Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor (2014) is one of my favourite fantasy novels published in the last ten years. The richness and complexity of the Untheileneise Court, and the intensity of the relationships between the characters—elven and goblin and variations in between—enhanced by Addison’s persuasive construction of an ancient civilisation encrusted with formalities of ritual, make a deeply satisfying read. You want to know more.
Now we do. The Witness for the Dead continues Addison’s exploration of the Ethuveraz kingdom by sending Thara Celahar, the eponymous Witness and a prelate (a priest) of Ulis, to Amalo, a city in the north of the kingdom, where his calling is to represent the interests of the dead by listening to their memories, and often their deaths. In The Goblin Emperor, Celahar worked for Edrehasivar VII, the new and young Emperor of the Ethuveraz, to solve the mystery of an exploded airship. In Amalo, Celahar works with the Vigilant Brotherhood, the equivalent of a non-investigating police force. Justice must be done, at all times, and so it is not surprising that The Witness for the Dead is really a police procedural with strict dress codes.
It is an excellent novel, possibly scoring 4.5 out of 5, with The Goblin Emperor as a stunning 5, but it is in many ways more satisfying than its predecessor, simply because we find out so much more about this remarkable world. It is not steampunk, although Ethuveraz technology is fairly mature, and it is not high fantasy with secret heirs and long-lost magical weapons. It’s far more interesting than that: it’s about compassion, and the societal bonds and obligations that make living in a civilised manner desirable for all.
Addison is working in the same space as the “hopepunk” of Becky Chambers’ science fiction, placing emotional integrity at the centre of a plot that takes the reader forward rather than inward. Addison’s novels are empathy-rich fantasies which focus on how what people feel makes them act, not what they wield or how sharp or explosive it is. Both Addison’s goblin novels give us a protagonist who is desperately in need of many, many hugs, if only they would allow themselves to receive them. While the Goblin Emperor is encrusted in a necessary protective emotional carapace, Celahar is wracked with guilt for a necessary thing he has done as part of his calling as a Witness. He is morbidly racked with self-denial, unable to sleep properly, and unsettled by demonstrations of confidence, trust, or affection.
Celahar must investigate the deaths of several young women. One is a malevolent opera singer who seems to have fallen in the river. Another is a young and hopeful pregnant wife. Neither of them had wanted or expected to die so soon. It’s a pity that so many young women had to die in this plot, feeding into the regrettable tendency for the police crime thriller whodunit to sacrifice women for the reader’s entertainment. Many of the women in this novel are not vulnerable, which is good to see, but we are still reading a reinforcement of the conventional expectation that women die and men find out why.
However, Addison does some very interesting things with the genre she has chosen. In a worldbuilding development of what a Witness can do, Celahar must catch and settle a rampaging ghoul, and in another episode he must spend the night on a hill of ghosts who are struggling eternally in their death throes. In The Goblin Emperor, a ghost is mentioned in passing, but never as an actual manifestation. Ghouls are not mentioned at all. However, in The Witness for the Dead, Addison stresses that an untended cemetery is liable to enable ghouls to break out of their graves, yet in The Goblin Emperor one of the most important cemeteries of all has clearly been left untended, as a mark of Edrehasivar’s predecessor’s indifference. Either the soil of Amalo breeds a tougher kind of ghoul than Cetho, the city of Ethuveraz’s government in the south, or Addison’s worldbuilding needs to be smoothed out a little.
Nonetheless, her reworking of the zombie motif is inspired, encouraging our empathy for the murderous creature and fascinating us with the methods used to distract and despatch it. The ghosts that Celahar encounters on the Hill of Werewolves are a different kind of challenge, more emotionally impactful than you might normally expect of ghosts, thanks to Addison’s writing. (No werewolves were encountered in this novel, but I hope that Addison is saving them for volume three.) The fact that such undead creatures exist in this world explains the proliferation of Ethuveraz religions, and their rites for the dead.
