Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison is set in the same world as The Goblin Emperor but follows spirit medium, Thara Celehar, as he is appointed to the city of Amalo. Amalo is, bluntly, a pit and he receives no support from the local church in his endeavors when he’s not being outright vilified by the locals. I was a huge fan of The Goblin Emperor and, I admit, I was a bit disappointed to discover that there would be a new protagonist for the series. Still, I was bound and determined to give the book a shot.
Our protagonist has numerous jobs that he follows up on throughout the book with this providing the books’ primary narrative. The closest plot to a central story is his investigation of the murder of an opera singer known for her gold digging as well as manipulative ways. The problem is not that there’s no suspects, it’s that there’s dozens of suspects as virtually everyone who knew her wanted to kill her.
There are also other supporting plots that interweave through the main narrative but never truly tie in because they’re fundamentally a sign of how busy and intrigue-ridden the city is. A man fakes a will naming him as the heir of the family fortune and when his father’s ghost is consulted, simply calls fraud on Celehar before forcing the man to prove his credentials. Celehar is forced to journey to a distant rural village in order to deal with a cannibalistic ghoul. Celehar even undergoes a trial by ordeal on a magical haunted mountain.
If there’s any flaws with Witness for the Dead, it’s very much a procedural storyline and the fact Celehar doesn’t really any sort of arc. Like Columbo or Hercule Poroit, he’s pretty much the same person at the beginning of the story that he is at the end. This is a contrast to Maia in The Goblin Emperor as he transforms from a meek insecure abused victim into someone who wishes to transform the Empire through will alone.
Much of the appeal of the books is the fact that we get a truly vivid picture of the city of Amalo. It is a gritty place somewhere between high fantasy and steampunk with a Dishonored-esque feel. However, it’s also a place where Celehar comes across a little too stoic as well as emotionless. I feel like the story might have benefited from giving him a bit more passion or feeling regarding the events in his life. Given his tragic romantic past established in The Goblin Emperor, it’s kind of sad that he also is only ever mildly annoyed with most people.
Despite this, I’m going to give Witness for the Dead a 4 star rating out of 5. It’s a good book, well-written, and is scarily good at its world-building.