Back in 2014, Katherine Addison gave us all a great gift in The Goblin Emperor, a book that somehow combined cozy fantasy, dark undertones, assassination attempts, steampunk, and bildungsroman into one delightful chonk of a read. The title character, Maia, was a half-goblin emperor of a largely elven realm, who had to navigate racism, classism, court politics, and the aforementioned assassination attempts all within the first year of his reign. One of his best allies was Mer Thara Celehar, a Witness for the Dead who basically became the Emperor’s personal detective, and who did such a great job that he got his own follow-up, The Witness for the Dead, another remarkably fun hybrid story.
Now we have The Grief of Stones, a direct sequel to The Witness for the Dead that takes us back to the bustling city of Amalo, where new cases await. I’m happy to say that if you loved either of the first two novels, I think you’ll love spending time with Celehar again.
In my review of The Witness for the Dead I described Celehar as a cross between Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, and Sidney Chambers, the minister from Grantchester. The Grief of Stones only strengthens these comparisons, as Celehar’s dedication to uncovering the truth lands him in the most dangerous situation we’ve seen yet.
The two main cases Celehar investigates are dark—even darker than the tale of forbidden love and extortion in Witness. But the interesting thing with Addison’s writing is that even the most horrific elements are so tempered by the innate decency of most of her characters. That decency throws the horror into relief and makes it worse, but also, in a certain way, easier to face. She’s quite willing to be brutal as an author, but since you’re seeing the world through Celehar’s eyes, you also see just how many people are trying to make society better against hard odds.
Also in time-honored gumshoe tradition, Celehar is often investigating people of higher rank, and is almost always in direct conflict with his superiors. It’s just that in this case, his superiors are akin to bishops, and are in constant fights with each other. This last element is how Celehar ends up with an apprentice.
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The Grief of Stones
But let me back up for a moment and explain Witnessing. In the world of the Goblin Emperor, there are a few types of Witnesses. Judicial and clerical Witnesses are extremely astute observers who work for the government. Whenever there’s a criminal case or an act of violence, a Witness will be called to hear accounts from as many sides as possible. They’re trained to listen, at whatever length necessary, and to ask probing questions when they think there are deeper truths to unpack. (One such Witness heard Maia’s account of a coup attempt in The Goblin Emperor.) But Witnesses for the Dead are what they sound like—within a certain short period after death, people with this gift can, through physical contact with a recently deceased person, commune with their spirit. They experience the person’s death with them, and they can ask questions of them.
Thus, again like a proper gumshoe, Celehar keeps a small office, and spends his mornings waiting for cases to walk through his door. These cases dot the book, and run the gamut from “grieving young widower needs to know where his wife kept their money” to “The ashes were in the bakery—it did not seem to have occurred to anyone that it was an odd place to keep them”, from hilarious to heartbreaking, serving to brighten what turns into a dark narrative. By folding Cases of The Week into the main narrative, Addison shows us Celehar at work in an immediate, local way that complements his dogged pursuit of the two larger cases. And in this outing, these cases serve as an ideal training ground for Celehar’s new apprentice, Velhiro Tomasaran.
Celehar has been hearing the dead since he was young. He’s gone through all the training one needs to focus on the voices of the dead, to quiet ghouls, to deal with distraught family members. He’s also gone through all the training to be a prelate of Ulis, which is, again, more akin to going through a seminary course. But what if a person discovers the ability to speak to the dead without that background? Tomasaran is a recent widow who only realized she could talk to the dead when she touched her husband’s body immediately after he died. (Not an ideal way to learn.) After she recovered from this shock, she decided she wanted to pursue the calling—very much against her family’s wishes. Celehar’s boss sends her to him for training as much to inconvenience Celehar as to make sure they have a back-up Witness, and our gruff, chronically depressed detective priest has to try to figure out how to engage with her in a way that won’t terrify her. (It’s never a good sign when a character has to start a sentence with the words “I am not a monster”, but Celehar’s doing his best.)
In addition to Tomasaran we get lovely returning cast, including Celehar’s best friend, Anora, his Lestrade equivalent, Subpraeceptor Azhanharad, and my personal favorite character, Iäna Pel-Thenhior, a composer with the Vermilion Opera who has made little secret of his interest in Celehar. (For his part, Celehar still isn’t quite sure what to do about…any of it.) Celehar finds new allies in a pair of scholars, Osmer Rohethar and Osmer Ormevar, and another clerical Witness, Ulthora Csathamar. Given that the book ends with a fabulous set up for another sequel, I was excited to watch the cast round out like this, and expanding into Amalo’s University led to some of the most fun scenes in the book, so I hope we return in future adventures.
As ever, Addison weaves character into small, startling moments, as when Tomasaran and Csathamar hear Celehar laugh for the first time:
I laughed, although it was a harsh sound like a dog’s bark. “Any prelate of Ulis will tell you that the living are the difficult part.”
They both looked at me with some concern.
“Are you all right?” said Tomasaran. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you laugh before.”
“I am very tired,” I admitted.
“And so your guard is down,” said Csathamar. “You must spend your life on guard, Othala Celehar.”
A Witness’s insights could often be uncomfortable. “I suppose,” I said.
“Oh dear,” said Csathamar. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to sting.”
