Book Review: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Mystery
Series: Book 2 of The Goblin Emperor
Publisher: Tor Books (June 22, 2021)
Length: 240 pages
Author Information: Website
The Witness for the Dead is marketed as a standalone sequel to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, but to tell the truth, it’s more of a separate story rather than a direct continuation. The story follows protagonist Thara Celehar, who holds the titular role of Witness for the Dead, or someone who has the ability to speak to the recently deceased. Sometimes, he may even glean the final moments of their life—what they saw, what they thought, what they felt. You might remember him from the first book as the court Prelate of Ulis who helped Maia find out the truth about the deaths of his father and brothers, but even if haven’t read it, it won’t matter. This novel works perfectly fine as a self-contained story, and it’s something of a murder mystery, which held the greatest appeal for me.
As the book begins, we discover that Celehar is now residing in the city of Amalo, far removed from the royal palace setting we were introduced to in The Goblin Emperor. His new post allows him to serve the common people, which he finds rewarding, though as we’ll soon find out, he has not been able to completely escape the world of politics. His latest assignment takes him to the glamorous Vermilion Opera where he must investigate the death of Arveneӓn Shelsin, one of their star performers whose body was pulled from the canal in one of the seedier parts of town. As the elven singer was something of an arrogant and petulant prima donna when she was alive, there is no shortage of people who disliked her, but did any of them despise her enough to kill her? If Celehar is to do his job properly, which means burying Shelsin with the respect she is due, then he needs to know the truth. Unfortunately though, this means he must interrogate everyone close to the victim, and before long Celehar is faced with the unpleasant possibility of having to confront some powerful and dangerous people.
My impression is that Katherine Addison has a fondness for writing mysteries, given that her last novel The Angel of the Crows was pretty much Sherlock Holmes fanfic with angels. But for several reasons, I felt The Witness for the Dead is a much better book and a lot more effective. One, the world of The Goblin Emperor is entirely her own and so is the character of Thara Celehar, who is one of the best protagonists I have had the pleasure to come across in ages. Two, I loved being back in the Elflands, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that the setting is so different from the first book. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun exploring the glitz and glamor of the royal court with Maia, but personally I found the bustling city of Amalo to be much more interesting. Certainly, we got to meet a greater diversity of characters and experience a more varied slice of life in this world than we got from the palace.
But ultimately—and I feel it’s worth reiterating again and again—it was really Celehar who stole the show. I liked that he was a unique character, with endless layers to his personality and thought process, making him a rather unconventional detective. The religious piety and respect for rituals that he showed in the first book are emphasized here, as on the whole the common people of Amalo are more devout than the nobility at Court, and so our protagonist finds himself in his element. Still, he is painfully formal in all his interactions, but also likes to speak frankly. While on the surface, this combination of traits might not make him seem very appealing, I have to say it had the effect of endearing him to me even more. It’s also important to note that he’s not just being overly polite for the sake of etiquette, but because he relies on some of that formality as a shield in uncomfortable social situations. This somehow made him come across as more authentic to me, a narrator I could easily sympathize with, and I liked how Addison was able to subtly convey all that about his personality through just his conversations and actions.
And obviously, I can never resist a fantasy mystery. I thought the storyline was well done here, with the author utilizing a number of plot devices and genre elements to great effect. As Celehar conducts his investigation, clues are dropped aplenty, with seemingly unrelated side arcs ending up playing a role later on. Sure, the novel didn’t have the same glowing softness and aura of opulence that The Goblin Emperor had, but to me, that’s a good thing. To be honest, I much preferred the murder mystery feel to the courtly drama and political intrigue, and admittedly my mood at the time was probably better suited for the more down-to-earth vibes of The Witness for the Dead.
As such, this book gets my recommendation for readers with a penchant for mystery fantasy fiction, especially if you enjoy character-focused stories. Thara Celehar is an unforgettable protagonist whose incredible characterization and unique voice will stay with me for a long time. I also wouldn’t be too concerned with reading the series books in order. Since The Witness for the Dead reads more like a spin-off than a true sequel, not having the first book under your belt isn’t going to disadvantage you at all, not to mention that as much as I enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, I actually think this book was better.