Katherine Addison, The Witness for the Dead (2021)

Author: Katherine Addison

Title: The Witness for the Dead

Format: E-book

Pages: 240

Series: The Goblin Emperor #2

I’ve had a veritable avalanche of NG books for May and June, and still haven’t reviewed even half of them 😉 I’m getting there, though, and July and August seem much calmer (or I got wiser, and don’t request every shiny new book I think might be good ;)). The Witness for the Dead, however, had been sent to me by the publisher – so many thanks to Tor Books for this opportunity! The new Addison’s book hits the shelves today, so it’s only fitting that my review follows.

I’ve read The Goblin Emperor ages ago and while I enjoyed it, I also had a few choice words to say about the things that I felt didn’t work so well. Ah, those were the days when my tongue was very sharp indeed and my tolerance much lower than it is today 😉 

Having read Addison’s The Angel of the Crows more recently (and finding that book so bad that I only wrote a short GR review for it) I approached The Witness for the Dead with certain trepidation. I needn’t have worried, however. If jumping straight into the highly regulated and intricate world of elves’ and goblins’ steam-powered fin de siecle is what you were waiting for, The Witness for the Dead delivers it in spades.

Let’s start with the matter of sequels. The Witness for the Dead can be called a “sort of” sequel to The Goblin Emperor, in that it follows a minor character from the first book and that it takes place after the events of The Goblin Emperor (which have some, albeit slight, pertinence to the events of The Witness for the Dead). It could be read as a standalone, though I suspect the pleasure of discovering the small references to the book #1 is an important aspect of the book #2’s draw. All in all, I’d recommend reading The Goblin Emperor first, bearing in mind that the links between the two books are rather weak. Maia comes up only in dialogue, twice or thrice, and that’s it; other characters from the first book are either mentioned only in passing or not at all. Other, except for Thara Celehar, the eponymous Witness for the Dead and the Prelate of Ulis, who is the main protagonist of the new novel.

Celehar is a skillfully created, complex character: wounded and insecure, plagued by low self-esteem and a heavy burden of responsibility, honest and full of integrity and compassion, vulnerable yet persevering. He can also be stubborn to a fault, unable to understand social cues, unbending and brusque in his social interactions, and quite obsessive in his adherence to social rules and norms, be they related to the forms of speech, maps, or even proper clothing. In all, he constitutes a rare, accurate and valuable portrayal of an ASD (autism spectrum disorder) personality, for which Addison deserves all the praise she can get: she made Celehar relatable and comprehensible, deserving of our empathy and friendship and support, and she did it without glossing over any of Celehar’s interpersonal, relational difficulties or problems of social maladjustment, noticeable especially within such highly regulated society as the one from The Goblin Emperor’s world. 

Celehar is the brightest star of the book, no doubt. As a character study, and a worldbuilding study, The Witness for the Dead works really well. Here, the glittering world of the court is eschewed for the provincial and, in consequence, more down-to-earth world of Amalo – with all its petty conflicts and dreams, dirty factories, communal cemeteries, boarding houses, city anonymity, and local but no less vicious bids for power. The problems might be low-key, not related to the well-being of emperors and countries, but they are no less important for being small: we have a serial killer on the loose; last will fraud and scandals; slander; ghouls roaming freely and eating people in rather ghastly ways; a bloody factory accident; and a murder mystery involving opera singers. The tone of this book is more somber than The Goblin Emperor, which is also an improvement, at least for me – the overflowing, cloying sweetness of the first novel is drastically limited here, both by the idiosyncrasies of the different narrator and by the vastly different topics.

It’s evident that The Angel of the Crows, a Sherlock Holmes fantasy fanfic Addison published last year, influenced the plot of The Witness for the Dead: it has a similar, fragmented structure, built around mystery cases which may or may not be related, lending the book an episodic, rambling feel. The plot is far from tight; it reads more like a newspaper serial than a novel, and this unfortunately results in lowering the stakes of the whole arc quite a lot. The ending seems rushed and unfinished, and while I expect the intent was to create a feeling of opening possibilities, what I actually experienced was a very sudden THE END where a whole lot of stuff still remained unresolved. 

