In 2014, Katherine Addison published The Goblin Emperor, which went on to be nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. Already a published author under the name Sarah Monette, for Addison The Goblin Emperor was a departure; but it was also a shift for the fantasy field as a whole. A fantasy of manners about the first few months in the reign of an emperor’s neglected younger child, who is unexpectedly vaulted to the throne, the novel eschewed most of the familiar trappings of the genre. There was no magic, no fantasy warfare, and very little violence. Instead, the focus was on court politics, on the minutiae of religious and civic rituals, and on delicate alliance-building. The title character, Maia, whose circumstances mirrored the early lives of queens Victoria and Elizabeth I, cemented his power by finding those people in court whom he could trust, and gaining their trust in return—with honestly, small kindnesses, and a willingness to listen.
Another author would have treated The Goblin Emperor as the jumping-off point for a long series about the adventures of Maia and his friends—see, for example, Lois McMaster Bujold's long-running Vorkosigan Saga (1986-), whose DNA can clearly be discerned in the makeup of Addison’s novel. Addison, however, set aside the world of The Goblin Emperor for seven years. When she returned to it, with 2021’s The Witness for the Dead, it was with a very different sort of story. Witness is narrated by Thara Celehar, a secondary character from The Goblin Emperor who assisted Maia in the investigation into his father’s death. As a reward, Celehar has been granted the position of Witness for the Dead—a sort of cross between priest, detective, and necromancer—in the provincial capital of Amalo. Maia, the imperial court, and any other characters from The Goblin Emperor are not present, nor are they likely to appear.
In the world of The Goblin Emperor, the dead rest uneasily, and may rise as ghouls or other malicious entities if the proper funerary rites aren’t carried out, or if the unfinished business of their life isn’t attended to. Celehar, who possesses the ability to commune with the recently deceased, is sometimes called upon to help identify the rituals required to lay them to rest—to determine whether a body pulled from the river was a suicide, for example—and, sometimes, to answer the pressing questions of those left behind. In some other cases, he’s charged by petitioners to investigate the circumstances of the deceased’s death—to solve a murder, or even prove that one occurred.
Much like in The Goblin Emperor, Addison's inspiration in writing The Witness for the Dead seems to lie outside the fantasy genre. The books I found myself comparing it to are Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody detective novels (2004-2019). As in that series, the detective takes on an array of cases, some trivial—a bakery desperate to find a suddenly-deceased partner’s scone recipe—and some tragic—a newly-bereaved husband who needs Celehar to find where his wife hid their savings in order to pay for her burial. The investigations cut into and interrupt each other. Some are quickly resolved, others span the length of the novel, and others still converge in unexpected ways. And, much like Brody, Celehar is melancholy and thoughtful, and often deeply affected by the suffering that his work uncovers. (Unlike Brody, however, Celehar occasionally finds himself having to fight supernatural monsters; this is still a fantasy world, after all.)
So far I’ve written about The Witness for the Dead, but everything I’ve said about it applies equally to its sequel, and the subject of this review, The Grief of Stones. The highest praise and most pressing critique I can make of this novel is that it does exactly what its predecessor did, with a new series of cases. If you enjoyed The Witness for the Dead—and, to be clear, I very much did—you will probably feel the same way about The Grief of Stones.
There are, of course, some developments. Celehar is assigned an apprentice, Tomasaran, a widow who has come late to her necromantic abilities, and must be trained not only in their use but in the ethos of being a Witness, which stresses service, humility, and the pursuit of truth. New details about the series’s world are revealed, such as the existence of photography as a suppressed technology used mostly by the demimonde (often for pornography, which is also a crime), or the network of charity schools that provide a safety net for girls with no family in the strongly clan-oriented society of the novels. Towards the end of the novel, a major change occurs in Celehar’s life, though it remains to be seen what its full effects will be (or even how permanent it is).
Still, the prevailing sense throughout the novel is that of moving in well-established grooves. Celehar lives his ascetic, solitary life, goes to a few familiar places for his meals, meets with one or two friends and colleagues, and makes his professional rounds. Even those plotlines that seem to be moving towards a destination, such as Celehar’s muted, tentative flirtation with Iäna Pel-Thenhior, whom he met in the course of his investigation in The Witness for the Dead, progress only by a few millimeters.
