What feels like a long time ago, I read a book called The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. Now she’s back with a standalone sequel of sorts, The Witness for the Dead. You don’t need to have read The Goblin Emperor to read this book: the protagonist, Thara Celehar, was a character in the first book, but otherwise there is no real connection between the two. This is an entirely different story—or rather, stories, since it is a meandering conglomeration of a few different mysteries that will either entice you or drive you mad.
Thara Celehar has been assigned as Witness for the Dead to the city of Amalo. This appointment gets him out of the capital but is not technically an exile—a common enough situation for public servants who are a little too good at their job, if you know what I mean. Celehar spends his mornings listening to petitions from the common people—most he can’t help with, some he can, even if the petitioner isn’t always happy with the result he turns up by communing with their dead uncle or whatever. His afternoons are spent in various pursuits, including investigating the final days of dead people and solving murders. Fun!
There are a few connected stories playing out. Foremost is the murder of Arvenean Shelsin, a viper of an opera singer. In the background is the question of the will of a dead rich guy—this sends Celehar on a brief detour to a village two days away to deal with a ghoul, as well as on a trial by ordeal to a haunted hill within the city. At some point there is an airship explosion too. Oh, and there’s a guy going around poisoning his wives.
It’s kind of a lot, and kind of messy, and to be honest I didn’t like this amount of complexity in a book this short. Now, I have to give Addison credit here: at no point did it feel overwhelming, and she somehow manages to wrap up all these mysteries in just over two hundred pages. Nevertheless, every time I was settling in to “ah yes, it’s a murder mystery but in a secondary world; this is exactly for me” the story wanted to switch gears on me and I felt like I was catapulted out of my comfy chair and into a different, but still comfy, chair. It’s just disorienting!
So if you can ride those rapids, you are in for a treat. Like, let’s put it this way: I would read a series of Witness for the Dead mysteries. There’s plenty of fuel for that here, from Celehar himself to the relationships we see in this book to the city of Amalo. All the praise I heaped on Addison for worldbuilding in The Goblin Emperor remains valid for this book as well. I’m settling on three stars mostly because of the disorienting nature of the storytelling, as I observed, and also because, in the end, I’m not Celehar himself undergoes much growth, which is something I really want to see in a main character. For these reasons, The Witness for the Dead was satisfying but sometimes not quite what I wanted it to be.