The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison is an interesting case: is it a sequel? Or is a standalone?
I didn’t read the first book (although I definitely want to now I finished this second one), and I was perfectly able to follow the story. It is possible that some things, especially the politics, might’ve been more easily understood had I read the first one. However, it’s still clear enough.
For me, this was a great book, as I love a good murder-mystery. Katherine Addison (aka Sarah Monette) did the whole University and Ph.D. shabang, which is no longer of much use for both her day job and her writing career (I can definitely relate to that). I, for one, am happy she decided to write books instead.
If you want to get the full scope, go ahead and read my book review for The Witness for the Dead. Otherwise, you can also jump to the conclusion.
Small disclaimer: I received an Arc from the publisher on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Genre: Adult Urban Fantasy Mystery | Publisher: Tor Books
Alright, as I said, while it says it’s #2, it’s actually a standalone novel. However, it is set in the same world as The Goblin Emperor. In that first book, Maia, the young half-goblin emperor, wanted to know who had killed his father and half-brothers, and then he turned to a Witness for the Dead named Thara Celehar.
This book centers around him. Thara Celehar lives far from courts, in somewhat of a quasi-exile, serving the common people of the city. His duty is communicating with the dead. Still, Celehar will follow the truth wherever it leads him, no matter who may be implicated in the murder, fraud, or ancient injustices.
I finished this book in just two days, which for me is really quite fast even if it is only 240 pages.
It did take me some time to get into it at first, mostly because the language felt a bit overly formal to me. That didn’t continue, though, and after a short while I was hooked.
Katherine weaves three different mysteries together flawlessly, leading to some unexpected twists and turns. The first mystery is the murder of a pregnant young woman, who her brother suspects to be murdered by her husband. The second is an unidentified corpse found in the river. Upon touching her, Celehar can tell she was murdered, but not who she was or who killed her. The final mystery is a petition from an upper class family when there is a dispute about the rightful heir due to two conflicting wills.
Every single plotline weaves together expertly, all the way to the climactic moment where they all pay off in a very satisfying way.
Addison alludes in her story to many societal problems such as politics, racial issues, social status, sexuality, and perhaps even some other ones. The ending does leave for some hope and a sense that perhaps things will turn out al right in the end.
Celahar is a kind, calm person, whose only objective is to find the truth—even if it inconveniences him. And it inconveniences him quite often.
He’s also self-conscious, aware of how people see him after his ‘transgression,’ and always expects people to think the worst of him. Or to be afraid of him. It was sad to see how surprised he was each time someone was actually nice to him or showed him gratitude for his job (as most often, people would get angry at the result).
Pel-Thenhior is one of the side characters who occurs most often. He’s involved with one of the mysteries, helping Celahar wherever he can. He’s another very likeable character: knowledgable in his trait and very passionate about it. He can be hot-headed because of that as well, but to Celehar he’s always kind.
There are more side characters, but none of them get as much ‘screentime’ as Pel-Thenhior, I think. The story is very much centered around Celahar, focused on his character and development. Still, I felt even minor characters were fleshed out and real and significantly added to the story. All were distinct and had their unique voice. Addison definitely didn’t skimp on character development.
From what I’ve read, The Goblin Emperor has more intricate world building, but I thought it was also very present in The Witness for the Dead.
A lot of it is implied and sort-off mentioned between the lines with some nice Elven words. Addison made sure whatever the reader needed to understand was understood. I could imagine the city of Amalo with somewhat of a steam-punk vibe, while a few of the other places Celahar visits are unique in their own regard.
It was obvious everything was thought out well: to the magic that Celahar possesses, to the political and societal systems, to the details of the cities and villages surrounding it.
Then there’s also a very intricate religious system, with lots of different dieties and ritual rites that differ depending on which diety a person prays to. It added a nice touch to it all.
Once I got into it, the writing was easy to follow. Apart, perhaps, from some names (all characters seem to have complicated names). It flowed well, was infused with interesting descriptions without any info dumps.
Furthermore, the story held a good narrative drive. It’s clear that Addison knows when to push and when to slow the pace down—she always leaves enough to keep the reader wanting more.
From what I’ve gathered, the Goblin Emperor has more flowery language because it takes place in court. It doesn’t really have that in The Witness for the Dead because it largely takes place in the city and outside of it—barely in court or other official meetings.
The Witness for the Dead is a solid standalone book. It’s very character-centric, focusing on Celahars journey, while at the same time keeping the reader invested by slowly unraveling each mystery that Celahar is working to uncover. Moreover, the story a good pace as well as very visual world building.
If you enjoy a good mystery paired with an inticate fantasy-world, a likeable character, themes of social and racial injustice, ultimately a comforted feeling to it, then this is your book.
Don’t read it if you’re really expecting a sequel to The Goblin Emperor because that’s not what The Witness for the Dead is. It doesn’t have the same characters, type of story, or even writing-style (or so I’ve been told). Read it as if it were a completely new story, just coincidentally set in the same world.