Elves, Murder, and Gallons of Tea: Katherine Addison’s The Witness for the Dead

When The Goblin Emperor came out in 2014, a self-contained, standalone fantasy novel felt like a breath of fresh air. I can just read this one book and have the whole story in my head! I don’t have to plan years of my reading life around waiting for the next volume, or processing a cliffhanger ending, or worrying that the next book will be told entirely from the POV of Night Watchman #3 when all I want to know is whether Abused Princess #4 is still alive or not.

And then I actually read The Goblin Emperor, and I cursed its standalone-ness, because I loved all of those characters so much I wanted story after story with them.

As you might imagine, the news of a sequel filled me with joy, and what I was especially happy about was that it wasn’t the continuing story of Maia, Perfect Cinnamon Roll Emperor. Katherine Addison has stayed true to the idea that his story was self-contained. Instead, she’s given us a sequel about Mer Thara Celehar, the Witness for the Dead, who proved so vital to the early days of Maia’s reign. And I’m ecstatic to say that Celehar’s book is just about as good as the young Emperor’s—but this time it’s a fantasy/mystery hybrid!

One of the best things about The Goblin Emperor was the way Addison took a bildungsroman and folded it into a court intrigue fantasy that felt more stereotypically feminine than the a usual “young man going on a quest” type of tale. Maia spends the whole book processing trauma; he’s only 18 at the start of the novel, so his first year as Emperor is also a coming-of-age story, and all of his quests are inward. As the unwanted youngest son of a hateful father, he goes from banishment in a secluded country estate, to confinement in the gilded cage of Emperor-hood, and readers experience his story from his very constricted point of view. It feels a lot more like a Gothic romance than the story of a male leader, and it’s a fascinating way to tell a story of coming into power.

That worked quite well for Maia’s story, but I was pleased to find that Mer Celehar travels constantly, and Addison uses his adventures to show us a lot more of the rich and complex world she’s built. The story kicks off when the body of a beautiful young opera singer is pulled from a river in a seedy, gaslit, dockside neighborhood, feeling for all the world like a case Sherlock and Watson would have jumped on. And as the story unfolds, Mer Celehar finds himself at odds with several rich and powerful families, delving into the secrets of the elite, like a classic noir gumshoe…or maybe Columbo. But there’s one other element that causes me to go full Muppetflail in excitement: Mer Celehar is a Witness for the Dead, but he’s also a prelate of Ulis, i.e., a priest of one of the greatest gods of the Elflands’ pantheons. In Witnessing, he communes with the dead in order to learn whether a person died naturally, or if foul play was involved. Which means he’s an empathic priest…who solves crimes? So what we have here is also a Father Brown/Grantchester situation.

And Addison absolutely dives after these comparisons in the most fun way, with Celehar running afoul of the elite in a way that would make Lt. Columbo crinkle his eyes in admiration, and occasionally dropping details in that can’t help but recall a high fantasy take on Law & Order: SVU (“I talked to prostitute after prostitute. They were amused and intrigued to be spoken to by a prelate, and they looked at the drawing carefully.”)—but she never overplays this element. Mer Celehar is living his life, trying to cope with the tragedies of his past, trying to stay honest, and trying to bring justice to the dead.

It’s important to say that this is a character who, on multiple occasions, muses on how much he prefers talking to the dead than living people. I think I love him as much as I love Maia?

Once again the Elflands are richly imagined. In The Goblin Emperor Addison built the world through Maia, learning to rule on the fly and acting as audience proxy; here the insider/outsider Celehar is literally describing his travels around his new home, the bustling city of Amaro, as he investigates his case. By the end of the book I realized I had gained a sense of place in a similar manner to Sam Spade’s San Francisco or Marlowe’s Los Angeles. Mer Celehar is primarily a flâneur, so as he walks his city we see shopfronts, used book stalls, airship factories, and, mostly, teahouses. Mer Celehar is the most tea-obsessed character I’ve ever encountered, which makes for another fun play on the noir genre—instead of meeting people at dive bars or infiltrating swank clubs and speakeasies, Celehar does most of his investigating in the back booths of teahouses, commenting on whichever brew he’s drinking while he tries to ferret out the truth from his informants.

In the way of detective stories, several plots bump along, tie together, and break apart over the course of the book. Things that seem to be red herrings become clues, and vice versa, and arguments and assignments that seem to have nothing to do with the main plot turn out to be important in unexpected ways. But what’s great here is that Addison never loses touch with her characters. Each sidequest and tangent builds on what we know of Mer Celehar and his past, while hinting toward a couple of possible futures. Along the way we travel to some previously unseen parts of the Elflands (there’s one especially effective section that verges on horror that I’m trying desperately not to spoil) and we meet a wide array of characters.

