First thing’s first – I enjoyed this book. Though that may not be saying much because I tend not to finish books I don’t enjoy.
I love a good murder mystery. A murder mystery set in a world of elves and goblins in a world of complex social expectations, different religions, and class conflict? Right up my alley.
I love its relaxing style
I typically enjoy plot-driven books, where a lot happens and every detail matters. I like epic stories with big magic that alters the world. I like biographies about famous people, histories about important events, and the stories of people who are unlike me. But sometimes I need a rest.
I read Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor last year and, despite its complex world-building, complex fantasy politics, and interesting characters, found it to be an easy book to put down when I needed to go live life. Don’t get me wrong, I still read it in a week or two, but the book didn’t grab onto my mind and heart the way many do, demanding that I devote my attention to it until it’s resolved all the plot points and character arcs. It allowed me to enjoy and relax a little. So, when I needed another relaxing read, I picked up Witness for the Dead.
Throughout much of Witness for the Dead, Thara Celehar, the protagonist and narrator, seems to just be recounting random events in his day-to-day life. Eventually, however, they come together to resolve the main plot and provide him with some closure for his own problems. And though the various plots revolve around murders and death, this daily-journal-like style plays a large role in why it is a relaxing read.
I love its good, flawed protagonist
It might seem strange that for my relaxing read, I’d choose a book about a gay elven priest. I come from a religiously conservative background. Doesn’t that create some dissonance or cause me to ask some challenging questions? I’ll get to that.
First and foremost, Thara Celehar is a decent person. He isn’t heroic or superhuman. He’s too accommodating and kind to a fault. He’s blunt and straightforward, often to the point of offense. He is aware of this and tries to correct for it. He just doesn’t have the social aptitude to do so. He isn’t particularly ambitious, but he does what he feels is right, even if it creates problems.
I appreciate the way Ms. Addison wrote this gay character. While I think it is important to have characters and plots where the orientation of the character is more central, simply reading a story in which a gay person is kind and good is helpful in recognizing that orientation simply doesn’t have an impact on whether someone is kind or good. Teenage and young adult me would have benefited from seeing more characters like him in books and other media (though perhaps I did and just took it to be Hollywood propaganda).
I love the detailed, complex world
Western European medieval fantasy worlds will always have a place in my heart, but to find something different is invigorating. In Witness for the Dead, elves and goblins live together in a mixed race society that resembles industrializing Europe of 19th century. The characters must navigate a complex world of a long-lasting imperial power, with multiple languages, class tensions, and religious plurality. The world is fun to explore.
The craft is also fun to think about. The biggest thing Ms. Addison did to create this world was make up words for the various social and political roles people fill. I saw some complaints from other reviewers about all these made-up words, but it is through words that an author reveals the underlying culture. To craft a world that feels alien or different, an author needs to use just enough words to convey that feeling without completely baffling the reader. I think she got the balance right.
The religion is one aspect of the world that fascinates me. Akin to the pluralistic religious world of pre-Christian Europe, there are multiple goddesses. Worship isn’t built around any particular goddess, but rather various practices. Different sects are permitted. Really, the idea that any practice would be banned seems somewhat foreign in this world, though some teachings do cause problems. It made me think about how our world may look, if we can learn to religiously coexist without insisting that everyone align with our ideological views on everything.
Overall, I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys murder mysteries, vignette style books, and fantasy. It’s a wonderful thing to live in this golden age of fantasy, where we can read fantasies combined with just about any other genre or style.