Nights at the opera

The Witness for the Dead
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Solaris / Rebellion Publishing Ltd 2021

He stared at me as if I’d told him I could hear fishes singing.

Sometimes the effectiveness of a novel can be judged by whether it can make you believe in impossible things, such as being able to hear fish singing. On this basis The Witness for the Dead fulfils this criterion with flying colours, even though no piscine choirs are involved. Elves and goblins are involved, however, as are listening to the dead, dowsing for individuals’ whereabouts, and confronting ghouls and ghosts; and yet far from been presented with a succession of tired fantasy tropes we’re instead served a nuanced character study and an engaging crime fiction.

In the imperial state of Ethuveraz Thara Celehar is a prelate of Ulis, the divinity who has charge of both death’s dominions and the moon. Thara is also a Witness for the Dead in the provincial city of Amalo, a calling that depends on his ability to tap into the emotions and last thoughts of those who’ve died either by violent means or in unclear circumstances, and thus to speak for them.

But Celehar’s status within the Ulineise hierarchy is anomalous, attracting political jealousy as well as support, and though accorded respect for his abilities he is regarded by many with suspicion, even fear. And his past hides a potential scandal which, though previously hushed up, could jeopardise everything for him.

© C A Lovegrove

This Witness played a minor but nevertheless key role in The Goblin Emperor in establishing who was involved in the assassination of the Emperor’s relatives, but his story here works well without any foreknowledge of the related novel. Much more than merely a psychic detective, Celehar is an essentially decent elven individual filling a post that often involves boring legwork but occasionally becomes dangerous. Responding to petitions he investigates for example the ghastly deaths of newly wedded young women and an operatic mezzo-soprano found dumped in a canal, or establishes who a dead businessman intended as his heir; then his superiors may order him to ascertain from maimed corpses whether a major explosion at an airship factory was sabotage, or send him to quieten ghouls who may’ve developed a taste for live human flesh; or he may face a trial by ordeal which has sent earlier accused persons mad.

Celehar is indeed that rare creature, a protagonist who quite apart from his rare gift — almost a superpower — follows his vocation unstintingly. An ordinary person in many respects he is, as a friend virtually accuses him, “conscientious to a fault,” dogged in pursuing leads and telling truth as his post requires. Interestingly, that conscientiousness was the principal virtue of Maia, the ‘goblin emperor’ of the preceding novel set in this world; and it is this virtue that makes the self-effacing but lonely Thara Celehar the attractive protagonist that he is, in contrast to so many contemporary heroes and anti-heroes.

This mayn’t be a novel to appeal to everyone: potential barriers include a multiplicity of personages with unfamiliar names, subplots that may seem at first mere distractions, an urban environment that appears labyrinthine without the benefit of a map, and a plethora of titles and honorifics that can only confuse the casual reader. But The Witness for the Dead is a novel that repays close attention and concludes having both satisfied but also left space for imagined developments.

As much as anything it is the accidentals that provide pleasurable depth to the narrative. Much of the plot in this quasi-Victorian world concerns an opera company, with its director-composer putting on a production he has written. Daringly innovative, Zhelsu‘s maintenance of opera’s typical themes — sex, violence, tragedy — inevitably echo aspects of Celehar’s investigations: imagine a mash-up of Tosca, Lulu, Carmen and similar classic music dramas and we will recognise politics, factories, sexually-charged relations, murders and suicides all in Zhelsu‘s mix.

Other motifs run sporadically through: cafés and teahouses recur, as does folklore in the form of, say, ghost stories; we also encounter lingering prejudice in a country where goblins are in a minority. Above all we are continually reminded of the power of words, whether through prayers, from names inscribed on gravestones to quieten a corpse or with an individual’s identity written down on paper for a maza, a dowser, to locate them.

And all through I sense Thara Celehar’s leitmotif is a prayer that he finds both calming and centreing: Strength in tranquility and tranquility in strength. In the whirlwind of this novel’s action his first-person narration reveals a person trying to keep in the eye of the storm, though not always succeeding.

An ideal read for Readers Imbibing Peril as this novel has aspects of mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, Gothic, horror and the supernatural, all rolled into one.

18 thoughts on “Nights at the opera

  1. I’m going to give this series a try, Chris – there are three titles available at the library. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy crime novel. Your description here makes me think of the Cadfael series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read this author’s The Angel of the Crows but I should warn you it’s not part of this series, Jan, and in any case I’ve read mixed feelings reviews of it; best to read this Witness title if you’re looking for a fantasy crime novel. I’ve not engaged with Cadfael either on the page or on the small screen so can’t comment on any similarity, sorry!


    1. Hah! The narrator of course is here unsure whether a certain hypothesis is regarded as plausible by the character he’s sharing it with. Be reassured, no singing fish make an appearance — but as a metaphor for some of the conspiracy theories going around it’s a phrase I might recycle!

