The Witness for the Dead
by Katherine Addison
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.
I received an eARC of The Witness for the Dead from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
It’s no secret that The Goblin Emperor is my favourite novel, so when I heard the news that Katherine Addison was working on a new book set in this world I was a little nervous but, ultimately, so excited—even more so when it was revealed it wasn’t going to be a direct sequel, because The Goblin Emperor is perfect as it is. Instead we follow Thara Celehar, our titular Witness for the Dead who worked for Maia in the previous book to help him discover who murdered his father and brothers, this time as he embarks on his preferred work, helping those who lack the funds and prestige of those at court.
The Witness for the Dead is an odd novel in some ways, and parts of it reminded me of Addison’s other novel, The Angel of the Crows, because this novel feels more like several novellas put together rather than one whole novel. Having said that, it definitely feels more like a novel than The Angel of the Crows did (thankfully, because I didn’t actually enjoy The Angel of the Crows very much!) and the various crimes and events Celehar finds himself getting involved in weave in and out of one another, rather than simply happening one after the other. What I’m trying to get at is that The Witness for the Dead is a very quiet and in some ways cosy novel, not unlike The Goblin Emperor, so if you’re craving more fantasy where the fate of the world isn’t at stake and the focus is on one character’s relationship with the world around him, and the people in it, then this is a book for you.
You could read this novel without first reading The Goblin Emperor, but you’ll get much more out of The Witness for the Dead if you read The Goblin Emperor because you’ll learn Celehar’s backstory; why he lives the way he lives and distances himself from others the way he does.
As a Witness for the Dead, Celehar can essentially read cadavers and human remains to find out what the dead experienced in their last moments and, if foul play was involved, find out who killed them. A kinsman of the previous emperor’s empress, Celehar lost what little favour he had when he agreed to work for Maia, who in return released Celehar from the court to return to the kind of work he prefers. Now in the city of Amalo, far from the emperor and his court, the novel opens with Celehar being asked to attend upon the body of an elven woman that has been pulled from the river. Any thoughts of her death being an accident or suicide are put aside when Celehar discovers a wound on her head.
What follows is a gentle story of Celehar trying to find justice for a woman he comes to discover wasn’t a particularly nice lady, and some of the other jobs he is given or accidentally falls into along the way, but the novel’s main focus is on Celehar himself. He’s a somewhat tragic figure, someone who hasn’t been shown as much kindness as he deserves, and in The Witness for the Dead we slowly start to see him open up to other people and make friends—and a hint that, maybe one day, he might allow himself a second chance at romance, too.
This is a difficult book to review because it’s not really a plot-heavy novel and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s reading experience by accidentally giving something away, but just know that I loved reading it. I loved being back in this world, and seeing a different part of it—not only geographically, but also in terms of the class of people we meet. The entirety of The Goblin Emperor takes place at court, surrounded by noblemen and noblewomen, whereas Celehar associates with other members of his religious order, factory workers and performers at an opera house, just to name a few. Addison’s writing is beautiful, her characters all have such stage presence, regardless of how long we meet them for, and while the mysteries themselves aren’t exactly shocking or full of twists and turns, it’s Celehar’s determination to find the truth, above all else, that makes this book impossible to put down.