I still remember when I read The Goblin Emperor – also as an e-ARC – and thought I would never make it through this book of strange, polysyllabic names and courtly manners. After a couple of chapters, however, I was not only deep into that world and quite familiar with the crazy names, but I was absolutely in love with the story, the protagonist Maia, and the setting. So much so that I immediately pre-ordered a hardback copy for my shelf. It turned out to be among my favorite books of the year and, despite some unfortunate events, a real feelgood novel. So returning to this world felt like the perfect thing to do during a pandemic.
Thank you Tor for providing an e-ARC of this novel and letting me enjoy it a bit sooner. 🙂
THE WITNESS FOR THE DEAD
by Katherine Addison
Published: Tor, June 22nd 2021
eBook: 240 pages
Series: The Goblin Emperor #2 (can be read as a standalone!)
My rating: 7.5/10
Opening line: In the jumbled darkness of the catacombs beneath the city of Amalo, there was a shrine to Ulis in his aspect as god of the moon.
Katherine Addison returns to the glittering world she created for her beloved novel, The Goblin Emperor, in this stand-alone sequel.
When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.
Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honestly will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.
Now Celehar’s skills lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.
When young goblin emperor Maia stole fantasy readers’ hearts by simply being a good guy in a corrupt world, everyone pretty much agreed that we wanted more from this world. Well, it took a while but Katherine Addison has obliged and delivered a sort of companion novel that can easily be read as a standalone. Given how little detail I remembered from The Goblin Emperor, it might as well have been one and my reading pleasure was in no way diminished.
Far from the Untheileineise court, we follow a character we’ve met before. Thara Celehar, Witness for the Dead, currently living in not-quite-exile in Amalo, doing his job and trying to live a peaceful life. But of course, as a Witness for the Dead, he is confronted with some very unpleasant cases. As unpleasant as they may be for him, however, as exciting they are for us readers. And with that comes the greatest distinction between The Goblin Emperor and its companion/sequel The Witness for the Dead. Because where the former was all about character and world building and didn’t have too much plot, this book is quite plot-driven, without sacrificing too much world building and character development.
Celehar is dealing with several cases of dead people, at least one of whom was murdered. An unidentified body was fished out of the river and Celehar’s job as a Witness for the Dead is not just to perform the necessary rites for a funeral, but in this case also to find out who the dead person is, who murdered her, and why. It’s essentially a proper murder mystery with Celehar as the kind-hearted, soft-spoken detective. Then there’s the case of a dead patriarch’s will – or rather, wills, as there are two and parts of the family claim that their version is the correct one. Add to that a recently-married woman who has died but whose grave isn’t known to her family. Let’s just say there’s enough for Celehar to do, even without the added political problems and his memories of the past.
There is an astounding number of things to love in this book, considering its low page count. But since Katherine Addison doesn’t waste any time setting up her world or explaining what any of the specific terms thrown around mean, there is more time for a number of mysterious murders, ghoul hunting, enjoying tea in tea houses, and opera. Celehar’s investigation leads him to the opera quite often as well as to other parts of Amalo. I can’t say that, after reading this book, I have a map of the city in my mind, but I have a feeling for the city and, to me, that is much better. There are trams and artists’ quarters, there are the richer areas and the poorer ones, there are gambling houses and tea houses, and it all just feels like a proper place.
I don’t know if it was a mistake to not re-read The Goblin Emperor before starting this book. Because Celehar isn’t introduced in all that much detail. All the necessary information is there – his calling as a Witness for the Dead, something dark in his past that haunts both him and his reputation – but his personality isn’t established right away. It does become clearer the more you read, and that’s what makes the book not only a chronolical sequel but also a spiritual follow-up to The Goblin Emperor. Because Celehar, much like Maia, is in essence a good person. He is honest to a fault, he thinks of others before himself, and he sacrifices his own well-being for a good cause in a heartbeat.
Without spoiling any of the mysteries or their solution, all I can tell you is that they are well done and all of them are resolved in a satisfying (if not always happy) way. Don’t worry when Celehar goes on his ghoul-hunting side quest that the main plot will be forgotten. I found the choice to break the plot in two like that a bit strange but as all plot strings are picked back up afterward, things worked out well in the end.
What makes this book such a pleasure to read is the goodness of its protagonist juxtaposed to the curruption of the wider world. Altough it took me a while to feel for Celehar the way I did for Maia – mainly wanting to hug him and shake him and somehow make everything work out well for him – I did fall in love with the character more and more.
What’s important to know ahead of time is that this isn’t The Goblin Emperor 2. The themes of morality, belonging, and justice are still at the center of the story but instead of a fish out of water type protagonist, we get someone who is highly competent in his job and knows how politics work in this world. Celehar’s character development is also not the center of the story, but rather happens almost sneakily. In fact, while reading, I didn’t feel like I knew Celehar all that well, but since I’ve finished the book, I keep thinking about it and about all the little details that show just how skilled a writer Katherine Addison is.
I believe you can pick this book up whether you’ve read The Goblin Emperor or not. If you like a faster pace, then it may even be a good idea to read Witness first. It still has those quiet moments where characters say more through a gesture than they could with 1000 words, there is still a protagonist who not only has a cool yet creepy skill but is also a Good Person, and there are intricate politics, naming conventions, crazy titles and near unpronouncable names. Most importantly, it is a brilliant fantasy novel that – despite all the murder – leaves you with a serene smile on your face. Whether Katherine Addison’s next book is also set in this world or not, I will be grabbing it as soon as it comes out.
MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good