The Witness for the Dead (The Goblin Emperor, #2)

By Katherine Addison

Rating: 4 stars

I loved The Goblin Emperor but wasn’t sure where was left for the story to go. Thankfully, for the sequel, Addison has chosen to leave the emperor’s court behind and, instead, follow a minor character from the first book – Thara Celehar, the Witness for the Dead who solved the murder of the former emperor. He’s now living in the city of Amalo and practising his calling, when he’s called to witness for a young woman found drowned in the canal. He’s got to solve the mystery of her murder while avoiding getting bogged down in clerical politics and offending too many important people.

After the courtly intrigue of the first book, having a whodunnit as the follow-up is just the right change of pace to keep it fresh. Calehar is a sympathetic protagonist, still ridden with guilt over his dead lover, but content in his own way. The world feels established in that of The Goblin Emperor and it’s not as difficult to keep track of people and locations (although a glossary would still have been welcome). There are only the most tenuous links to the first book, so someone could easily read this without having read the first, although you would miss out on some of Celehar’s character, as his background isn’t (re-)explained here. This book also deepens the world, and adds a larger pinch of fantasy than the first one had, with Celehar’s communication with the dead, and his having to deal with risen ghouls.

The world-building is unobtrusive and well done. Of the new characters who populate this book, my favourite was IƤna Pel-Thenhior, the composer and director of the local opera, who almost becomes a Watson to Celehar’s Holmes. I love the easy working relationship that they develop together, with tentative hopes (on both sides?) that it could be more.

I’m not sure that this counts as a proper “whodunnit”, in that the reader (like Celehar) doesn’t have enough information to solve the mystery until right at the end. I don’t think there’s clues spread throughout the book to point you in the right direction. I look forward to a re-read at some point to see if that is the case.

It’s a great book, with good characterisation and world-building and a lot of heart. When it comes down to it, Celehar is a kind person, and that’s uncommon enough to be worth something, both in fiction and the real world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781089514
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2021

The Goblin Emperor

By Katherine Addison

Rating: 5 stars

Edit 2021-03-07: Okay, since I’ve now read this book for the third time, I’m going to have to admit that I like it more than just four stars, so I’m changing my score from 4 to 5 stars. While I still acknowledge the book’s flaws, the familiarity of multiple rereads helps deal with that, and I love the characters.

Original review:

The emperor and his first three sons are killed in an airship “accident”. His youngest son, of mixed goblin/elven heritage is thus recalled from exile to take his place as the new emperor. However, Maia is young and hasn’t been educated in the ways of court intrigue, never mind groomed for the throne, but he’s got to learn fast, if whatever killed his father doesn’t claim him as well.

I really enjoyed this book. There’s not a huge amount in the way of plot, but the characterisation is great, and courtly intrigue really does hold the attention. Addison doesn’t shy away from Maia’s mixed race heritage, and the sort of bigotry that he faces because of it, but it’s not to the fore. The fact that he’s barely an adult and is untutored in how to rule is much more of a problem, but he manages to find allies early on. From the messenger who brings him the news to his personal bodyguard, not everyone is out to get him, and it’s a joy to see him tentatively reaching out and building these relationships. The book is very much about the loneliness of power and a repeating motif is how the emperor can’t have friends, and how the young Maia copes in that situation.

I also really liked the setting, which has a steampunk vibe to it, with airships and pneumatic tubes to deliver mail. There is magic, but it’s kept very low key, with a sleeping cantrip here, and a spell to talk to the dead there. Interestingly as well, there are no humans in the book. The kingdom is elven, and goblins feature, as well as at least one other, unnamed, race, but no humans.

One thing I found frustrating, however, was the large vocabulary of made up words: names, places and titles. I can understand what the author was doing with her world-building, but it’s just frustrating, especially as the glossary at the back isn’t exactly complete. I actually had more sympathy for a related complaint: that of the size of the cast. It’s really huge, and trying to remember who everyone is and what their relationship is to another character can be tiring. However, in this case, we’re thrown into the same situation as Maia, and at least there’s the glossary to fall back on (although it’s not exactly helpful to say that rank A is the chief of the Z and then not define Z, or give someone’s familial relationship, but not their relationship to Maia).

Book details

ISBN: 9780765365682
Publisher: Tor Fantasy
Year of publication: 2014

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