Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Addison, The Witness for the Dead (2021)

Katherine Addison, The Witness for the Dead. Rebellion Publishing, 2021. Pp. 315. ISBN 978-1-78108-951-4. £8.99.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

Katherine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead is a sequel of sorts to The Goblin Emperor (2014). The latter was one of my favorite fantasy novels from the last decade; a low fantasy with steampunk elements, it does incredibly interesting things with racing elves and goblins, while also telling a solid story of a young man’s coming-to-power and of age. The Witness for the Dead picks up shortly afterwards and stars a minor character from the previous book, Thara Celehar, as he tracks down a murderer. I’m not much of a mystery reader, but this is an effective genre mash-up that left me pleased with how smoothly all the story elements came together and wanting more books just like it. It’s also a standalone novel that will easily make sense to someone who hasn’t read Goblin.

Thara Celehar is a Witness for the Dead—an occupation that blends aspects of priests (he has habitual prayers for both the living and the dead) with detectives and lawyers (by touching the remains of the deceased he can discern the manner of their deaths and, in some cases, additional information such as a preference for heirs in the absence of a will). His appearance in Goblin was as a secret investigator on behalf of Maia, the titular new emperor. In the course of that book, Celehar uncovers an elaborate and extensive assassination plot, largely in the background to Maia’s adventures. Here, he moves to the forefront as the protagonist. Admirably, Addison dismisses the urge of sequels to up the ante and the stakes; instead, Celehar finds himself working a murder case and fighting ghouls, or what amounts to a few more interesting days on the job than average. It’s stressful work for him and delightful fun for us as he proceeds from office to crime scene to investigative work. The story moves along with perfect pacing, allowing the reader to enjoy details of the world such as popular operas and types of tea, while never once letting the story drag or a plot point drop.

Celehar is also very queer, both in terms of preferring lovers of the same sex and in the gaps he leaves, the words that are unsaid. Honest and honorable almost to a fault, he is also just incredibly awkward: there are moments when it is politic or kind or just needful to be silent, and Celehar is always aware of those moments and yet doesn’t always know how exactly to get them right. The backstory that was summed up in a few lines of Goblin are present here as a recurring nightmare: Thara was in love with a married man named Evru, who murdered his wife to be with Celehar. As Witness for the Dead, Celehar was responsible for uncovering the truth of this act and, indirectly, for the death sentence that doomed Evru. The whiff of scandal never quite blows over, despite his service to the emperor, and the social tension of the situation is always there, stemming more from the inherent conflict of interest in investigating one’s own lover than queer love, although it is likewise clear in both books that queerness is something not yet universally accepted. As a flirtation with another character takes root, both Celehar and the reader worry about history repeating itself. Is the handsome, charming man all that he seems? Or is there more than meets the eye?

One thing I do wish that Addison or her editors had included in this volume is a glossary; Goblin included ‘A Listing of Persons, Places, Things, and Gods’ as well as ‘Extracts from A Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands’ that effectively addressed pronunciation, forms of address (‘thee’ and ‘thou’ are informal vs. the formal ‘I’ or rank-indicator of ‘we’), titles and so on as well as reminders as to who various characters are. Addison’s worldbuilding is incredibly immersive and is easy enough to fall into during the course of ordinary reading, but an in-text source for reminders would have been nice. I also have a soft-spot for those sorts of paratexts in fantasy novels, so that may be my bias showing. Nonetheless, before long I found myself lost in the world again; without definitions provided, it is easy enough to figure out the meanings of words and phrases through context.

Witness did provide a minor reading challenge as it is not broken into chapters, although sections of text are separated by decorative ornaments. The impulse to keep reading—just one more scene!—well beyond a reasonable bedtime was strong, and it’s easy to imagine a determined (or fast) reader consuming the book in a single sitting. (Teenage me could have done that, unhesitatingly; adult me restrained myself and instead ate it up over several days.) In this weird summer, it is an excellent vacation read, ideal for escaping into another world. Like Addison’s other books, it is thoughtful, well-written, fun, and memorable.

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