The Witness for the Dead: Chockablock with intrigue

Reposting to include new reviews by Jana and Bill.

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.

There 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.

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

~Tadiana Jones


The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Witness for the Dead is chockablock with intrigue, as befits a murder-mystery companion novel to a much-beloved fantasy novel (with its own central murder mystery), although the degree of intrigue will depend on individual readers’ reactions. Much like Tadiana, I found the core plot involving the opera singer to be less interesting as a murder mystery and more helpful as the plot device by which the reader is allowed to travel around the city of Amalo with Thala Celehar, meeting all sorts of people and having all sorts of adventures.

The work Celehar does as a Witness for the Dead in helping to resolve questions of legitimacy and inheritance, tracking down a possible serial killer, and dispatching with a ghoul is both thrilling and exhausting (in that Katherine Addison so clearly conveys his emotional burdens and struggles). I greatly appreciated riding shotgun, as it were, as Celehar wrangles with people eager to drive him out of the city, as he travels through neighborhood after neighborhood in search of clues, as he interviews scores of people to varying effect, as he desperately tries not to make friends and, perhaps, something more. In truth, I was reminded of the various aspects I liked of another of Addison’s recent novels, The Angel of the Crows, a magical/spiritual spin on Sherlock Holmes tropes, and will probably re-read that book again soon just to spend more time with Addison’s gifts for language, setting, and character work.

If you haven’t yet read The Goblin Emperor, I strongly suggest that you start there, as it will give you more insight into how and why Thala Celehar is so far away from the imperial court and why he feels that this posting is more suited to his person, along with an extremely helpful guide to language that will inform how so many of the elvish words are pronounced and their significance. (The delineations of courtesy between referring to someone as Dach’osmer, Osmer, or simply Mer, are crucial to understanding the social expectations and boundaries between conversation partners, just to name one example.) Moreover, the differences in custom, gender roles, and goblin-elvish relations between court life and Amalo are striking, and worth paying attention to. But The Witness for the Dead stands well on its own, and is an enjoyable return to a richly-imagined world that we’ve only seen a few glimpses into. I sincerely hope this is only the first of many more GOBLIN EMPEROR companion novels to come.

~Jana Nyman

Katherine Addison

Katherine Addison


The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Witness for the Dead is a follow-up to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, set in the same world and involving an overlapping character, but it’s really a stand-alone novel in that universe and not so much a sequel. So much so that one can absolutely read it without having read The Goblin Emperor as any prior events that directly impact this story (and they are few) are clearly recapped.

Thara Celehar is a Prelate of Ulis and, more importantly for this story, a Witness for the Dead, which means he has the gift of being able to communicate in limited fashion with a recently deceased corpse — see their death, know their final thoughts — though success and degree of success are highly dependent on a number of variables. As you might imagine, this skill might come in handy for investigating suspicious deaths, and this is the main driving point of the plot here. Celehar actually has several jobs in The Witness for the Dead. The main plot centers on Celehar trying to discover what happened to an opera singer who was definitely murdered. A side plot involves a young woman who may have been murdered by her husband. He has since disappeared and Celehar begins to suspect he may have killed before and will probably do so again. Finally, there is the resolution of a disputed will (it helps to be able to speak to the dead when clarifying their intended disposition of assets). The plot is rounded out with several non-murder related threads: Celehar’s possible attraction to the opera house composer/director and his trip to “quiet” a ghoul causing problems in another town.

On the surface, then, The Witness for the Dead appears to be a mystery, but really, the mystery is the least interesting, least successful aspect of the novel. One victim was wholly unlikeable (becoming more so, the more we learn of them) and the others we never meet or learn much of. Similarly, we’re not invested in any of the potential suspects, save one. Meanwhile, while Celehar’s investigations are diligent, they’re also somewhat desultory, and though they kick things off, the end results are somewhat arbitrarily arrived at. So if you’re looking for a compelling fantasy novel, this isn’t going to be it.

What Addison does offer is a quietly lovely character study set in a richly detailed setting. Celehar is a wonderful character creation, a shy, withdrawn person who several times notes how much more comfortable he is communicating with the dead versus the living. He’s also a person haunted by his past, a past that colors his interactions with others, his view of the world, stops him from sleeping well. He’s also a good person, one full of empathy, one always seeking to do what is right, so much so that he puts his own life at risk, but so obliviously that he doesn’t even understand when one of his friends tells him how much his disregard for his own life concerns them. You can’t help but root for this thoughtful, haunted, gentle, introspective person in his investigations, his political trials that arise, in his halting, maybe possibility of a relationship. It’s his voice and demeanor that really carry the book, not the plot.

The other strong aspect is Addison’s sense of detail. Whether it’s the opera house — its setting and its workings —, the streets of the city, the many and sundry teahouses with their many and sundry teas (seriously, this novel must set a record for tea references per page), the outlying town with its ghoul issue, or any of a number of other pieces of this universe we’re introduced to, it all comes fully alive so the reader feels utterly immersed in this world.

If you’re looking for action or for a truly compelling plot, The Witness for the Dead probably isn’t your best choice. But if you like character-driven stories and sharply detailed worlds, then it’s probably, umm, your cup of tea.

~Bill Capossere

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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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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