Thank you to Tor Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review! The Witness for the Dead will release on June 22nd, 2021.
I went into The Witness for the Dead with a full heart and high hopes. I reread The Goblin Emperor before diving in, and I was primed for the continuation of those warm, optimistic feelings. Reader, I desperately wanted this book to be The Goblin Emperor 2. I wanted to feel that same magic, rooting for an underdog character doing their best in a strange, mysterious, and often opaque new world.
Sadly, it did not capture that same spirit, though it did seem to try.
It seemed to take the things I’d loved in The Goblin Emperor and watered them down, replacing the intensely character-focused narrative with a plot-focused one. The archaic and dense courtly language that gave The Goblin Emperor its charm and delightful sense of otherness was also much reduced. The emotional payoff felt lacking. Often, it felt like showing trauma on-page was used as a substitute for characterization or growth.
The Witness for the Dead follows Thara Celehar, the Witness Maia brought on in the first book to investigate the late emperor’s assassination. In his new role with the church, he finds himself called upon to use his ability to hear the memories of the recently dead to resolve contract disputes, investigate murders, and more. The favor of the Emperor has proven insufficient to lift him above petty administrative squabbles, and the spector of his own queerness as a gay man that continues to haunt him. Ultimately, the plot revolves around two primary murder mysteries: an opera singer found dead in the river, and a woman who was taken from her family and murdered by the husband she eloped with.
These two threads are used to compare and contrast the difference between a crime committed by someone who gave in to a monstrous impulse rather than someone who is, fundamentally, a monster. This seemed to be an attempt to provide Thara with closure for a past murder he Witnessed, wherein he had to sentence his own lover to death. Unfortunately, this was only touched on lightly – and it was “told” rather than “shown.” There wasn’t much actual on page character growth related to this outside a single conversation with another priest. Contrasting this with The Goblin Emperor, where we see Maia meaningfully dealing with his past as he handles Setheris and the trauma of an abusive upbringing, I found it to be lacking. Even without that direct comparison, it just didn’t really hit me emotionally.
The murder plots themselves were reasonably engaging, and I think that someone primarily interested in murder mysteries would enjoy them. I found the ending to be somewhat contrived, but the journey to reach it was engaging.
During the investigations, it is emphasized several times how traumatizing hearing the memories of the dead can be for Thara. He relives the last moments of the dead – and that includes their pain and suffering. Witnesses for the Dead often burn out young. When the trauma becomes too much, their abilities shut down and fail them. While Thara is frequently shown to suffer from this on page, it is never really addressed – how does Thara process that trauma? The answer, apparently, is that he simply doesn’t. He begins to open up a little by the end of the novel, implying that he will go on to build connections that provide him with stability, but without seeing how those connections change him long term…. Well, I found it unsatisfying. It felt like Thara was still on a journey to finding his place when the novel ended rather than having found it.
In the same vein, Thara’s queerness – and the broader societal attitudes towards queerness – are mentioned but not meaningfully addressed. We see a young woman blackmailed because someone caught her with another woman. Thara himself begins to have romantic feelings towards another man. While Thara’s budding relationship ends on a hopeful note, it is not a definitive note. It implies acceptance of his own identity and his past, but it’s such a surface level examination of it that I had trouble becoming invested. There was no follow up exploration of what those feelings meant. Where Maia went from a blushing virgin to having his betrothed pledge to gut his enemies, Thara went from a sad and traumatized bachelor to…. A sad and traumatized bachelor who was okay with being friends for now with another gay man? Whether or not they would get together was ambiguous. It reminded me of the queerness in The Angel of the Crows, which was similarly dissatisfying. There are hints and nudges when it comes to queerness and relationships, but both books fail to transform it into a substantial theme.
Honestly, the entire book felt a bit like what you’d get if you crossed The Angel of the Crows with The Goblin Emperor. It has elements of both, and feels unfocused for it. Is this a character driven novel like The Goblin Emperor? Or is this meant to be a pure murder mystery? It’s hard to tell, but at the end of the day… I regret to say that fans of The Goblin Emperor are unlikely to experience the same magic they felt in the first book.
About the Author
Katherine Addison is the pen name of Sarah Monette.
She grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the three secret cities of the Manhattan Project. She got her B.A. from Case Western Reserve University, her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Despite being summa cum laude, none of her degrees is of the slightest use to her in either her day job or her writing, which she feels is an object lesson for us all.
She currently lives near Madison, Wisconsin.