Thara Celehar can speak to the recently dead. A reserved man haunted by his own ghosts, he asks the dead questions to confirm burial rites and inheritances, and to ease the hearts and minds of the living. But sometimes the dead have dark secrets. When a woman is murdered, Thara is determined to do right by her – whatever the cost.
I was over the moon when I heard that Katherine Addison was writing another book set in the world of The Goblin Emperor. The Witness For The Dead is a sidequel rather than a sequel, focusing on the prelate of Ulis who helped Maia investigate his father’s death. While I admit to the teensiest disappointment when it became evident we wouldn’t be revisiting Maia, it evaporated on first contact with this quiet, compassionate tale.
Although it is set after The Goblin Emperor and contains spoilers relating to the death of the previous Emperor, The Witness For The Dead stands alone and will work as a point of entry to this world. It offers very little support in terms of explaining world-building, but that’s equally true of The Goblin Emperor. I found its lack of a glossary a brief challenge, but everything becomes clear in context, or is clarified when relevant (for example: the nuances of polite address aren’t vital – we’re always told who is of rank). And ultimately the social hierarchy doesn’t matter: as a Witness For The Dead, Thara stands outside it to some extent.
The story opens at a shrine to Ulis (god of the moon, mirrors, dreams, and death), setting a grave, reflective tone and – for returning readers – establishing that we’re not at court now, Toto. Politics are found everywhere, however: Thara’s appointment to Amalo by the Archprelate has upset the local church applecart. The senior clerics – spurred on by scepticism about his necromantic abilities – want him to admit his inferiority or place himself outside the order’s hierarchy. Sound petty and insecure? It is, rather, and I liked Thara immediately for having little time for it. In the wider city, being a Witness For The Dead (regardless of who he reports to) ensures a level of courtesy and respect, if not guaranteed access to the noble or the wealthy. This too leaves Thara unphased: the only people he truly needs to speak to are his petitioners and the dead.
At least, that’s what he’d like to think.
In truth, Thara Celehar is as lonely as he is isolated. His calling keeps most folk at bay – unsettled by the nature of his talent or resentful of the inconvenient problems posed by the dead – and he holds the rest at arm’s length, haunted by grief and past disgrace. He shares sardines with stray cats – who will never embarrass him with affection – and permits himself the one vice of reading lurid novels. Much like Maia before him, I spent the whole book just wanting someone to give him a hug, however flustered it would make him (very). It’s very easy to like Thara. Yes, he takes himself rather seriously. Sure, his internal drama is dialled up a notch. But his devotion to his chosen god and his determination to do right by the dead feel very pure; he’s the sort of idealised cleric I sometimes feel has fallen out of fashion.
The book revolves around Thara’s reluctant involvement in a disputed will and his earnest investigations into the deaths of two women, but Addison is unafraid to have a plethora of subplots bubbling away in the background. She meticulously seeds these stories in passing then brings them to the fore when the time is right – Thara’s delicate political position being a case in point, and the casual mention of ghouls, a world-building detail that had me agog, which I was delighted to see come back to haunt us.
Arguably, the murder mysteries are the weakest aspect of the novel. They are relatively linear and in one case resolved purely through serendipity, but they succeed beautifully on two counts: as character studies (I suspect I’d have disliked Arveneän living, but she was fascinating dead) and as a fine excuse to extend our experience of the world beyond the imperial palace.
The Witness For The Dead gives us airship workers and grave diggers (an untended cemetery is a breeding ground for ghouls); has us attend front and back of house at a second tier opera (there are so many opera houses, and Amalo isn’t even the capital); visit dive bars and glimpse shadowy after-dark worlds; sip many types of tea in tea houses; sympathise with overwhelmed boarding house owners and admire terrifyingly competent cartography clerks (the giving of directions – casually deepening our understanding of the city – is a repeated theme that I adored). We also see how thoroughly integrated goblins are in every part of society; Maia is far from a rarity (yes, I was aggrieved for him all over again; bloody elves).
Again and again I admired how Addison captures a character with a tiny detail that has them spring to life (the dead spinster with the unladylike canoe; the outspoken grandmother with her aggressive quilting patterns). I fell head over heels for sharp-tongued, dapper Pel-Thenhior and his controversial working class opera (consider that only elves of means can afford to attend; opening night is a riot). I chuckled through our brief encounter with his cheekily encouraging mother.
The Witness For The Dead stands alone, but I could happily read many more such slices of life from Addison’s ornately formal gaslamp fantasy. As with Maia in The Goblin Emperor, I wasn’t ready to let Thara go. I can only hope that Thara – having gained some perspective on his inner turmoil and two firm friends who give him the quiet chiding and affectionate support he sorely needs – will come to accept that he isn’t, in fact, a terrible person. Perhaps one day he’ll even adopt a cat; or permit himself to love and be loved. I hope so.
Thank you to the team at Rebellion Publishing, from whom I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.