Author: Katherine Addison
Title: The Witness for the Dead
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.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.