The Witness for the Dead (The Goblin Emperor #2)
by Katherine Addison
Published in June, 2021, by Tor
In The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison introduced us to Maia Drazhar, the youngest and ill-favored half-goblin son of the emperor of the elven lands. After the suspicious deaths of his father and elder brothers, Maia suddenly found himself on the throne and had to learn to rule or face being usurped or worse. During his sudden education, Maia called upon a disgraced former prelate and Witness for the Dead, Thara Celehar, to conduct his own investigation into the deaths of the late emperor and his heirs. It was thanks to Celehar’s dedication to his duty that the events of The Goblin Emperor turned out as they did, and Addison returns to follow this dutiful elf as he continues his work as a Witness for the Dead. Celehar has the strange and mystical power to speak with the spirits of the departed and glean information from them regarding their deaths. It is neither easy nor comfortable to be in Celehar’s shoes, but his conscience will not allow him to let matters rest if he sees injustice- no matter how much it hurts him to do so. Though Celehar has moved far from the endless politicking of the Untheileneise Court, the little city of Amalo has its own share of intrigue and danger. When duty brings Celehar face to face with the spirits of two murdered women, he must act, regardless of the cost.
Though Maia and Celehar are on radically different ends of the social scale, they have much in common. Maia is an anxious half-goblin in an elven court obsessed with family lineage and prejudiced against goblins. While Celehar visibly fits in with his society, his voice is rough and ugly, his calling is an ill-favored one, and he is queer in a society that doesn’t really accept such things. Still, both learn to carve out niches for themselves in their respective corners of the world rather than bending to fit the shapes the world wants to fit them into.
The most common complaint about The Goblin Emperor is that “nothing really happens”, and that’s true assuming a reader is looking for obvious cutthroat politics and action scenes every other chapter. But if one digs a little deeper and is willing to truly look at the characters in Addison’s stories, they’ll see that quite a lot is going on. There are politics aplenty in the sly glances and layered conversations the characters engage in, and myriad conspiracies entangling people of every social class. The Goblin Emperor is less of a political thriller and more of a political drama. The same is true for The Witness for the Dead, which involves a lot of seemingly minor observations about the world and the goings-on around Celehar. Even on this smaller scale, there are politics at work and nearly everyone is working an angle in their own self-interest.
At a relatively brief 240 pages, The Witness for the Dead fits a lot of goings-on into its page count. There are murders to investigate, travels to be undertaken, operas to attend, clothing to be dealt with, tea to drink, dubious superiors to endure, and plenty of introspection to be had. Addison continues building this world through the point of view character’s observations– Thara Celehar’s first person perspective in this case, as opposed to Maia’s third-person limited from The Goblin Emperor— which can be frustrating now and then, like when Celehar notes that providing a well-carved gravestone prevents the dead from rising and becoming flesh-eating ghouls, though the same is not true for other parts of the world where the dead don’t rise at all. Why don’t the dead rise in other places? It’s not explained, either because Celehar doesn’t know, or because it’s not something he would dwell upon in the midst of a crisis, much as a modern city-dwelling American would not stop to ponder the history of the electrical grid after a storm leaves them without electricity in the heat of summer. There is the sense that Addison knows why ghouls only rise in certain parts of the world, but until the characters bring it up, it’s not going to end up in the story. It’s world-building like this that makes a fantastical realm feel like layers of history have built up over the centuries, and are affecting the current culture in ways that even the cleverest of elves or goblins haven’t stopped to consider. And, once a reader has figured out the various prefixes and suffixes of Addison’s constructed languages, these made-up words help the reader sort out the social and familial connections that provide a deeper understanding of the people inhabiting the pages.
The Witness for the Dead is, like The Goblin Emperor, a slice of life novel that follows its main character throughout the days as he goes about his duties as well as he can. Celehar is a genuinely good person with a strange calling that puts him into dangerous situations as often as it pits him against religious superiors who either don’t trust his abilities or are so envious of them that they can’t think straight. But one can’t help but cheer for Celehar, whether he’s facing bureaucratic nonsense, the undead, or real life murderers. A truly good man is hard to find, even in fantastical worlds. Though The Witness for the Dead is not about the beloved young Maia of The Goblin Emperor, Celehar’s story is just as captivating, and his world is just as easy to fall into, making this one of those rare sequels that is just as compelling as the first outing, and just as likely to be read over and over again.