REVIEW: The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison
Dear Katherine Addison,
I am a huge fan of your 2014 steampunk fantasy novel The Goblin Emperor. It was my favorite of all the books I read that year and I’ve read it three more times since. When the novel was nominated for a Hugo, I was thrilled; when it lost, I felt disappointed. So when I heard The Witness for the Dead, a second novel set in the Ethuvarez (the elven empire where The Goblin Emperor and The Witness for the Dead take place) was coming out, I jumped at the chance to review it, even knowing that Maya, the marvelous hero of The Goblin Emperor, would not be appearing in it. I had liked Thara Celehar, a secondary character in The Goblin Emperor, and was happy to have the opportunity to read more about him.
The chain of events in The Goblin Emperor is set off by the assassination of the Emperor of the Ethuvarez and three of his sons. Their murder was accomplished through a terrorist act—an explosive device smuggled onto an airship that they boarded. Thara, a Witness for the Dead, was tasked with discovering who the killers were and he got to the bottom of that mystery.
A Witness for the Dead is a spiritual and investigative role that involves investigation, worship, ministration, and a magical ability. The work is a combination of gleaning brief snatches of the last impressions of the recently dead, solving mysteries on behalf of the grieving, ministering to the dying, conducting funerals, and having to deal with intra-church politics. Thara serves in this role with compassion, humility, and skill, but he has what others consider liabilities.
One of these is his sometimes-despised queerness and another is his past involvement in a huge scandal. Thara’s lover, Evru, killed his abusive wife. Not only was his and Thara’s illicit relationship revealed in the murder investigation, but Thara, bound by his vows and his commitment to truth-finding, was forced to bear witness for the wife and testify against his lover, knowing that Evru would be executed when the truth came out.
As The Witness for the Dead begins, Thara has been recently appointed to a position in Amalo, an industrial city far from the empire’s capital. He’s still trying to get his bearings when Dach’othalar Vernezar, a high-ranking religious leader, summons him.
Vernezar is ambitious, with “an eye on the archprelacy” (the equivalent of the papacy). It angers him that unlike most of the clergy in Amalo, Thara doesn’t answer to him. Thara’s presence in Amalo was requested by Prince Orchenis, Amalo’s ruler, and Thara was appointed by the Archprelate himself. Thara is therefore outside Amalo’s church hierarchy, but Vernezar and his female colleague Zanarin want Thara to acknowledge Vernezar’s authority over him. There’s a reason Thara cannot, though, and when he refuses, he knows he has made powerful enemies.
The next day the Subpreaceptor Azhanharad of the Amalo chapter of the Vigilant Brotherhood (a religious order that serves as a police force) asks for a meeting at a teahouse. There, Azhanharad tells Thara about a body of a woman that has washed up in the canal. Thara is asked to see if he can get a sense of the dead woman’s last impressions, as the deceased woman has almost no identifying characteristics.
Thara’s impressions are faint but clear—the woman didn’t die of drowning but was taken by surprise and struck in the head from behind, then cast into the water. Azhanharad asks Thara if he can witness for her (find out why she was killed) and Thara agrees.
Thara uses the dead woman’s earring to investigate. He visits teashops on the waterfront near the site he identifies as the scene of the murder and asks their staff if they recognize the earring. This line of questioning eventually yields her identity. She is Min (Miss) Arvenean Shelsin, a mid-soprano at the Vermilion Opera.
The opera house’s principal director and composer, Pel-Thenhior, is friendly and happy to cooperate in the investigation. Interviews with him and others at the opera house reveal that Min Shelsin was a vain and selfish woman and was not much liked. Any number of people could have killed her.
In her room at a lodging house, Thara finds a closet of brightly colored, even garish dresses. These turn out to be costumes that she “borrowed” from the opera and never returned. On a second visit there, Thara finds a number of pawnshop tickets in one of her desk drawers. It appears Min Shelsin had an expensive habit or two, and Thara hopes that by following that trail as well as questioning her “patrons” (moneyed lovers) he will learn who killed her.
There are other storyline threads in the novel as well.
Thara is asked to settle a dispute between two possible heirs of a man who died recently; two wills exist but one is fake. Thara’s discovery and identification of true heir, arrived at with the help of the dead man’s impressions, displeases the fraudulent heir and he is both powerful and unforgiving.
Another thread has to do with a man who approaches Thara about his late sister, whose husband disappeared shortly after her death, along with the fortune she brought to their marriage. Foul play may have been involved in her death and her brother wants to know more, including where she is buried so he can visit her and mourn his loss.
Thara is also asked to visit a town where it is hoped that he’ll be able to disperse a zombie-like being, as well as to deliver a letter to a long-lost family member, investigate an explosion at an airship factory, and as always, pray for the dead.