That said, I enjoyed this book quite a lot, mostly due to Thara Celehar’s unique personality. His adventures are not all equally credible, and Addison still can’t write decent action scenes in a non-yawn-inducing way, but I found Celehar realistic, believable, and very likeable in all his vulnerability, his inability to fit in, his need for a meaningful human (well, not really, but writing elven/goblin/sentient being would take too much space, as you can see ;)) contact, his integrity, and his unwavering devotion to his duties.

All in all, The Witness for the Dead is an enjoyable return to the world of The Goblin Emperor. Less sweet and sentimental than its predecessor, it firmly retains the feel-good vibes of the previous book, making them more realistic when viewed through the lens of the struggles of the wonderfully imperfect protagonist, Thara Celehar.

Score: 6.5/10

I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

32 thoughts on “Katherine Addison, The Witness for the Dead (2021)

  1. Any book that has a blurb by that blasted Scalzi saying “how good it is” is an automatic no-go for me.

    For your sake I’m happy it worked out ok, but I was secretly hoping for some lightning and maybe some brimstone….

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Haven’t you had enough lightning and brimstone from me recently? 😉 I feel like I’m lambasting almost every book I get from NG lately…🤣🤣🤣 But if you’re still short on brimstone and vitriol, do visit that Goblin Emperor post, you’re gonna love it 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You can never have too much lightning and brimstone (unless it’s for a book I like, hahahahaa).

        This another reason I don’t jump on the hype train. I’ll let others run off that cliff….

        Liked by 2 people

    2. As for Scalzi, yeah, I agree – I dislike blurbs on covers in general, but some people’s recommendations make me want to take a step back – luckily, I have seen this one only after I’ve read the book 😀

      Liked by 2 people

    1. You should be fine, Tammy – the links between this and the previous book are very loose, so it can easily be read as a standalone 🙂
      I’ll be looking forward to reading your review! 😀

      Like

    1. Heh, you should probably avoid my review of The Goblin Emperor, then 😂 Didn’t know there are different publishing dates, that’s interesting!

      Thanks for reading, Andreas! Looking forward to your thoughts on it in a month or so 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the warning, hehe 😜
        UK and US publication dates often differ. Tor doesn’t publish in the UK, so I have the chance to snatch a couple of books that I wouldn’t get otherwise. Eg Master of Djinn is due End of August in UK.
        Often enough, UK is earlier than US.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I quite liked The Goblin Emperor, for the court stuff and the worldbuilding. The overblown titles and names of the characters. But this sequel doesn’t seem to have what I enjoyed in the first book. I was hoping for more court stuff instead of provincial stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I liked it too, as you can check in my review 😉 although not for the same reasons, I think: I quickly got fed up with the elaborate court manners and slights and whatnot, I felt that the story itself disappeared under the weight of all that glitz. The province has its own glitz and nests of vipers, and if you enjoyed The Goblin Emperor I think you might enjoy The Witness too – I actually liked that lame duck Celehar a bit more than I liked Maia 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. 6.5 stars from you is a thumbs up in my book, Ola! I enjoyed The Goblin Emperor (though, unlike for a few other bloggers, for me it’s not a story for multiple reads) and had taken to heart the oft-repeated statement that she had no more to say of that world. But what you say about Celehar strikes me as as suggesting he forms the backbone to this novel in the way Maia did previously, and for that at least I may well seek it out when it appears in the UK. Good review, as ever!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. By the way, I’m interested in how Addison uses female-looking names for her two main characters, one from classical myth, the other (via Tara) very Celtic. I wonder how deliberate as a ploy that gender misdirection may be.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I wondered the same thing, especially that it pertains to many characters from the novel; she certainly put a lot of effort into creating rudiments of language, with various formal and informal forms of addressing different persons according to their gender, social station, and role. She’s very consistent, too, and pays a lot of attention to the whole hierarchy and propriety through our protagonist’s obsessions/need for structure :D.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I really quite enjoyed it, Chris, so you’re correct in taking this score as thumbs up! 😀 This book may be far from perfect, especially with regards to plot, but it gets all the points for lovingly portraying such complex and socially awkward character.

