The Goblin Emperor is one of my favourite fantasy books, so I was very excited for this follow up set in the same world – it’s different, but it’s also excellent!
Book: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison
Publication date: 22nd July 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Solaris Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Death features heavily, including murder, violent death, poisoning, and sickness; discussion of abusive relationships.
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 honesty 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.
First things first: this isn’t a direct sequel to The Goblin Emperor, and you can probably go into this cold if you really want to. I say ‘probably’, because while you don’t need to know any previous events, I think maybe it is handy to have a feel for the world and the writing style already; it’s going to depend on how much you can tolerate some slightly opaque worldbuilding, I think. I didn’t reread The Goblin Emperor before I started this, and it’s been a few years since I last read it, so I wasn’t starting from a full knowledge tank, and I found it took me a few dozen pages to sink back into the way things worked, as little is re-explained. The first book had the benefit of including an appendix that explains some things, since this is an exceptionally formal society where names and speech patterns have a lot of meaning and aren’t necessarily intuitive. I would have liked a similar guide here, but I promise that if you stick with it, you do get used to it and it becomes natural. Just let the bombardment of names flow over you to begin with.
Notes about the style aside, I loved this book. It’s perfect slice-of-life fantasy – yes, there’s something of a murder mystery, but it’s all in a day’s work for our protagonist, Thara Celehar, and not in a jaded urban fantasy hero way. Celehar is a Witness for the Dead, a sort of combo priest/detective/grief therapist – he can speak to the dead (in a very non-flashy way) and then deals with the fall out from what he’s heard, whether that’s letting family members know where the will is hidden, or tracking down a murderer. He’s a good, quiet man, and the whole book has a sense of calmness and gentleness about it – in other books, I think we’d see a protagonist like this dragged into action scenes and forced into high stakes, but what I absolutely loved about this is that Celehar is really, honestly, just doing his job as he goes about a few cases, one of which involves a murder. People mostly co-operate with him out of respect for his position, and while that sounds like it could be boring, it isn’t at all. It means that the characters and the world are allowed to shine in however much time they need, without just being a vehicle for the plot. It’s genuinely refreshing to read something that has space for reflection.
While I was initially hoping for more of the exquisite court politics that The Goblin Emperor had, I’m delighted by the chance to spend some time in a totally new setting, which is more provincial but still has that mix of classic fantasy and slightly steampunk flavour. A large part of the story takes place in and around an opera house, and I really enjoyed all the petty rivalries going on and the glimpses of the day-to-day workings of the company. One of the things I loved about The Goblin Emperor was that it looked at the minutiae of rulership and statecraft, all the thousands of tiny little things that made it work; well, here we get to see that echoed in how the smallest of things can affect the lives of normal people. Again, I feel like I’m making this sound boring, when it’s anything but! It’s thoughtful and honest and full of such well-captured detail that it feels so believable. Imagine if Kiki’s Delivery Service was about an elven death priest – it’s that kind of immersive vibe.
I’m incredibly excited to see a forthcoming sequel listed on Goodreads, because I’d be happy to spend lots more time with Celehar – he starts as a lonely outsider, and his progression towards happiness and comfort is so rewarding. There were hints of future developments (like the tiniest shade of possible romance!) in this book, and I’m looking forward to another gentle, delightful read. If you love quietly optimistic, character-focused fantasy, put this (and The Goblin Emperor) on your shopping list right away. Five out of five cats.