Witness for the Dead

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.

The Lord of the Rings review

It’s been almost 25 years since I first tried reading The Lord of the Rings. It’s been a little less time since I actually did. They aren’t exactly written for 5th graders.

This is, if I’m remembering correctly, my fourth time through all three, though I read The Fellowship of the Ring at least twice before I finished the others. You may suspect I’m a bit of a history nerd.

I regret waiting so long to reread them. The last time I made visited Middle Earth was before The Return of the King came out in theaters. I listened to the audiobook this go-around (Rob Inglis did a great job, though I hear the Andy Serkis version is excellent, as well). One sign that I was reading a master work: when I sat down to read a different book on my Kindle, I found the prose by this other, fairly popular fantasy writer left much to be desired.

But you’ll feel I’ve wasted your time if I just tell you how great the books are. Here are a few observations, in no particular order:

Tolkien was a bit feminist, or at least more than I remembered.

There’s plenty of evidence for the alternative. If you’d asked me recently whether the “I am no man” line was Tolkien or the screenwriters, I would have laid money on the screenwriters. Nope! It’s not a direct quote, but it’s pretty close. Tolkien may not have included any women in the Council of Elrond or in the Fellowship, but I think his words of praise for Galadriel – emphasizing not just her beauty, but also her strength and power – as well as Éowyn’s role as a shieldmaiden undermine the patriarchy within the book. There are so many examples of misogyny from the decade these books were published, particularly in the genres neighboring The Lord of the Rings, it’s nice to be reminded that Madeline L’Engle was a friend of Tolkien.

Tolkien supported indigenous people keeping their land.

I don’t know Tolkien’s actual politics, but one thing comes through clearly: he believed it was ideal for people with vastly different cultures to inhabit neighboring lands in peace. The enmity between elves and dwarves is a symptom of civilizational degeneration. Aragorn, as king, promises the wild men of the forest that they will be left in peace. The main protagonists – the Hobbits – are simply trying to live in their land peacefully. Their final battle, and the one that most strongly hints at Tolkein’s politics, involves driving out colonizing capitalist bandits.

Sam is the real hero of the story.

I know I’m not the first to make this observation (apparently Tolkien himself did). This is fairly evident from the events of Return of the King, especially the end. Sam was the only ring-bearer who willingly gave up the ring. He carried Frodo the last steps up Mount Doom. And the book ends with Sam returning home, sitting down with his wife, and saying, “I’m back.”

The Lord of the Rings is post-apocalyptic.

Throughout the story the characters are traveling through the ruins of and learning the stories about the older fallen civilization. They use objects which they do not understand and cannot use. Their victory at the end is beautiful but is still a sad step towards the oblivion that awaits all the beautiful things in Middle Earth.

I still love these books, even after the fourth reading and everything that has changed in my life since I first read them is a sixth grader. If you have only seen the movies, I highly recommend the books. The first one is slow if you don’t love learning background info, but the others are a little more action-oriented (though only in comparison). I think we would do well to be a little more like hobbits.