At a high level, it is really easy to tell if you should read The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison. Have you read Addison’s famous book, The Goblin Emperor? If you have and like it, you will like this book a lot. If you haven’t, well, you should go read Emperor first. I reviewed Emperor a while ago, and had a very positive experience that was tempered by some consistent issues in the book. Witness has a very similar feel to its spiritual successor, both positively and negatively, but I think it’s a stronger book overall and definitely worth everyone’s time.
Witness is a pseudo-sequel to Emperor, in that it is a stand-alone story about a character from the first book. Witness actually has nothing to do with anything that happened in Emperor, but takes place afterward chronologically in the same world. Thara Celehar is a Witness for the Dead for the emperor. Thanks to his association with the leader of the world, he sits outside the typical hierarchical structure of the church, and a lot of his colleagues do not like his unique status and feel his lack of bureaucratic politicking makes him an undesirable person. As such, Celehar lives a quiet and solitary life on the margins of the court while pursuing his position as a Witness for the Dead. Witnesses can speak to the recently deceased and converse with their spirits to some degree. They function as one-third detective, one-third lawyer, and one-third priest – settling disputes, solving mysteries, and providing closure. The book follows Celehar over roughly a month of his life and recounts the various experiences he has as a Witness over this period.
Ostensibly, the main focus of the plot of Witness is the murder of an actress at the opera and Celehar’s investigation of what happened. In actuality, the book is much closer to the journal of a priest who happened to have a particularly eventful month. The structure of the story is very loose, and if you are looking for a murder mystery with a clear focus and fast-paced plot, look elsewhere. However, the laid-back and ambulatory nature of Witness’ plot absolutely works for it if you are open to a slower, more observational story. Celehar solves a variety of random side quests for people over the course of the story and they paint this vivid picture of the quiet lonely life of this man. Events in the book start to inject new flavor and experience into Celehar’s world and it fuels beautiful character growth and makes for some great heavy-hitting themes about the human experience.
Witness for the Dead is definitely a character-driven story, with a rich and deep ensemble cast. Each character is dripping with personality, and many of them are fabulously charming to boot. The entire opera cast stuck with me after I had finished the story, and I liked their interactions a lot. All of this is good, because similarly to my complaint about The Goblin Emperor — there isn’t much closure around the murder mystery that Celehar is investigating for most of the book. We just get to the last pages and Celehar simply states “oh, X did it” and then the book ends. When I first read it I was very frustrated with the abrupt end to the narrative, but after sitting with the book for a while I realized that closure around the mysteries isn’t really the point of Witness for the Dead. It’s about how the quest changed Celehar as a person and the new person he became – that is the true ending of the book and the closure you will get from the story.
So if you like character stories, this is a good one. It was a quiet thoughtful book that I enjoyed more than I thought I would and made me want to go back to The Goblin Emperor and reread it to see if I would like it more. If that isn’t a success, I don’t know what is.
Rating: The Witness for the Dead – 8.5/10