Prayers, Justice, and a Spot of Tea: Review of The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison
Jake Casella Brookins
The Witness for the Dead. By Katherine Addison. Tor Books, June 22, 2021.
Hopepunk is a genre I’m occasionally skeptical of. Not of its goals, but of its existence as a movement: despite many jubilant explanations of the term, it never seems to quite cohere as a genre or even an aesthetic, as critics have pointed out. Like so many nascent sub-genres, though, the term is mostly inspired by the excellence of a few key authors, and I found my skepticism hard to remember while reading Katherine Addison’s latest. Quietly and carefully paced to allow its best elements to shine, anchored with a compelling and wonderfully-drawn main character, The Witness for the Dead is a masterful confluence of elements, as comforting and human as it is fantastic and, occasionally, dark. It’s also refreshing to read a high fantasy—this is a world of magic, elves, and emperors, although technologically the world is moving into more of a steampunk industrial stage—that isn’t about saving the world.
A standalone sequel to Addison’s 2014 The Goblin Emperor, the novel follows Thara Celehar, a minor character from the first novel. Recently relocated to the city of Amalo, Thara is trying to move on from his past, quietly working as the city’s only Witness for the Dead—a surprisingly organic mixture of priest, bureaucrat, and consulting detective, with an occasional bit of monster hunting thrown in. The novel is loosely structured around one over-arching case—the mysterious murder of an opera singer—with many sidesteps and excursions as Thara is entangled with other affairs and cases; The Witness for the Dead feels subtly but deeply informed by Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which Addison also drew on more overtly for her 2020 novel The Angel of the Crows.
It’s become laudably common, in pseudo-historical fantasy, to present societies either delightfully lacking in bigotry or constructed to sharply challenge problematic conventions; it’s a move that has opened up more traditional forms of fantasy to the kind of societal critiques usually restricted to future settings. However, The Witness for the Dead doesn’t quite go in either of those directions, which is a choice I found myself thinking about a lot. This is a world rife with sexism and racism, but these issues are much less in the narrative focus than in The Goblin Emperor. The novel does revolve around the injustice of the world’s homophobia, but it does so from a considerable and tactful distance. These aren’t bad choices—Thara is an intensely relatable and likeable protagonist, and the way his society forces him to stay closeted is both enraging and all too believable—but I did keep wondering, throughout the novel, at the fact that this wholly fantastic setting isn’t used to challenge that injustice more.
Although wildly different in tone and style, I found myself thinking quite a bit of Pratchett’s Discworld while reading this: a society going through huge reforms, partially driven by accelerating technological developments. Unlike Pratchett, though, Addison keeps these changes mostly to the background. It’s an effective and realistic worldbuilding technique, but one that sometimes left me wanting to grab the narrative and drag it over to some of the big progressive battles going on. Thara himself tracked down the bomb-wielding anarchists who successfully bent the path of dynastic succession towards a potentially more egalitarian state in The Goblin Emperor; in The Witness for the Dead, his investigations take him to an opera planning, quite provocatively, to stage a new show that centers class struggle and sexual harassment, with a minority woman in the lead role—but these ground-shaking events and movements are simply not where Thara’s attention lies. It’s an utterly believable bit of character and worldbuilding—unless directly involved with or affected by a given struggle, people tend not to focus on it—but I found this decentering frustrating at points.
Frustrations aside, it must be said that this is a superbly crafted world: not just scene-setting for some sword-wrangling quest, but a city and a culture that feels persistent, like we actually get to inhabit it, not just pass through it. The pacing of the story allows us to wander around and look at things without being railroaded on to the next plot point. There’s a wealth of little details in the city’s fabric, a credible but not overwhelming array of invented languages and names. Thara has a keen eye for the material realities around him, from the lanterns named after the city’s owls to the workboots under another priest’s robes. And, and I don’t say this lightly, this novel may be the new crown jewel in the “speculative fiction where tea is important” sub-genre; there’s been considerable thought given to tea styles, cultivars, and character, and Thara’s opinion on Amalo’s various teahouses and their offerings fleshes out the city in a really delightful fashion.
The world works because Thara works: a wonderfully believable and enjoyable character. There’s a fairly large and well-drawn cast—notably including Iäna Pel-Thenhior, the opera director who may be courting Thara and isn’t totally suspicion-free in the main murder case—but as the narrator and more than a bit of a loner, it’s Thara who carries the novel. Enjoyably competent but relatably insecure, Thara’s a perfectly balanced viewpoint for this kind of story. He’s a character who is more likeable than he himself realizes, and Addison is skillful at using that disconnect to inspire both pity and mild comedy: Thara’s personality and observational skills combine for the occasional tragicomedy of manners. It’s a novel not without deep grief, not without painfully realistic stress and panic, but also a novel that excels at setting up just the right hint of romance and companionship.
That subdued personal touch, that gentleness, is the feeling I walked away from the novel with, which is all the more impressive given that The Witness for the Dead contains really rather a lot of grim themes and imagery. Thara has to deal with trauma, disturbing murders, gruesome ghosts, vicious bureaucratic infighting, and literally ghoulish monsters—yet the story left me feeling kindly towards hopepunk, as a genre, if it exists. It’s a rare accomplishment for a fantasy novel—for any fiction—to feel, convincingly, like it continues to exist after the last page, and I am certain that Thara is returning to the opera with Pel-Thenhior, and wondering what kind of tea he’ll have next.
Originally from the Pennsylvania Appalachians, Jake Casella Brookins (he/him) now lives in Chicago. He is an SF reviewer and independent scholar, and runs the Positron site for speculative fiction book clubs and other literary events in the Chicagoland area. When not making coffee (professionally), he is probably riding his bike (amateurishly). Book ramblings and occasional bread experiments can be found on his blog.
This review was commissioned by editor Ashumi Shah in May 2021 from an internal pitch; Jake Casella Brookins is an ARB editor. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Tor Books.