The Witness for the Dead: A clerical elven sleuth seeking justice for the dead

The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

The Witness for the Dead is the long-hoped-for sequel to Katherine Addison’s marvelous and unusual 2014 fantasy, The Goblin Emperor, in which we met Maia, a half-goblin, half-elf young man who unexpectedly inherited the throne of the elf kingdom when his father, the emperor, was killed along with his brothers in an airship explosion. Thara Celehar, an elven prelate and a Witness for the Dead, was a minor character in that novel who investigated the airship accident at Maia’s request and eventually was able to unearth the truth of why it occurred.

The Witness for the Dead is more of a companion novel set in the same world, rather than a direct sequel, so it can be read as a stand-alone book, but it’ll give you a better grounding in this world if you read The Goblin Emperor first. This book picks up with Thara’s life some time after he has left the elven court, leaving behind a slight cloud of scandal — Thara is gay, and his married lover was executed for murdering his own wife. Thara has now moved to the city of Amalo and taken up his calling again as a Witness for the Dead.

A Witness for the Dead wears several hats, including murder investigator, priest and funeral director, but Thara also has the unusual magical ability to touch a dead body and sense memories and impressions from the spirit of the person who died. When a woman’s body is pulled out of the canal in Amalo, Celehar is asked to investigate to find out who she is — which doesn’t take too long — and who killed her and why, which is far more difficult to determine. For one thing, her bones aren’t telling Thara anything really useful, so he has to rely on other, more mundane investigative methods. For another, the woman was an opera singer who had an unfortunate habit of making an enemy of nearly everyone around her. One of her enemies is the in-house composer for the Vermilion Opera, Mer Pel-Thenhior, to whom Celehar is rather reluctantly attracted.

The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThere are a couple of other interesting subplots that help to liven up this murder mystery novel. One involves a missing pregnant woman whose family believes that her husband killed her, eventually leading to a trail of questionable deaths. The other subplot concerns the wealthy Duhalin family whose patriarch has died, leaving behind some greedy heirs who are disputing which of two wills is the real one and which is the forgery. When Celehar announces his finding, based on touching the grandfather’s cremated ashes, it has repercussions for him as well as for the Duhalin family members.

To try to avoid the resulting trouble, Celehar is packed out of town and told to take care of a ghoul problem in a small mining town two days’ journey away. Ghouls start out eating dead meat but sooner or later switch to killing and eating the living. Celehar’s talents include the ability to quiet and rebury ghouls (more permanently the second time around), but the journey turns out far more exciting and dangerous than he expected.

Actually I found both of these subplots more intriguing than the main plotline. The opera singer’s scandalous ways couldn’t quite make up for the plodding nature of Celahar’s investigation. The main beauty of The Witness for the Dead isn’t in the main murder mystery plot, which is serviceable but not particularly memorable, but in Addison’s extraordinarily fine world- and character-building.

Katherine Addison

Katherine Addison

Like The Goblin Emperor, The Witness for the Dead is somewhat slow-paced but lovely in its detailed world-building. Addison has created a richly-imagined, steampunk-flavored fantasy world, slightly touched by magic, and brimful with vivid, realistic details, like stray cats that impatiently wait for handouts and teahouses with fragrant, exotic offerings. There’s a wide variety of skin tones and eye colors, especially due to the mixing between goblins and elves, which is far more prevalent here than in Maia’s court.

Addison’s characters are well-rounded and realistic. Thara Celehar is a particularly complex soul: he’s humble and shy, tending toward melancholy and isolation, and on the edge of poverty. At the same time, he’s a decent, kindhearted man who’s resolutely determined to be honest and to do his duty, even in the face of daunting opposition. He’s also rather awkward and ill-at-ease with others, even with the charming part-goblin Pel-Thenhior … who is, unfortunately for Thara, one of the chief suspects in the opera singer’s murder.

The Witness for the Dead isn’t as brilliant or delightful as The Goblin Emperor (few books are), but it’s still well worth reading if you were a fan of that book and have been longing to return to that world. If Addison writes more stories or novels set in this world, I’ll definitely be there for them.

Published in June 2021. 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. Katherine Addison has created a fantastic world for these books – wide and deep and true.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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