The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison

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Publication date – June 22, 2021

Summary: 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.

Celehar’s skills now 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.

Thoughts: Side-story to The Goblin Emperor, The Witness for the Dead centres around one of the previous novel’s secondary characters: Thara Celehar, a prelate of Ulis and Witness for the Dead, meaning he can experience the last moments of a person’s death if he touches their body. Celehar would rather be out of the spotlight than in it, which is why he makes for such an interesting protagonist in this short companion novel to The Goblin Emperor. Don’t get me wrong, protagonists who throw themselves headlong into adventure are fun and all, but it’s always interesting to me when a book centres on someone who would rather just be left alone.

Life, however, doesn’t want to leave Celehar alone. Poor bastard.

Taking place shortly after The Goblin Emperor, Celehar now lives in Amalo, still following his calling. This involves a variety of duties, including investigating murder. So when Arveneӓn Shelsin, an ambitious opera singer, is found dead, and Celehar confirms that she was indeed murdered, the race is on to not only find the murderer, but to uncover why they killed in the first place.

Celehar’s reluctance to engage with a lot of the world is, as I mentioned, an interesting move. It’s not something that could work for everyone, but Addison manages a good balance between showing Celehar’s introversion and actually putting him in positions where he can do some good in the world. Celehar is very relatable for me in that way. Except that I don’t have any abilities or callings that would make the world a better place, the way he does. It’s admirable, though, that even though Celehar would rather be left to his own devices, he doesn’t shirk the responsibilities that come with his calling. He might not be happy about things, but he’ll do what he feels drawn to do. More characters like this, please!

Addison’s detail-oriented writing style makes for an excellent murder mystery, that’s for damn sure. While The Goblin Emperor did have some mystery to it, at its heart it was about Maia settling into his new and unexpected role and the emperor, and all that entailed. The Witness for the Dead shifts the tone and setting away from political intrigue and a fish-out-of-water/coming-of-age story, and into a situation where a man must solve a murder in order to lay the victim’s spirit to rest and give them a proper funeral. Such a simple thing in theory, but it becomes so much more complicated when Celehar must risk offending some very powerful people, and sort through layers of potential motivation for the kill, in his mission to bring about justice for Arveneӓn.

Honestly, I think Addison has a knack for writing a good solid mystery, and I’m here for it. Her world-building is brilliant, rich and realistic, and it’s a wonderful setting for any number of mysteries. I’ve found in recent years that I have a bit of a soft spot for fantasy mysteries, so it’s no real surprise that I enjoyed The Witness for the Dead as much as I did. If you have similar weakness for fantasy mysteries, or you just enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, then I highly recommend giving this novella a go. It’s not very long, but it packs a punch, and is a wonderful companion and spin-off to the main book. Celehar is a character I absolutely love reading about, and will be quiet happy to do so more in the future.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

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Publication date – April 1, 2014

Summary: The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend… and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

This exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

Thoughts: Wow. Sometimes when you finish a book, all you can do is step back and say, “Wow.” That was my reaction upon finishing The Goblin Emperor. The sheer amount of detail presented to you in this story, the glorious worldbuilding that makes everything feel so very real. It’s not always easy to keep track of, since you’re being thrown into a culture that works quite differently from, well, anything I’ve experienced, at the very least.

This is part of what makes Maia such a good character to sit on the shoulders of. He’s something of a blank slate character, kept at just the right amount of ignorance through his life that when the horrific happens and his father dies and he is catapulted onto the throne of an empire without any training or even so much as a moment’s notice. It’s this state that allows the intricacies of court life and ruling to be unveiled, both to Maia and the reader, without convoluted infodumps or endless, “As you know, Emperor Maia…”

But not all of it gets explained so clearly. Anything to do with titles of address get thrown out in narration and speech perfectly naturally, and while you can untangle them in the end, for a little while you’re drowning in dach’osmers and osmerrems and mins and trying to figure out who’s who and what means what. Times like this make me glad that I’ve got a bit of a knack for picking up other languages, because exposure to common use helped me more than a glossary at the back of the book. (Though for those who are daunted by certain translations and proper titles, there is, thankfully, just such a glossary.) What I wouldn’t give for 10 minutes to sit down with Addison and pick her brain about the eye for detail she has when it comes to linguistics!

I have to admit, though, that I have real pity for whoever did the audiobook edition to The Goblin Emperor, because some of those character and place names were a mental mouthful, let alone a physical one! It took a bit of stumbling before my mindvoice got comfortable with some of them while I was reading. (Again, there’s a hand pronunciation guide at the back of the book for those who are having trouble and want to take the easy way out instead of stumbling around like I did!)

The Goblin Emperor can feel like a bit of a slog sometimes. More than once I lost track of the overarching plot by getting bogged down in the minutiae of Maia’s newfound imperial life, and while I loved the utter immersion in the world, it was a little bit jarring to occasionally be reminded of right, right, the whole “someone murdered the previous emperor” bit. As a presentation of realism, this gets some bonus points, because Maia had far more on his plate than just one agenda, however important that agenda may have been. As compelling reading, however, I’d say it detracts from the novel, because unless you’re a major culture geek like me or you have a great deal of patience of slow-moving but intricate plots, you’re probably going to find yourself bored and wondering what the point of this whole novel is.

For all that it’s slow, though, it does stand out in many other areas that might endear it to readers. First off, the fact that it’s a world without humans, or at least none of the characters are human. Most are elves, though there are also goblins, and elf/goblin mixes like Maia himself. I won’t say that this removes any issues of racism, because it really doesn’t, but it does mean that the racism you’re seeing isn’t a tired old cliché. (Admittedly, light-skinned elves looking down on dark-skinned goblins does skirt some borders pretty closely.) Maia may be the emperor, but he faces that racism every day, knowing that people close to him in court dislike him solely because he’s part goblin. The setting is definitely not your typical medieval European fantasy setting, either, thought I’d be hard-pressed to narrow it down to one particular area of our world and history that it’s most like. I did see what looked like some east Asian influences, but beyond that I can’t say for sure. It may not break all the stereotypes, but it bucks enough trends to really make it stand out, especially for anyone who’s looking for something a little bit different, a little bit beyond your classic traditional fantasy fare.

But if slow builds are what you’re seeking, and you’re craving something that has phenomenal worldbuilding and amazing attention to detail, then absolutely take the time to sink into The Goblin Emperor like it’s a warm bath. It’s a beautiful novel, intricate and wonderful, and my only regret is that there’s not going to be any sequel, because I would love visiting this world again. It’s one that you only get to see a very narrow sliver of, but it’s got the potential for so many stories, so much diversity, and I hope that Addison at least writes other stories set in the world because I will devour them in a heartbeat!

(Received for review from the publisher.)