The Grief of Stones is the second volume in Katherine Addison’s The Cemeteries of Amalo secondary universe fantasy series. The Cemeteries of Amalo share a setting with The Goblin Emperor.
The reward for competence is more work. Therefore, since Thara Celehar solved murders while fending off monsters in the previous volume, Thara is presented with more untimely deaths and even more ferocious undead. Not to mention an unrequested apprentice.
Widowed Othalo Tomasin discovered that she can talk to the shades of the dead, a useful and rare skill that in no way endeared her to her in-laws (who would have preferred her to retire to a retired life as a decorous widow). Installing her as Thara’s apprentice satisfied two goals for Thara’s ecclesiastic superior Aiva Vernezar: not only will this ensure that Othalo is trained by a skilled Witness for the Dead, it will be inconvenient for Thara. Since Aiva does not care for Thara, complicating Thara’s life is a plus.
A considerable portion of the book is taken up by the matter of the late Marquise Tomilo Ulzhavel. Ulzhavel’s death was attributed to a “thunderclap coronary.” Her husband, having found a threatening letter in Ulzhavel’s effects, believes his wife was murdered. He would like Thara to determine whether or not Ulzhavel was murdered and if so, who is responsible.
The murdered dead do not always know that they were murdered. Victims often do not know who killed them. In Ulizhavel’s case, both points are irrelevant. She has been dead for months, long enough for her spirit to dissipate. The Witness for the Dead is therefore forced to fall back on purely mundane methods to unravel the case. The case will lead Thara in very unsavory directions. This may be a fantasy universe but its vices are quite mundane.
Murder and exploitation are disturbing enough. There is also a monster lurking in the city, one that Thara will be forced to encounter. Perhaps Thara can vanquish the legendary thing. More likely, he will simply be its latest victim.
It’s weird how many secondary universe fantasies feature societies that are well aware that ferocious monsters exist, societies whose counter-measures are roughly as diligent as hoping there is at least one van-full of sufficiently motivated mystery-solving teens in town. Public servants like Thara do everything in their power to track down and deal with the lurking horrors; the rest of society could be doing more than they are.
On that note, the plot is driven by the fact that although the elven empire has draconian penalties for transgressions against those who matter, there are entire categories of people denied easy, in some cases any, legal succor. Poor women in particular have a hard road: a male foundling might end up apprenticed in a respectable occupation but girl foundlings can expect to become poorly paid drudges, prostitutes, or drudge-prostitutes. It’s still technically illegal to murder such women but not, for example, to abuse them so badly that they kill themselves.
Addison doesn’t adopt an approach that many series mystery authors prefer, a long sequence of adventures during which the protagonists are curiously immune to change. Thara is changed by the events of the book. The long-term implications are unclear. I suppose I will have to wait for the next volume to see what happens. If there is a next volume. You might want to buy this book to give the author an incentive.
If I didn’t have the official page count in front of me, I’d have guessed that The Grief of Stones was a novella. The Macmillan site assures me Grief is almost 260 pages long. The novel is an astonishingly quick read, with an ideal combination of interesting puzzles and sympathetic characters that certainly held my attention.