Undergirding all this are Thara’s own grief and his loneliness. He is haunted by his role in Evru’s death and his loss and guilt manifest as nightmares and self-imposed isolation. Making a new friend seems beyond his abilities, or inadvisable, or out of reach. He doesn’t feel that he deserves forgiveness.
Will Thara find the answers he seeks? Will he come to some kind of détente with Vernezar? Can the loneliness that engulfs him be bridged? Will he ever forgive himself?
The Witness for the Dead is narrated in first-person past tense by Thara. His is a gentle and bruised soul. Though he is hard on himself, he is thoughtful and kind to others. Perhaps because he doesn’t feel that he deserves generosity and compassion, he offers them to those who need them, even when they come at a cost. Still, though he’s a lovely character, he’s not enough to make the book pleasurable.
I anticipated the release The Witness for the Dead for seven years and my disappointment is almost in inverse proportion to my anticipation. As usual, I love the protagonist and prose, but with this book, I had significant issues.
When I read The Goblin Emperor, I got the sense that the religion of the Ethuvarez was layered and complicated, with a labyrinthine structure involving a number of sects, branches, and roles for those who served in it. But the earlier book didn’t take place within the church or focus so directly on a life of religious service, so wasn’t important to understand all the nuances. The need to grasp it all is more important here and the complicated church structure and church politics are a lot to figure out. If I hadn’t had a grounding in this world because I’d read The Goblin Emperor multiple times, I might have been lost.
The tough-to-pronounce names and the variety of titles and forms of address don’t help. Difficult pronunciations and unfamiliar titles and social forms, too, were present in The Goblin Emperor but the satisfying story pulled me through. The level of detail also made that story’s backdrop richer and more real, and that enhanced my reading pleasure. But I’m a believer that the more work you ask of readers, the greater the reward you need to offer them. And the ratio of work-to-reward here made this book difficult to penetrate and less enjoyable. This was my husband’s comment after we finished reading the book together: “You shouldn’t need a Rosetta stone to read a book.”
Another reason for my disappointment is rooted in Thara’s characterization. He is a loner; he cares very much about the people he aids but there’s no one that he’s close to or open with. In his free time, he keeps to himself. It was therefore hard for me to find a point of engagement with his character. He’s a sensitive and honorable person so I wanted to love him. But though his closedness goes back to his trauma and is understandable, it made me feel shut out as well.
A point about the setting–this story takes place in Amalo, an industrial city, not in a palace and a capital. That makes the setting more everyday and humdrum; yet another reason why I wasn’t pulled through. If the other pieces had worked, though, this setting would have worked too.
I think it would be hard to figure out the nature of Thara’s painful backstory or realize that a terrorist act was what had led to Maya’s ascent to the throne on the basis of this book alone. These things are referenced several times so they are important to understand, but the relevant information is given in tiny pieces, at long intervals, and some of it is alluded to rather than stated outright. A reader who has not read The Goblin Emperor might be confused on these points.
The book had weird pacing issues too. For example, the first time Thara searches Min Shelsin’s rooms for clues, he only looks in her closet. A while later he returns for another reason and only then does he rummage in her desk, where he finds the pawnshop tickets, an important clue. Why not look inside the desk right away? Isn’t that the first place most people would look?
These things read like contrivances to save the aha moments and revelations for later without regard to whether the characters act organically or whether their motivations are pretzeled.
The plot and the various subplots were all interesting in their own right, but there were too many of them. At least six that I counted, and this is a 208-page novella. If the story had been stripped down to two or even three, it could have been so much more powerful and compelling. As it was, none of them got enough attention to be developed fully.
Thara and many of the other characters are heartwarming, though, and there are many touching moments; I got misty-eyed a lot.
I also liked the work and competence porn; there was quite a bit of that. I always like to see investigative legwork in mysteries and that was present in spades.
The world was fully realized. I could almost have walked Amalo’s streets, sipped tea in one of its many teashops, or gazed at the clouds of smoke spewed by its factories. The opera house where the Vermilion Opera was lodged was portrayed with great verisimilitude; the characters who peopled it, both onstage and off, read like theater people and fit their roles in the theater hierarchy. I have theater experience to speak from here.
Pel-Thenhior, the goblin director/composer at the Vermilion, was one of my favorite characters: suave, insightful, a bit flamboyant, and warm. I am looking forward to seeing where Thara’s new friendship with him leads (could there be a romance between them eventually?), so I’m glad there will be another book.
My fan’s love for The Goblin Emperor may be magnifying my disappointment with The Witness of the Dead. I hope so. I hope other readers like this novel better. I will read the sequel regardless, but this one gets a C-.