The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor was my first introduction to Katherine Addison (pen name for Sarah Monette). As I mentioned when I wrote about that book, I admire the way in which Addison creates meaningful, real characters, people who feel like they have tangible depth even when I don’t like them (and don’t want to like them) at all.

The Witness for the Dead does it again. I don’t feel quite as uplifted or warmed with hope as I did after the first book—possibly because the main character is in such a low place himself, and somehow slogging his way through that without making the book feel depressing—but this one still feels good and truthful. It’s still peaceful in a way that I appreciate, bringing resolution to the important things while allowing the less important things to pass along. And the main character, once again, feels like a decent person who retains his decency through everything that this story (full of other people’s intrigue, and others’ dislike for the main character) has to offer. This book is, to borrow a word from John Scalzi’s review, intimate.

Oh, and this book follows a different main character than the first. It’s a sequel insofar as it follows someone who shows up in the first book, is in the same setting, and occurs after the first book’s events. But otherwise, little of the first book’s story matters all that much here.

I suppose, if you haven’t read The Goblin Emperor and don’t know much about the setting, this might be a bit of a shock to your system. Addison doesn’t bother to explain any of the in-setting terminology that she uses (modes of address, important morphemes denoting gender, class, familial relationship). As such, understanding who’s who and getting over that initial hurdle of comprehension might be a little rough. I know enough about my preferences to realize that many readers want a little more context, a slightly less abrupt introduction to a complicated setting, than I do. This book might not offer that.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure that Addison did that much to explain the setting’s conventions in The Goblin Emperor either. But that book had a slightly slower introduction to more complicated social dynamics—and had a main character who constantly thought about the social cues involved—and thereby made more room for the reader to gain expertise before being thrown into the deep end. That’s less the case here. There are still small contextual cues, e.g. thoughts from the narrator which reflect on terms of address, but (based solely on old memories) I think there’s a slightly steeper learning curve to this book than the previous one.

That does not mean that this book is bad. I really liked it. I strongly recommend it, especially for those who want heartfelt fantasy that gives more attention to characters’ internal worlds, and which takes time to make people feel like people instead of plot-relevant cardboard cut-outs. In that way it has many similarities to Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series, except that The Witness for the Dead, like The Goblin Emperor before it, has more external plot and intrigue.

So if you’re looking for fantasy intrigue with well-written characters, or stories that include external plot but give more weight to a character’s personal journey, The Witness for the Dead might be for you. Enjoy.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

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The Goblin Emperor is strangely soothing. I don’t mean that it will make you feel good the entire way through, nor that nothing bad happens; I mean that it’s touching, fun, feels real, and somehow delivers good political intrigue in a grim situation without being dark or gloomy. Also, it hooked me and kept me excited despite being a tome.

I found this book on a Tor list recommending anti-grimdark stories, and it entirely delivers. Though shelved as YA, I think everyone would like it.

You know how sometimes you don’t want a story to end? You reach the finish and sit in that lingering need to see more, stuck on the idea that surely you could get just a little more story out of the book if you squeezed it just a bit harder. That was this book for me. I wanted more, I wanted to see what came next.

But Addison timed the climax and denouement for this book extremely well: she resolved the central issues, the emotional and political struggles that swirl through the heart of the story. Then, with that resolution still in hand, she ended things; no unecessary time is spent dwelling on anything extra or outside the story. Also, no matter how much I want to read more about the good things that happen to these characters, reading about only good things would probably bore me after a while.

And, unless they launched a whole new story, I’d feel sad when things strayed from that quiet feeling of calm stability.

I have more to say. I won’t give you explicit spoilers, but bear in mind that (if you’re strongly in the anti-spoiler camp) you may glean more from my comments than you wish to know. If you want to stop here you can. You should already know by now that I recommend this book.

Anyway, you spoiler-phobes have been warned.

There’s a lot of grimdark out there. There’s an excess of stories that revel in showing us how gritty and real they are by rubbing our noses in how poorly everyone treats each other. It takes a special kind of attention, a particular exercise of will, to write political intrigue—complete with assassinations, nefarious plotting, and villains aplenty—while still clinging to an underlying optimism, and giving everyone relatable humanity.

I rarely read characters I fall in love with in political intrigue novels, people who are quite simply good. They’re usually narrative fodder, intended to show the reader how characters die. So it is an absolute joy to find that The Goblin Emperor neither ignores the dangers of trusting those who desire your power, nor casts the central character as a manipulative super-human. Instead, The Goblin Emperor allows its main character to be manipulated and suffer for his naivety, learning from his mistakes without losing his honesty and decency or being crushed beneath the novel’s narrative heel—this story doesn’t assume that to be kind one must also be stupid. It allows him to be a good person trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation, even as he struggles with the growing weight of understandable paranoia and the inability to know what choices might be the ‘right’ ones.

It helps that The Goblin Emperor doesn’t bother with irredeemable villains; even the people I came to detest still had their own reasons behind their actions. Whether obviously selfish, well-intentioned, or something else, they always felt complexly human and real.

What I’m saying, really, is that this is a good book. Katherine Addison did a good job, and made a story that I strongly recommend. It’s emotionally real, it’s sometimes grim, but it’s also hopeful. And that matters.

Eric Flint and Determined Optimism

I love reading Eric Flint’s books.  Even when they’re not especially “good,” per se, I still go out of my way to get my hands on them.  There’s something special about the way that he constructs story-worlds that I find captivating, and I think I may finally have some of the right words for it.  Time and again, I’m struck by the way in which his stories convey a rigorously optimistic, idealistic world view; his protagonists work together to create a better world, or a better future, or a better something else, but there’s always the underlying presence of cooperating with others in order to improve upon what already exists.  I don’t always agree with everything that he writes, but given a choice between an Eric Flint-esque book and something less hopeful, I’ll pretty much always pick Flint (or at least return to Flint after a jaunt elsewhere).

Part of it has to do with inspiration, and part of it has to do with my personal headspace.  I consistently reference the need for inspiration towards something better when I review Flint’s books, often referring back to my article on Schindler’s List.  I sometimes feel willfully self-deceptive when I consciously shape my media consumption like this, but I find that my own outlook on life is far more positive and constructive when I make sure that I balance my media intake with more hopeful and inspiring stories.

All of which is to say that I find that Flint’s writing serves a very distinct purpose.  I like his work more for the fact that he very specifically introduces such positive people and/or groups into his stories; I find it tremendously reassuring to read about people consciously working together to create a better world, and I often feel more empowered to do the same after reading his work.  It makes a nice counterweight to my research into things like sex slavery, MKUltra, or Operation Condor.  There’s something refreshing to Flint’s idealistic community organizing that helps to clean out the toxicity of the horribly sinister things that we human beings have routinely done to each other.

I think there’s more to be covered here, but I’ll leave it at that for the moment.  What do you think?  Do you have similar mental health management strategies?  Do you actively seek inspiration in the media that you consume?