      It can join the ‘dead cat’ strategy many politicians apply to distract from their dubious acts and decisions…


  2. I very much enjoyed your review Calmgrove! I was a Sarah Monette fan from way back, when I first read Mélusine; I eagerly read the rest of her Labyrinth series, although I must say I thought the quality rather deteriorated as the series progressed. I’ve also read her Companion to Wolves, which wasn’t quite my cup of tea, as well as several of her crime fiction stories revolving around her Kyle Murchison Booth character. After that, I’m afraid I decided to give her a rest. As a result, I haven’t read any of her Goblin emperor novels, despite the fact they’ve received generally very positive notice. Your review is making me reconsider a bit, as it sounds like I could read Witness for the Dead without committing to the entire series.
    Although I quit following her work when she began writing under the Addison name, I have a great deal of respect for Monette’s talent; she’s a gorgeous wordsmith with a knack for creating atmosphere and compelling characters. Time for me to check out her latest, perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your great comment, very helpful as I try to sift treasures from trash in my reading! I’ve not read Monette under her own name or as Murchison, but I must say I’ve really enjoyed both this and The Goblin Emperor for its intelligence and literary quality, both attributes which I find can amply compensate for occasionally less than perfect execution or not always engaging characters and plot.

      I’ve read reviews of this which seem to suggest that the narrative is a bit diffuse, rambling and unfocused, but I feel that the reader gets the sense of a life lived more than that here is a whodunit which must be solved Christie-style. I would hope that you at least try this, as your description of Monette as a gorgeous wordsmith is spot on. 😊


      1. I was so happy to see your review — I haven’t thought about Monette in a long time and it was almost like checking in with an old friend to read about her latest work! I’m not quite sure why I stopped reading her. I think she went through a bad patch after the Labyrinth series — I could be wrong, but I think she was dropped by her publisher at the time — and I do think the series did not end on a high note. I didn’t particularly care for her Wolf series. I liked, without being overwhelmed by, her Booth character; I suspect here I’m a minority, as many of her fans adored these stories. When she published the Goblin Emperor, I was happy to see that it was successful but didn’t feel the urge to rush out & read it.

        Monette really is a scholar — I believe she specialized in Renaissance drama or some such. I think this is one reason she’s so strong on world building and can write in such gorgeous prose. It’s interesting that there’s an opera in Witness (that scholarly background, maybe?). In the later books of the Labyrinth series, one of Monette’s main characters was an actress; although it’s been some time since I read these books, I believe there was quite a bit about this character’s career and some of her roles.

        I’ve seen a little of the criticism that Monette’s narrative is unfocused. I don’t totally disagree, as I don’t think handling plot is her strongest point (I think this is particularly evident in some of the short stories I read). This doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Particularly with fantasies & sci-fi I look for character, atmosphere and good writing; if these are present it’s fine with me to have a digression or two!


        1. I see her PhD dissertation was on ghosts in English Renaissance revenge tragedy, so I suppose her two Ethuveraz novels being focused on murder and now the theatre as well is an obvious progression!

          As for plot handling, I’ve just scheduled a post about Tolkien’s use of interlace in The Lord of the Rings (supposedly influenced by this theoretical approach in early poems such as Beowulf so the seemingly diffused plotting in this novel under review doesn’t faze me at all: interlace theory (as you probably know, my post says nothing new) proposes that any so-called digressions or tangential episodes are there not only to relate to and inform the main plotline but in fact to also be essential to the narrative — excising them would be detrimental to the fiction’s integrity. I see parallels with The Witness for the Dead in this respect.

          And, as with you, my preference in SFF is also for character, atmosphere and literary quality, and I think that’s where Monette scores in this case.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m very glad you enjoyed it so much, Chris! I had my criticisms, but on the whole I think it’s an improvement over what The Goblin Emperor – Witness for the Dead offers, trades the overbearing sweetness for a dose of awkwardness and psychological realism. The plot is rambling and unfocused, but Thara Celehar is a memorable, easy to care for character and I wouldn’t mind reading about his future endeavors :).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting, Ola, I think you see “rambling and unfocused” as a negative whereas I see it more as a positive! So as not to make the scaffolding of her worldbuilding less clunky and obvious she gives Thara a story arc that matches the messy life many of us live, the ‘rambling’ part; and, as I suggest to Janakay above, the ‘unfocused’ quality is down to apparent digressions which I prefer to see as a kind of interlace, apparently unrelated episodes building a portrait of him formed out of the various demands of his calling and his responses to them. Such digressions hold mirrors up to his virtues and help explain how he arrives at the conclusions that allow him to solve the long-running case of the wayward mezzo-soprano.

      Is he too virtuous, just as Maia seems to be? Possibly; but I think we readers have rather a dearth of decent principled protagonists in our fiction—we’re all so used to the trope of the flawed hero or heroine who struggles their way to doing the right thing that we may forget that there are individuals who struggle to do the right thing from the very start. Maybe because I’m on the spectrum I rather like a protagonist who reflects my own natural inclinations, and for me Thara and Maia fit that particular mould.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. What I like about Thara is that he’s imperfect while trying to do the right thing no matter the cost; I suspect he is on the spectrum as well, as I mentioned in my review – this makes him more relatable and real-life awkward, at least to me.

        As for the interlace, I feel like we’re looking at the same thing from different perspectives 😉 I enjoyed those vignettes for what they were, but didn’t feel as clearly as you that they actually form a cohesive picture.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Reading your review reminds me how much I enjoyed this book. I liked the opera and teahouse settings, and the way the world became a little more expanded than in The Goblin Emperor. I’d been reading quite a lot of Christie at the time (still am) and thought this read almost like a Christie-style crime story with the added bonus of the fantasy elements. I hope the next book is just as good as this.

    Liked by 1 person

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