As in the prior visit to the Elflands, Addison builds her characters with tiny details that seem effortless. Observe, one of Celehar’s teahouse stops:

I put the honey spoon in the second cup (which the staff of the River-Cat could not be trained out of bringing—unlike at the Hanevo Tree, where you had to specify if you wanted more than one) and briefly tormented myself by imagining a companion who would smile across at me and happily lick the spoon clean. Neither of my lovers had had such a sweet tooth—that was the only thing that made my imaginings even remotely safe. A purely made-up lover was foolish; conjuring the dead was something else entirely.

We get the sense of a teahouse culture, the detail that two houses do things differently, and a sense of Mer Celehar’s habitual route through those houses. But this quotidian moment shades into nostalgia and loneliness, then into Celehar’s grief, and, finally, into a hint of his religious devotion. When one is a Witness everything leads back to death. In his life the rituals of tea and death weave together almost constantly.

Another departure from The Goblin Emperor is in the variety of life we get to see. Maia was constantly, relentlessly concerned with how he appeared, as he was usually the only person of Goblin ancestry in a room full of snotty elves. As Emperor, he rarely met anyone below the highest classes, and men and women existed within a rigid construct of gender norms and “appropriate” behavior. And as far as queerness went, Celehar’s status as “marnis” wasn’t exactly illegal, but it certainly wasn’t something to be encouraged or talked about in polite company. Here in bustling Amalo, those things aren’t such an issue. Celehar notes people’s races and class indicators because he’s constantly filing information away for his cases, not because he believes one race or class is better than another. As he scans the city we see interracial couples, rich people, factory workers, sex workers, landladies, opera composers, independent women working jobs beside men, straight people, queer people—a whole range of life. And although the queer characters still don’t seem to be totally open, they also seem to be much freer than they were in the Utheleneise Court. It was a wonderful angle to get on the world, and I loved that of all the ways Addison could have followed up on Maia’s story, she chose to take us not just to a different corner of society, but to a whole new hybrid genre.

Addison also shows the world by enlarging the street-level culture of the people of Amaro. In The Goblin Emperor Addison made it clear that Maia was devoutly religious, but that most of the Court was secular, and it was considered fashionable to dismiss religion as superstition, though people still took part in ritual for propriety’s sake. One of the reasons he and Celehar worked well together was that Maia took Celehar’s office seriously. Now we see Celehar in his own element, and it’s clear that Amalo, at least, is a very religious town. The equivalent of the police captain, Azhanharad, is pleased when Celehar finds the murder victim’s apartment, complete with a small shrine on her desk, not because they’re closer to solving her murder, but because: “With any luck we’ll be able to bury the poor woman properly.” This is a fascinating tack to take—obviously finding the murderer is important, but what both men consider more central is being able to pay proper respect to the dead. It’s an interesting way to show priorities.

There’s another element here that I think will make Addison’s readers very happy, but I’m trying to think of how to talk about it without crushing the life out of it. One of the excellent things about The Goblin Emperor was that in the midst of court intrigue and assassination attempts, the story was mostly focused on people who were genuinely trying to be good. Many of the book’s narrative threads were fueled by Maia asking himself how to be a good person. (How often is that a narrative thread, in books or in life? And how miraculous does it seem when you find it?) In Witness for the Dead, we meet people from all walks of life, and many of them, like Maia, are trying to figure out how to live a life that leaves the world that tiny bit better. Here, for instance, is a tiny snippet of Mer Celehar’s job:

“Yes,” I said. The prayer of compassion for the dead was worn and familiar. The woman no longer knew her name, nor who had wanted her dead, nor why. But she did remember her death. She had been alive when the water slammed the breath from her body. She remembered the fall from the dock, though she had been more pushed than fallen and more thrown than pushed. She remembered the cold dark water, the way her panicked gasps for air had echoed off the bricks.

Again, this is an idea that seems cool, right? You have someone who can speak with the dead. In this universe the spirits of the dead hover around the bodies for a few weeks, bearing memories and desires. The Witness can question them and learn if they were murdered, which son is meant to be heir, where the money’s buried, who the father is, etc. This seems like it would be great, and solve a lot of problems for the living. But the Witness has to live through their death with them. He has to be open and empathetic at a level that most humans simply can’t do, and he has to maintain that level of openness and empathy for years. It’s not a cool parlor trick, or a spooky seance, or even a way to have a last moment with a lost loved one—it’s an exhausting job, but Celehar dedicates himself to it because he knows it’s useful. Once again, Addison builds her book around the quiet, dogged compassion of a person who pursues justice and kindness rather than wealth or political favor.

My only, very slight, complaint about the book was that it was over too soon. On the one hand, because I loved spending time with these characters, but also I think the action wrapped up a little hastily toward the end. But anyone who loved The Goblin Emperor will be more than happy to accompany Mer Celehar to tea—and I think even people who haven’t read The Goblin Emperor, or people who read Addison’s foray into Sherlockian Angelology in The Angel of the Crows, will find plenty of entry points to the Elflands in The Witness for the Dead.

The Witness for the Dead is available from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt here.

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