2021’s The Witness for the Dead is the second novel in Katherine Addison’s Goblin Emperor secondary universe fantasy series.
Thara Celehar used his ability to speak with the spirits of the dead to serve Maia, the newly appointed emperor. His reward: to be sent far from the emperor’s court to the city of Amalo. Ever dutiful, Thara serves the people of Amalo as best he can. He doesn’t regret leaving the luxury and intrigues of the court.
The spirits of the dead do not lie when they appear to Thara; this fact proves to be key to resolving situations otherwise ambiguous.
When two heirs squabble over which of two wills is authentic, Thara consults the dead and says, “this one.” Dealing with a greedy son who would profit from the forged will proves more complicated.
Then there’s the matter of Arveneän Shelsin. The corpse of the Vermilion Opera’s senior mid-soprano has been fished out of a canal. Little of the singer’s spirit has remained. She remembers being murdered (confirmed by the deep divot in her head) but not the identity of her murderer. Thara investigates methodically. He soon discovers that there’s a long list of people with reason to want the singer dead. Determining which of them did it … that’s going to be hard.
There are also ghouls. A prelate’s job is never done, and it’s not helped by the fact a certain section of the population refuses to believe that flesh-eating monsters exist until they themselves are consumed by a flesh-eating monster. Where do authors get their wild ideas?
This book is something of a mystery novel and a cozy one at that (many of the characters are pleasant and kind; order is restored; the book ends on a happy note). I should, however, note that Thera’s relationship with the law is more formal than is usually the case in cozies. He is no interfering amateur; he’s a priest whose job happens to involve occasional murder investigations.
Because Addison is leaning more heavily on mystery tropes than fantasy tropes, the novel is part of a series but can be read as a stand-alone. Mystery readers are much less tolerant than fantasy readers of the idea of getting a third or an eighth or a twentieth of a novel per volume. Everything that needs to be resolved in this volume is resolved.
I found myself thinking that it’s not at all clear that society was best served by solving Shelsin’s murder. She is found to have been a comprehensively unpleasant person who went to a lot of trouble to back her killer into a corner; her absence will make a lot of people’s lives better. Not to mention the fact that solving the murder has tragic consequences. But this is cozy and murders must be solved. More to the point, once Thara starts picking and choosing which victims are worth having their murders resolved, he stops being the sort of sympathetic central figure one expects from Katherine Addison1.
A protagonist who does their best whenever possible, who tries to be kind, is a welcome change of pace. I was hoping for a pleasant comfort read and that is what the author delivered. Additionally, I was expecting a novel sumptuously written, and I got that as well.
1: Sarah Monette, the author behind the penname, writes rather different works. At some point I need to review some of her novels.