The Witness for the Dead


Katherine Addison


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

December 17, 2021

previously had read The Goblin Emperor by Addison, and thought it was a terrific book. So I was interested in picking up The Witness for the Dead, which is another fantasy story set in the same world. The Witness for the Dead is another excellent story, so I hope Addison continues to write tales set in the same milieu. (I see Addison has published one other novel, The Angel of Crows, but the Goodreads synopsis of that book says it is about vampires and werewolves living in an alternate-reality-Victorian London, and Sherlock Holmes is an angel. Addison is probably a good enough writer to create an interesting story with those elements, but it doesn't sound like my cup of tea, so I will wait and hope she writes another "Goblin Emperor" story).

The Witness for the Dead is told in first person format by Thara Celehar. Celehar is a Witness for the Dead, which means that he has the power to communicate with the spirits of the recently deceased. If Celehar can touch the body, he can sometimes learn crucial information about what the person was thinking when they died, or under which circumstances when they perished. Naturally, this power places Celehar into the middle of several contentious incidents.

At the beginning of the novel, Thara Celehar is asked to indentify the body of a young woman found in the canal, the Mich'maika. Celehar can not immediately procure her name, but he does discover that she was shoved into the canal, and while attempting to survive drowning, a heavy object smashed against the back of her head, fracturing her skull. Unfortunately, Celehar cannot distinguish who the murderer is, and so he becomes involved in the inquiry to her death. It doesn't take long to discover that the dead woman is an opera singer from the Vermillion Opera. She is Arvenešn Shelsin, a beautiful, talented singer who was hated by mostly everyone who worked in the opera house. But what was she doing way on the other side of town? The bar where Arvenešn Shelsin was found, the Canalman's Dog, is not the type of place where she would be seen with her wealthy patrons.

Petitioners will come to Celehar's office and request his aid. Alasho Duhalin is granddaughter of a recently deceased businessman. Her older relative, Nepevis Duhalar, has a will that shows he should inherit the company. But that will doesn't sound like what is expected from grandfather Duhalin. Can Celehar ask the recently dead who he intended to inherit his company?

A young, pregnant bride, Inshiran Avelonaran, has died. Her grief stricken brother, Urmenezh, asks Celehar to determine the cause of her death.

The novel is only 232 pages in the hard-back edition that I read, but you can see that there is a lot going on. What really impressed me was Addison's world building. She slips in so many details about the sights, sounds and smells of the city of Amalo that it seems convincing that such a place exists. The different flavors of tea are mentioned, the type of cheese stuffed into a lunch roll. There are numerous titles for the many characters: Min, Mer, Prince, Preceptor, Othala - this implies that there is a fully functional culture, with professions and customs. When Celehar walks through the streets of Amalo, everything seems to have a name: the General Pazhadar Square, General Baizhahar Boulevard, the Prince Zhaicava Building - as if Addison had a detailed map of the entire city. Here is a sample sentence that helps make Amalo seem so real: "I took the tram from Ulvanensee back north to the Bridge Street ostro, where I got off and walked to the Reveth'veraltamar at the bend in the Mich'maika where it curved around the Sanctuary of Csaivo. The Reveth'veraltamar was where all the bodies that ended up in the canal washed aground. There was a gate in the wall there, and stairs down to the water. I had a key."

In this short novel, Celehar must face a trial by ordeal on the Hill of Werewolves, confront a ghoul that has arisen in Tanvero, and investigate the cause of the explosion of the airship the Excellence of Umvino.

The character of Thara Celehar really shines through. He comes across as a decent, kind and persistent investigator. He endures false accusations, scary confrontations and the indifference of the Amalo aristocrats. Celehar is pursuing justice for various wronged parties. There are many characters in this novel that Celehar interacts with, and how he treats them and they respond to him really establish his character.

This is not a typical fantasy novel, there is no dark lord, no treasure horde, no dragons, no magic relics, no sword fights. Yet I found it an enthralling story and I hope that Addison isn't done writing about the world of the Goblin Emperor.