The baroque heights of familial offence and feuding righteousness demonstrated by the nobility and the theocracies in Amalo are familiar from The Goblin Emperor, yet in The Witness for the Dead they seem more vicious and more grounded in the daily reality of people’s lives. The society we met in The Goblin Emperor was largely aristocratic with occasional artisans. In The Witness for the Dead, we meet working-class and bourgeois people earning an income through their skills, and we meet them in coffeehouses and theatres, on the streets, and in more than a few well-tended cemeteries, mourning their dead, like the humans they are. (Addison uses “woman” and “man” as synonyms for “person,” and elves and goblins are evidently of the same species of “man” and “woman” since they interbreed easily and often.)
I had to reread The Goblin Emperor immediately after finishing The Witness for the Dead to remind myself of the gloriously complex names and social indicators. The text of The Goblin Emperor includes an extremely useful glossary and pronunciation guide disguised as a “Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands,” which really ought to have been reproduced in The Witness for the Dead. The Witness is part of a wider whole, and the reader needs Addison’s copious background material to understand the nuances of political roles, family relationships, and place-names. Some matters, however, are not explained. My partner and I debated for days over the exact definition of “marnis” in the context of a relationship between a celibate priest and a married man, and we’re still not sure, because—such is the complexity of Addison’s invention—it could depend on an as-yet-unintroduced layer of social obligation. Or be something she invented just for The Witness that has no place in The Goblin Emperor at all.
The reader hovers anxiously around Celahar on his travels, willing him on in his investigations of other people’s troubles as strongly as we try to find out what happened to him, and how his misery can be ameliorated. We travel enthusiastically through this world, with our hearts and minds already won. Emotionally committed, we are shown the integrity of paying attention, of valuing each person equally. Celahar’s priestly practice is as Buddhist as it is Quaker, yet his skill of being able to listen to the dead transmutes the familiar into the very unfamiliar, and gives us existential questions to think about. If the dead can be heard, what do you do with what they say, and what veracity do you place on that? Can the dead lie? To what ends? And what does that tell us about the state of death itself?
The plot of The Witness for the Dead works as a metaphor for the society Celahar inhabits. This tormented prelate is sent to a very disturbed city, in which there are colossal quantities of the dead. The settings of detective novels traditionally have a statistically improbable body count, but Amalo is just one out of many cities in an ancient civilisation. It is functionally a necropolis, with multiple well-tended cemeteries, yet its dead can’t and won’t rest. The ghoul that Celahar must deal with is a spectacularly effective metaphor for unrestituted guilt, unable to be contained by the earth any longer. The ghosts on the hill are the memories that cannot be forgotten when wrongs are not righted. Celahar’s calling, of being able to hear the recently dead (but not too recent: that’s too painful), prevents the dead from being dead: they cannot rest until someone listens to them.
This sombre reflection of Ethuveraz society compounds the unsettling economic reality that we saw—if we looked hard enough—in The Goblin Emperor. The artists who make the highly prized white sharadansho silk will lose their eyesight, and child labour in its factories was routine. That society had to be forced to change through the deaths of a generation of the ruling family (and their nohecharei and air crew).
Addison did not build these political and economic imperatives into her world without good reason. Behind the glorious details of hair jewellery, personal seals, meditations in silent chapels, and the magnificent excesses of the operas, the workers are suffering under the yoke that the ruling classes rest on. The malevolent opera singer hated the opera she was to have sung in—Zheslu—but she wanted the part anyway. Zheslu was about the oppression of the workers, of the underclasses and of women. Its mere existence in The Witness for the Dead is a sign that the necessary societal change set in motion in The Goblin Emperor has accelerated into art. The Witness for the Dead is a socially realistic fantasy underpinned by superb creative power, as emotionally satisfying as it is skillfully written. We look forward with eagerness to volume three of the Ethuveraz chronicles.