And in this style and class-obsessed world, intricate descriptions of clothing, jewelry, and hairdressing are key to understanding where everyone stands. Celehar’s constant, nagging embarrassment about his clothing becomes almost like a drumbeat:
I was wearing the rusty black secondhand coat, off which, long ago, all the seed pearls had been snipped to be used for some other garment, except for a couple of lonely holdouts on the left sleeve. Next to Tomasaran’s canon’s coat, I looked moderately shabby. Next to Csathamar, I looked like a bundle of rags.
Celehar is a prelate of Ulis, the god of death. Celehar’s coat of office is old, shabby, much-mended, and comes off as a perfect blend of a priest’s frock and Columbo’s trenchcoat. It gives Celehar the tiny bit of status he has, as prelates of Ulis are given a certain amount of automatic respect—but many people also fear it, as though as a follower of Ulis he brings death with him. And at the same time, the coat itself is threadbare, his stipend is nowhere near enough to replace it, and in a class-obsessed society it’s a constant marker of his poverty.
And as in the earlier books, the religion and funerary practices are part of the worldbuilding. Tomasaran attempts to catch up on some of a prelate’s knowledge by shadowing Veltanezh, the prelate of Amalo’s newer cemetery, Ulmavonee. (There are a lot of different cemeteries in the book, plus a straight-up tomb, but again, no spoilers.) The conversation leads to Celehar making a breakthrough about the nature of the god whose calling he follows:
“The process of tending to death is like a waterwheel,” said Veltanezh. “The death itself, then the preparation of the body, the funeral, the burial, the reveth’osrel—the time in the earth—the exhumation, and the transfer to the revethmera, and then when you come up from the catacombs, another body is waiting.”
“At many points along the way, a body is waiting,” I said.
“True, but injurious to my comparison,” said Veltanezh. “My meaning is that the work of a municipal prelate, by which we worship Ulis, is a never-ending cycle, just as in the prayer of compassion for the dead, the last word is also the first word.”
“And you have many waterwheels turning at once,” I said, grasping what he was trying to say.
“Yes!” said Veltanezh. “Each at a different point in its revolution. It is why we must keep accurate records, lest we fail to keep the wheel spinning.”
“Therefore, your worship of Ulis is the water,” I said.
He looked at me oddly. “Yes, I suppose it is. I hadn’t thought of that.”
And finally I am so so happy to report that Addison has once again expanded her world with a new terrifying, thought-to-be-mythological creature that turns out to be implacably real and very, very dangerous. I won’t spoil anything about it here except to say that the book takes a turn into full horror, and it’s fantastic.
Which highlights one of the overall strength of this book and its predecessor, I think. Addison is more than willing to let her work duck down dark alleys, bob into unexpected eddies, circle tangents for a while—rather than trying to strangle her narrative into a traditional arc, she allows it to unfold like life, following Mer Celehar as he works through clues and learns how o teach on the fly. I think it’s because of this that when she digs into the meaning of the book’s title, and really tackles Celehar’s ongoing grief, it feels much more raw and real than I was expecting. What these books are, underneath the mystery plots, is an exploration of trauma, what it does to the body and mind, and how to process it in a way that call allow for a future.
I had thought about suicide, after Evru’s execution, after my disgrace. Some days I had thought about nothing else. It was probably the emperor who had saved my life, by giving me a purpose, a task, a question to answer. And then Ulis had spoken to me in a dream, and I had known that my calling had not been taken from me. After that there was no question of suicide, not if my god still needed my work. But I remembered what it had felt like.
In The Witness for the Dead, we got a good look at how conflicted Celehar is over his status as marnis, and how haunted he is by memories of his executed lover Evru. These were both pretty huge, underlined themes. In The Grief of Stones, Addison takes us much further into Celehar’s heart. What does being a Witness mean to him? Does he want to be defined by his calling? What happens if he burns out, as most Witnesses do, after a time? Will his life be forever defined by his grief for Evru? Is love a possibility? Is it even a thing he wants?
The real enemy in this book, as it is in the two previous, is the status quo. Just as we saw the harsh lives of factory workers in Witness, here we begin to see far more of the constrictions placed on women and the poor. If you’re a foundling, you can expect your life to be difficult at a foundling school, but at least if you’re a boy you’ll have a shot at a trade when you reach adulthood. For most girls, the only job to look forward to is some sort of servitude, and that’s on the chance that an employer or “benefactor” doesn’t take advantage of you and leave you disgraced and pregnant. A few of Celehar’s cases revolve around foundling schools, from several different angles, so we get to see just how exploited the girls are, and how much society just…doesn’t bother to change their situation. We also see respectable women trying to create careers in a society that wants them to be wives and mothers above all, and upper-class women trying to make things better but often enabling more abuses. And in the character of Tomasaran we get a female Witness for the Dead, a woman who has chosen a difficult path. While Celehar respects her, and also likes her personally, her family considers it almost scandalous that she would pursue her calling rather than sequester herself away in widowhood and focus on her child. And again, even if Celehar decides he wants to follow his heart, how accepted can he be in this society? The Grief of Stones continues one of the central questions of The Goblin Emperor: what futures can this world offer, when there are so many restrictions placed on its people, and so many are kept poor and afraid?
Addison’s book lives up to its title: it is driven, largely, but different forms of grief. Unsurprising for a mystery novel whose detective speaks to the dead, but I still found myself surprised by just how moved I was by these characters. And once again I’m very happy that Addison seems to be setting us up for a sequel.
The Grief of Stones is available from Tor Books.