Content notes for The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones by Katherine Addison: death, suicide, murder, corpses, rape, racism, homomisia
- The protagonist is a death cleric and one of his jobs is investigating murders to speak for the dead and bring them justice, which includes him accessing their memories and reliving their death as well as investigating their corpses and the circumstances of their life leading up to their death
- While it’s not as much of a motive in these novels as in The Goblin Emperor, there are mentions of racism (the elves looking down on the goblins)
- The protagonist is a gay man and while there is not much romance, there are instances of homomisia both regarding him (he is not out and reflects on how knowledge of his sexuality might impact his current relationships) as well as the people he meets during his investigations (a character’s sexuality becomes leverage for blackmail, etc.)
Representation: Gay protagonist, several other queer characters, including an achillean love-interest
First off, The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones are technically billed as a stand-alone sequel-series to The Goblin Emperor. They are set in the same world, chronologically after The Goblin Emperor, featuring a protagonist who appeared as a supporting character in the previous novel. And I guess technically they could be read without knowing The Goblin Emperor. But honestly? I wouldn’t recommend it. For one thing, the protagonist’s backstory isn’t described with any detail in either of the The Cemeteries of Amalo novels, but he tells the whole story in The Goblin Emperor – in the later novels he only refers to bits and pieces. For another thing, the world-building in Katherine Addison’s elfland novels is dense and comes with some peculiarities, including a vast system of fantasy terms and naming conventions and for those alone I think it’s sensible to read The Goblin Emperor first, especially as that novel contains a detailed index of important people and terms and some introductory explanations in the form of a traveller’s guide. Both of those are missing in the The Cemeteries of Amalo novels and I felt their loss keenly. I also would have appreciated a map of Amalo, because just as with the names and terms, the city’s layout was somewhat hard to keep track of.
But enough about that, what about the novels themselves? I loved The Goblin Emperor and had high hopes for The Cemeteries of Amalo as they feature my favourite side-character as their protagonist: Thara Celehar, Witness to the Dead, cleric to the god of death, gifted with the ability to connect with the dead and thus serving, among other things, as murder investigator. In The Goblin Emperor he investigated the previous emperor’s death, an investigation readers didn’t get to see much of. But now he has two novels of his own and they are filled with a bunch of different murders and a whole lot of other things.
To keep it short, I loved both novels. They were amazing. Celehar is a great protagonist, his internal struggles as vividly and captivatingly described as those he faces thanks to his occupation. And there are quite a few, as he deals with a lot of guilt and grief, feeling unworthy and undeserving of his calling but desperate to do it justice while at the same time having to face the power struggles of the city’s clerical structures (I honestly don’t know the right words for this, it’s such a convoluted thing and the author uses pretty much exclusively fantasy terms to refer to the different positions etc., so clerical structures it is), the sometimes superstitious or disbelieving mistrust of those he encounters during his work and of course the rigors of that work itself, having to deal with the dead, trying to puzzle through their lives and finding justice for them or peace for those they left behind.
Where The Goblin Emperor was an intriguing look at the machinations of the elven court, The Witness of the Dead and The Grief of Stones offer an in-depth look at everyday life in one of the larger cities of the elflands, Amalo, and a closer look at some of the supernatural abilities that were more or less only hinted at in the original novel. While the maza (I’m pretty sure the plural is different but I cannot remember), the world’s magicians/wizards/whatever, play even less of a role in these novels than they did in The Goblin Emperor, with a Witness of the Dead as the protagonist, readers get to know much more about the duties but also abilities of those chosen by Ulis, the god of death (and other things, truly, an overview over the pantheon would also have been helpful).
There are a bunch of different things going on, some unrelated, some only seemingly so, and Thara Celehar has to – and sometimes simply wants to – figure them all out. These novels are a weird mix of slice of life, depressed detective stories and tea drinking steampunk fantasy and it works beautifully, resulting in stories that are captivating and yet relaxing to read. I was fascinated by Celehar when he first showed up in The Goblin Emperor but somewhere during The Witness of the Dead I fell in love with him and that feeling only intensified as I read The Grief of Stones. I can whole-heartedly recommend both of The Cemeteries of Amalo novels, but I would definitely recommend reading The Goblin Emperor beforehand.
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