Witness for the Dead - in the world of The Goblin Emperor

  • Posted on: 25 June 2021
  • By: Sevhina

The Goblin Emperor is a wonderful book but I've liked nothing else Addison (Sarah Monette) has written so didn't know what to expect from the second book set in that world of Elves and Goblins. There are many references to Emperor, including Thara Celehar's tragic and scandalous past, without any explanations offered in Witness for the Dead so Emperor must be read first. As the title suggests Witness is about Celehar's new career as a Witness vel ama, an impartial advocate, speaking for those who have died. Celehar is a prelate of Ulis, god of the Dead and Dreams, who was blessed with the ability to communicate with souls for a short time after death. Most often it involves answering questions for the family but occasionally he is asked to represent murder victims and bring their killers to justice.

As a minor character in Emperor my review of that book didn't even mention Celehar although his role and the influence of the god Ulis in that world was interesting. Tracking down the plot to kill the former emperor renewed Celehar's connection to Ulis and made him realize that most Witnesses for the Dead are too busy in their duties as prelates of Ulis to spend time on such investigations. As a Witness vel ama Celehar connects to the soul by reliving the last minutes of their life and can ask simple questions that he can then relay as evidence in court proceedings. Since Ethuveras has not yet developed a true police force Celehar must do any investigating himself and throughout the book he is working on two complex murders. Along the way he must deal with his personal history, religious politics, and a killer ghoul. The ghoul is a side adventure but one of the best parts as it explains why funeral practices are taken so seriously and also provides a rare action scene.

Witness was definitely not a disappointment if you liked Emperor although there was something beautiful about Emperor that is missing here. Not necessarily a bad thing. Maia is a deeply sympathetic character in Emperor but with little nuance. Celehar is much more complex as he balances the compassion without which he couldn't connect with the dead, the strain of constantly experiencing the moment of death, and his self-loathing due to his tragic past. The setting in the poorer neighborhoods of Amalo is also a strong contrast to the emperor's court of the first book although Addison again offers the good, the bad, and the greedy as supporting characters. Since airship manufacture is the primary industry of Amalo I was hoping for more of the steampunk elements but there was actually less than in Emperor.

Apparently my dislike of Monette/Addison is based on the world building. While all of her works are well written none of the others catch my imagination like Ethuveras.  I like everything from the industrializing world with some steampunk to the politics and racism of two very ethnicities that are opposites in appearance and culture trying to integrate as their world modernizes. Given the well done language and grammar its not surprising that Monette has a PhD in English Literature and her dissertation about the role of ghosts in Renaissance era tragedies was possibly the inspiration for Witness of the Dead.

Witness actually received a better rating on Audible than Emperor. Liam Gerrard isn't the same narrator used for Emperor and his performance rated better overall but since many reviews preferred Kyle McCarley my guess is that the higher ratings are because readers/listeners are mostly those who liked Emperor.