The Witness for the Dead
by Katherine Addison
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 29, 2021
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I received an e-ARC of this title from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Katherine Addison's The Witness for the Dead will publish in about three weeks, June 22. It is a sequel (of sorts) to the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy finalist, and Locus-winning The Goblin Emperor from 2014. My opinion of the first book was not as positive as the consensus, even on a recent re-read, but I still wanted to give Witness a chance to impress. And it did. The first book was about the ascension to the throne by a half-goblin, half-elf, full of court intrigue, ritual, and etiquette, which I described as tedious. Something I didn't mention in that review was the reason Maia Drazhar became the emperor. His father, and all three of his half-brothers were killed in an airship crash, which was later proved to have been caused by sabotage. In this world there are two separate means to investigate such incidents. A Witness for the Judicar (judiciary) investigates the evidence and interrogates relevant witnesses. Alternately, a Witness for the Dead has the ability to commune with the recently deceased, to read their final thoughts and memories. Thara Celehar, a prelate of Ulis, was able to solve the crime, but in so doing made numerous enemies at court. Now he is in relative exile far from the throne, in the city of Amalo, but is still a Witness for the Dead.
Celehar narrates his own story here. In the mornings he must be at his office to receive petitioners for his services. Afternoons and evenings are for following up on those petitions. His cases range from trying to determine which of rival family members were the intended beneficiary of their patriarch's will, to finding the final resting place of a daughter who had run away with a suitor then later died, to determining the identity of a woman who had apparently drowned in a canal. In the latter case, he is able to touch the body and see her last moments, which confirm that she had been pushed or thrown into the canal, and that a blow to the head meant she was probably dead beforehand, that drowning was not the cause of death. The only thing I'm not sure about is whether all Witnesses for the Dead take the job as seriously, and as comprehensively, as Celehar. Discovering the identity of the woman doesn't end his involement. He conducts further investigations, which I thought would be the purvue of a Witness for the Judicar. He does the same for all his cases, not content with just the bare neccessities, and in so doing finds out that two of the cases have a connection. He also gets involved in another inquiry merely by chance proximity. While interviewing someone possibly connected to one of his cases, there is an explosion in an airship factory nearby, where his interviewee works. At least half of the workers are killed, and a prelate for the Judicar insists on Celehar communing with all of them, since she suspects another sabotage.
This is a relatively short novel, but still full of action and exposition that gives a better view of this world than did the previous novel. The long, hard to pronounce names remain, and so does governmental and religious positions and concepts unique to this creation, but there is enough repetition that helped me to keep them straight. Eventually. The best part of the book is the narrator. Celehar is honest, dedicated, and relentless in his pursuit of the truth, going far beyond what most expect from a Witness. He is also humble, continually having to fend off thanks for his work, telling his clients he is just doing his job, nothing special. He interacts with people from all across the city, and beyond; rich, poor, and in between. The woman pulled from the canal had been an opera singer, so that investigation led him into a culture he previously knew nothing about. He makes many friends, but also a few enemies, just as he had in his former position at the emperor's court. The publisher's blurb says this is a stand-alone sequel. I think it can be appreciated by those who haven't read the first book. I hope this is not the last we see of Thara Celehar. He is an exemplary Witness for the Dead, and for the living as well.
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