Sky

Delia Ryan née Martin sees dead people. Like, all the time. She sees them in the street, in windows, in the reflective surface of her tea. Her cat Mai sees them too. As does her good friend and medium Dora Bobet. Delia’s beloved husband Gabe doesn’t see ghosts, but they collect around him like moths to a flame due to his profession as a homicide detective for the SFPD. Their longtime friends and fellow marrieds, Jack and Sadie, don’t see ghosts either, but still suffer the side effects of friendships with those who do.

In the final book in the Delia Martin trilogy, Delia, Gabe, Jack, Sadie, and Dora encounter the toughest case of their lives. They’ve dealt with serial killers and sadistic torturers, mournful ghosts and violent spirits, and Jack the Ripper-like executions and ritualistic slaughters, but they might finally be out of their league when ancient Old World magics descend on San Francisco.

It’s 1919 and Delia has watched her city change dramatically since the 1906 earthquake killed her parents. She fled the Golden State to escape the ghosts who sprang up in the aftermath and returned in time to be nearly killed again during the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition. Later, with the help of Sadie’s friend Dora, an eccentric medium with her own mysterious past, and a powerful Chinese mystic’s cat, Dee honed her skills of communing with the dead and confronted evil doers using WWI for their own ill purposes. Now, not long after the Bolshevik Revolution forced out thousands of terrified Russians, those same refugees are being brutally killed all over the United States.

The crimes become personal when at a St. Patrick’s Day parade snipers with dynamite nearly blow up Jack and Gabe. Delia, with the aid of a silent ghost princess, rushes Sadie and her children to safety as the snipers target one particular woman. As Dee discovers the terrible secrets locked in Alina’s mind and Dora uncovers the spells to stop the globe-trotting villain, Gabe, Jack, and Jordan Lynch, a Black officer from Chicago come to finish off a case that nearly cost him his life, must muster SFPD’s full resources to protect the innocent from a murderous necromancer.

Against a Brightening Sky is the third and final installment of Moyer’s “Delia Martin” series, and each book has improved on the last. The clunkier aspects of the first two are largely absent or rectified in the third, and the few that remain aren’t seriously off-putting. The atmospheric description frequently wanders in the weeds of purple prose. Immutable laws about magic are invalidated or contradicted before we even know there were rules to begin with. And Moyer still has a habit of either over or under explaining something, so it’s not unusual for the dialogue to restate what Delia or Gabe just said in their internal monologue or for huge social issues—like race, women’s suffrage, global political instability—to be brought up in relation to the case and unceremoniously dropped before any meaningful discussion can take place. In short, there’s a lot of telling and not enough showing.

Characters tend to fully trust each other almost immediately with neither cause nor evidence. People also constantly say exactly what’s on their mind in full detail and their personalities tend to shift depending on what the plot demands. Dee, for example, is rather passive and, well, boring, until Moyer needs her to be brave and stubborn, in which case she behaves so only long enough to banish the evil. For a woman supposedly strong-willed and clever, she spends a tremendous amount of time avoiding difficult choices and actively ignoring the spirits haunting her. I still have no firm grasp on who Gabe Ryan is except that he’s a nice guy who loves his wife and is dedicated to his job. What he looks like, what he thinks about things not murder related, or how he feels about life itself I couldn’t even hazard a guess. Frankly, a series starring Dora, Sadie, and Jordan would be vastly more exciting (and diverse). It’s not a good sign when your second and third tier characters have more dramatic personalities than your leads.

Representation is a tricky problem, as it is in most fiction, really. The first two “Delia” books were dire in terms of diversity. Some might claim a fantasy book doesn’t have to deal in historical truths, except Moyer has rooted her trilogy in historical truths. All the magical plots are inspired by real events, meaning the racial tensions are as well. To be fair, Against a Brightening Sky makes great strides forward in that regard with Jordan Lynch. Racism is still framed through the white perspective and he doesn’t get much to do beyond playing the companion, but at least Jordan exists outside of Gabe and Delia’s viewpoint. Then again, Moyer undoes a lot of Jordan’s good will with Libby, the white activist suffragette reduced first to a militant harpy then a weepy Juliet all too willing to drop her protests for the love of a good man.

And yet I still keep reading the series. I didn’t point out the negative aspects to deter readers or to shame Moyer. Quite the opposite. The flaws seemed out of place for a writer who is clearly talented, but are worth mentioning because for someone starting at the beginning they might fester into deal-breakers, and that just wouldn’t do. Against the Brightening Sky and the series as a whole is well worth the forgiveness of the weaker bits.

Paranormal stories and period dramas are two of my favorite subgenres, and the chance to combine them in early 20th century San Francisco with women at the helm is a rare treat. When Dee and Gabe stop acting like mopey dishrags and take on actual personalities—a feat accomplished more often than not—the story positively sparkles. Moyer’s worldbuilding is above par; no matter what else is happening you always have a sense and feel of the space Dee inhabits.

Moyer has finally nailed the genre mixing, and the pacing fires on all cylinders. The action is heart-pounding, the romance charming, and the drama potent. Moyer opens the book with a deadly explosion presaged by a silent ghost revealing the killer to Delia. The fear that ripples through the crowd and our heroes is palpable, and Gabe and Jack’s rage at being unable to stop it is visceral. Delia’s flashback-y dream are fascinating all on their own, and artfully build the suspense. But perhaps my favorite scene was Delia’s showdown with the necromancer. She wages a magical war over the soul and sanity of Sadie’s young son and with the stakes so high and Dee so inexperienced the worry that she might fail is a very real one.

Setting aside the critiques of the socio-historical context and technical gripes, it is overall a good, fun series. All can be read as standalones or in sequence, but the story functions better in the latter. Moyer’s series is greater than the sum of its parts, with each new entry building upon the last and improving in quality. It’s a light weekend read, one best enjoyed with a cuppa on a rainy day. Its plot is fast-paced and engaging, its characters compelling and entertaining. Of the three books in the series, Against a Brightening Sky is easily the best. I’m a bit sad that this is the final installment, for I’d love to see where Moyer might take Dee and Dora next.

Against a Brightening Sky is available now from Tor Books.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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