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.
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.