Much of this is rooted in Celehar’s defining trauma, revealed in The Goblin Emperor. While serving as Witness for the Dead in a provincial posting, he embarked on an affair with Evru, a married man (homosexuality is illegal in the novel’s world, and though—as in the real world—this does not prevent gay relationships from happening, they are usually furtive and hidden). Evru then murdered his wife, which Celehar was obliged to reveal in his capacity as Witness. In both The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones, Celehar remains burdened by grief and guilt, which he is only slowly beginning to shed. And yet one also senses that much of his reserved demeanor comes from the essence of his character, that he has always been a person who seeks to tread lightly on the world, and draws back from attachments:
I went home, where five cats were waiting for sardines. I worried about them as it got colder, but thus far they showed no signs of distress. The half-blind queen allowed me to pet her when she was done eating, and the great rumble of her purr was soothing. This was the sort of night when I was most tempted to allow the cats inside my room, but I knew better. They were not mine and never would be.
The main plot of The Grief of Stones concerns an investigation into the death of an aristocratic woman, whose husband is convinced that she was murdered. This draws Celehar and Tomasaran into the orbit of a foundling school, where an unscrupulous headmistress has been exploiting her charges. As in Witness, and similarly to Goblin, much of the action of the novel comes down to the minutiae of navigating the city and its systems. Celehar must instruct Tomasaran in using the city’s wide-ranging, complex public transport system. Finding the people whose names come up during the course of the investigation requires consulting the post office, which maintains scrupulous records of the registered address of every citizen, and the cartographers’ guild, who hand out directions to even the most winding street and hidden alley. Even the cemeteries have meticulous record-keeping, the better to ensure that proper rites are carried out so that the dead remain dead:
She was particularly intrigued by the cemetery map and the registers, how Veltanzeh and his prelates kept track of who was buried where and for how long. It was, as I knew from my own experience in Lohaiso and Aveio and from watching Anora, an endlessly time-consuming occupation.
The more Celehar and Tomasaran use these systems in the course of their investigation, however, the clearer it becomes how much is slipping—or being allowed to fall—through the cracks. Whether it’s foundlings taken advantage of by their guardians, or penniless women preyed upon by pornographers, or an abandoned tomb where treasure hunters have been dying one after the other, Celehar’s investigations repeatedly reveal how much remains unknown about a city that is supposedly fully mapped, whose institutions are designed to offer services at the most granular level—a level on which they can also be easily suborned by a well-placed bribe, or simple prejudice.
If there’s an overarching theme to the Celehar novels, it is perhaps the way in which this intricate, all-encompassing system, which sends its tendrils into even the most private aspects of people's lives, creates the very opposite of the order it claims to seek. Again and again throughout these novels, we see how the criminalization of vice (as defined by their society) snowballs into even more crime and suffering. Outlawing photography pushes its practitioners towards organized crime, creating opportunities for pornographers and blackmailers; harsh punishments for pornography, for both producers and subjects, in turn make it easier to silence people who have been coerced into it. The murders in both The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones turn out to have been committed by blackmail victims, pushed by fear of their so-called vice being exposed into committing an actual evil. And, of course, the murder that has so traumatized Celehar is rooted in the criminalization of homosexuality.
What’s interesting is that Celehar himself does not see this. He is a profoundly compassionate person who is capable of understanding the motivations of even the most depraved among the criminals he discovers. But he doesn’t—or perhaps does not allow himself to—recognize that the fault lies in a system that has exposed people to such pressures in the name of morality. Late in the novel, Celehar and Tomasaran are informed that the murderer they found, the blackmail victim, is scheduled to be executed. Tomasaran expresses sympathy, but Celehar surprises her by revealing a sudden intransigence, an unwillingness to perceive the broader injustice at work:
"Is that the purpose of government? Justice?"
"It is a purpose of government, but without it, no government can function honestly."
"And so [the killer] must die."
"She is not a sacrificial animal," I said, impatiently. "She is a murderer." As Evru was, and I had not spoken out for him.
It’s left to us to wonder how much of Celehar's reaction originates in lingering anger towards his lover, and how much something deeper: whether his reticence and asceticism might not be, in themselves, a trauma response to the simple fact of living in a world that has criminalized his existence. And whether, over the course of future novels in this series, he will come to a greater understanding of both himself and his world.
The grief of stones, Celehar explains at the end of the novel, is the grief of an object that stands still and bears witness to the unfolding of human tragedy—to folly, indifference, cruelty, atrocity, and even to the brutality of justice (the novel begins with the execution of a serial killer). Celehar has been buried under this grief for so long that he does not even recognize it as a burden, but as the novel ends he is beginning to take the measure of it. It remains to be seen how far Addison is interested in taking us on this journey of understanding (and whether the crux of this series will prove to be the healing of one gentle, wounded man, or a genuine change in his society). But, in the meantime, Celehar’s adventures, and the light they shed on him and his world, are a worthy pursuit in their own right.