The Grief of Stones begins with the execution of a murderer uncovered by Thara Celehar in The Witness for the Dead. His friend Anora is trying to talk him out of attending, saying Celehar is punishing himself, and Celehar replies that he believes he has a responsibility. The friend loses the argument, though both of them are right. Once there, “I reminded myself of the women [the prisoner] had murdered, after seducing each one into believing he loved her.” (p. 2) Celehar takes no satisfaction in the execution, and after the event he reflects, “Maybe now I could stop dreaming of his wives.” (p. 2)
While on the surface The Grief of Stones is a charming, almost cozy recollection of incidents in the life of Thara Celehar, prelate of Ulis and Witness for the Dead, there is an undercurrent pulling at both Celehar and the reader, drawing them into the depths of how far Celehar is willing to go for his witnessing, and what it will cost him. In the world that Katherine Addison has developed in two books about Celehar and The Goblin Emperor, a Witness for the Dead can contact people newly deceased and return with limited information from the remains of the person’s consciousness. Judicially, they also represent the dead person and are required to always tell the truth about the results of their inquiries. Once asked by a living person to witness for someone, they become investigators, not formally a magistrate, but recognized by law and custom. The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones are in a way fantasy cousins of the mystery novels featuring English vicars.
Celehar’s first investigation is slightly unusual within his cultural context: he is called by the Marquess Ulzhavel to witness for his late wife. It is unusual in that the Marquise has been dead for more than three months, and thus the ability to contact the newly departed will be useless. The Marquess has discovered evidence that she was murdered — a threatening note — and he is adamant that he does not want a judicial Witness, but an advocate for his wife, a Witness for the Dead. Celehar agrees to take the case.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about The Grief of Stones is how Addison shows Celehar’s life outside of the investigation that starts the book’s plot. That allows her to add depth to the world around him, one of the main points of the series. As I wrote before, “The world that Addison has built exists apart from Celehar, and will continue ticking along with or without him. Addison has the courage to believe that a story can be important without reconfiguring the world where it takes place, and she has the skill as an author to carry readers along on that belief.” After accepting the commission for the Marquise, he goes to dinner with the friend who tried to dissuade him from attending the execution. On another day, he goes to visit Iäna Pel-Thenhior, artistic director of one of the main opera houses in the city of Amalo. He’s a friend, but Celehar both does and does not hope that he could become more. With these scenes and others more directly related to Celehar’s inquiries, Addison builds a setting that’s strong and consistent enough to hold the stories she tells: names, titles, mores, technologies, diversions, and more. She does this with great economy; The Grief of Stones is less than 250 pages long, and yet I felt I could practically walk into Amalo, though I would probably get lost among its many neighborhoods and twisty streets.
Celehar also has a public role, and petitioners may simply turn up at his office with requests for help. This allows Addison to tell several tales of detection within the overarching framework of the book. Not every one is quite as grim as a murder: in one case, Celehar is asked to help a young widower find where his wife kept their savings safe within the unruly tenement where they lived. “She said if I trusted her, I didn’t need to know. And I did trust her. So, no. She didn’t.” (p. 35) And then she died in childbirth, leaving behind the baby and a husband who doesn’t know how to pay the midwife or the midwife, to say nothing of the rent. Some, though, are in their way grimmer: a body is found in the great city’s main canal, and Azhanharad, an acquaintance of Celehar’s from the local constabulary, calls on his abilities as a Witness. The girl, Celehar determines, was a suicide. She was a foundling, and pregnant by her employer. “Isreän had known she couldn’t afford to keep the baby, and she couldn’t face the thought of her child growing up in the misery she had known. She had chosen a bad way out, but there were no good ones.” (p. 19)
“We have been friends with Merrem Mulinaran for many years, and she was always a woman who told stories. Lies, our husband called them, but we did not and do not believe that she intended them to be taken seriously. But…” She stopped and wrestled with it for a moment, then started on what seemed to be a fresh track. “Merrem Mulinaran died three days ago. She had no children and no family in Amalo, and we are distant cousins, for our mothers were both Dechaladeise. She appointed us her executrix.”
She stopped; this time it did not appear that she was going to be able to start again. I said, “If you have come to us, you must have a question you need to ask her.”
“Yes!” she said. “Who is the dead body in her attic?” (p. 88)
That question, and its resolution just three pages later, lead Celehar to say “It has been a startling morning.” (p. 91)
The person he makes that observation to is Velhiro Tomasaran. She had appeared at his office three days before, just the day after he had received a note from his clerical superiors stating that he was to take on an apprentice Witness for the Dead. She was “an elven woman in a canon’s frock and a plain black skirt, her hair in a smooth prelate’s braid past her waist, a gray overcoat over one arm and a valise at her feet. Her eyes were pale green. Her ears were low. And she was my age or older.” (p. 33) Tomasaran is new to the clergy, having only discovered her ability when she touched her late husband before they closed the coffin. She offers a perspective on duty that differs from Celehar’s, and she has a lifetime of different experiences to draw on as the two of them work together to make sense of some events in Amalo, though she is new to the world of police, coroners, sextons, and numerous forms of the undead.
Addison’s is a low-magic world, but it is not a no-magic world, as becomes clearer as Celehar continues pulling at threads loosened by the murder of the Marquise Ulzhavel. I guessed early on where following one of those threads would take the story, and I suppose that the ease of guessing could serve as a trigger warning for readers who need one. Addison has not flinched from showing some of the degradation and exploitation that exists in the same city as Celehar’s friend’s opera, the tea houses and restaurants that both of them regularly enjoy, and the kind people who offer Tomasaran inexpensive lodging.
One piece of corruption and Celehar’s investigation of it lead him and Tomasaran into physical danger, and the one scene of the novel that really did not work for me. The scene makes the rest of The Grief of Stones work, but the actions that Celehar undertakes seem unnecessary to me, and out of character. I don’t have an alternative to offer of how Addison could have better put the action together, but for me it was a very squeaky hinge in the story, and nearly put me out of the book.
Once past that, though, the book is tense and effective. Addison gives readers more of the supernatural, answers to the main questions, and something like a resolution. Given that the series aims to show lives within the world rather than lives that change the whole world, I would not expect a complete resolution, and I am glad that Addison shows how they can go on. I am less sure, though, that there will be more from Celehar, even if the major questions of his life are still open. Indeed, more are open at the end of The Grief of Stones than at the beginning. Is Addison tired of Celehar? When she first diverged from The Goblin Emperor was she uncertain that a female protagonist would succeed in her target market? Will Tomasaran take the spotlight? The unsettled ending will probably stay with me longer than if Addison had wrapped everything neatly and tied it up with a bow, and I am sure she knows that.