There is this weird aura around The Grief of Stones. It is being marketed as “Katherine Addison returns to the world of The Goblin Emperor with a direct sequel to The Witness For The Dead…” but I don’t understand why The Goblin Emperor is being brought up when this book has almost nothing to do with it. I mean, I do understand why, it’s because The Goblin Emperor was very successful, but I don’t like the nebulous marketing. Grief is much more a sequel to Witness than anything else, but it mostly feels confused about what it wants to be.
The Witness For The Dead was a very interesting character study about Thara Celehar, 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. The Grief of Stones is about the next month.
Grief, in general, is a mess. It has a lot of the positives of Witness (a strong protagonist, great ambiance, fabulous prose), but it feels like it lacks Witness’ cohesiveness while also struggling with tone. On top of this, I felt like Grief is exploring the same space and ideas as Witness— but does a worse job at it—which leaves it struggling for identity and memorability. All the themes are the same but there isn’t any sense of progress or achievement (and this doesn’t feel like it’s intentional). The relationships established in Witness through momentous character growth continue to evolve, but there are no noteworthy milestones. New interesting side characters are introduced, but they are sorta just there without any central relevance to the story. A whole bunch of interesting subplots starts to develop, but instead of tying together into a big central idea, they are resolved individually throughout the book like someone crossing off a list of chores. All of this is made more digestible by Grief’s slice-of-life style, but I find myself asking, “why wouldn’t I just reread Witness?” And I don’t have a good answer.
On top of all of this, there are some fairly shocking elements to the book. One of the minor plotlines of the book revolves around the introduction of the concept of photography. Almost immediately after we learn that photographs exist in this world, Thara stumbles across a child pornography ring. This didn’t feel great, and while I certainly don’t think that Grief was disrespectful to the very sensitive subject, it also felt like it lacked the necessary gravity to explore such an upsetting subject.
However, I still somewhat enjoyed my time with The Grief of Stones. I really, really like Thara as a protagonist. His somber and pious nature makes him a fascinating character to sit with. So much so that I have stolen his entire identity for a Dungeons and Dragons character that I adore. His relationship with death and the church pull at me and I want to keep seeing it from new angles. I wish Grief did a little more adding to Thara’s depth, but it still was enjoyable to spend more time with him.
The Grief of Stones suffers from a lack of identity, but that is less of a problem for it because of its slice-of-life nature. Thara still remains a fabulous protagonist with a great nature and interesting personality. The events of Grief feel a bit messier, but I don’t regret my time with the book. It simply just feels like a more watered-down version of its much cleaner predecessor.
Rating: The Grief of Stones – 7.5/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.