      I’d say I like Celehar even more than I did Maia, but I generally seem to have a soft spot for broken, vulnerable creatures 😉

      Thank you! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve had The Goblin Emperor on my TBR for as long as I can remember, but kept shifting it to the bottom of the proverbial barrel, and now that I’ve read your comment about the author being unable to “write decent action scenes in a non-yawn-inducing way” I will have to rethink my approach to her works…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I think you’d love Maia, though. These are not action books by any conceivable measure, as they are more character study/worldbuilding case books, but if you read them in the right mood I think you’d really, really feel for both Maia and Celehar. The Goblin Emperor is way too sweet for my tastes, but The Witness for the Dead strikes a better balance in this aspect – you might try this one first 😉

      Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I really enjoyed Celehar as a character and I am glad you enjoyed him, and the book, too! I am biased here, and quite a lot, because I loved The Goblin Emperor (but I have to say that I loved it, yes, but I don’t think I would love to read a lot of books with that degree of sweetness). Anyway, there was quite a lot to enjoy in therr, but I agree with you about the ending, because it was not really well done.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Goblin Emperor gets a lot of love, understandably – but I must say I think I prefer Celehar to Maia 😉 I like the fact that The Witness is more dirty and realistic and less glittery fairy-tale-ish than The Goblin Emperor, and that the protagonist is not a male Cinderella for a change 😉

      I’m glad you enjoyed this, too! 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ll probably start (and maybe even end) with The Goblin Emperor. It sounded like a much more rewarding read and one that also seemed to work wonderfully as a stand-alone novel too. The negative you point out for this second installment, especially regarding the authors writing, does make it all a bit less exciting. 😛 Great honest thoughts, Ola! Onto the next NG review that requires some bashing! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bashing? What bashing? Me?! 🤣🤣🤣

      To be fair, though, I was actually very well-disposed here; if you want to read some bashing, do read my review for The Goblin Emperor; this book was sickeningly sweet in comparison with The Witness for the Dead, which was on the whole much more balanced and less glittery 😜 and the writing is probably also better in the second book, as the first was somewhat stilted by the overabundance of description of court manners and pomp…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, 6,5 is decent enough, something like C, so passed, but with room for improvement 😉 The academic teacher in me refuses to budge and I still use a scale based on percentage/Gauss. That’s why so few of the books I read get over 8/10! 🤣🤣🤣

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoyed this – it has a very different feel to The Goblin Emperor – the comment above nails it really ‘The Witness is more dirty and realistic and less glittery fairy-tale-ish’. I liked seeing the city, particularly through Celehar’s eyes – which makes for a different experience completely as he tends to be very thorough or precise. I loved his character and think it’s an area that this author really excels in. On balance, I preferred the Goblin Emperor because it comes across deeper somehow. This one has a feel of a short collection of events – almost like spending a week with a character to get a feel for their life somehow. Probably not phrasing that very well.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a slight reminder of Pratchett’s Discworld in The Witness for the Dead: both the opera and the dirty city full of factions and factories and poor workers were very much in line with what I learned to expect from Ankh-Morpork 😉
      I agree 100% about Celehar: I think his character is the real highlight of this novel. I also think that because of this episodic feel of this second book, sort of vignettes instead of a fully fledged plot, the emotional payoff of The Witness… is significantly lower that that of The Goblin Emperor. And that ending just left me scratching my head – as in “wait, what? That’s it?” 😉

      Thanks for reading, Lynn! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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