The Grief of Stones by Katherine Addison
The Grief of Stones (2022) is Katherine Addison’s newest work focusing on Thara Celehar, a Prelate of Ulis and, more importantly, a Witness for the Dead — someone who can communicate (albeit it in very limited fashion) with the recently deceased. In the prior novel, titled aptly enough The Witness for the Dead, Celehar uses that gift to help solve several murders.
They also, much to their dismay, end up the go-to-person (or the hapless person in the wrong place at the wrong time) for dealing with various types of undead, such as ghouls. Both elements — murder and undead — crop up here as well. Which, along with other reasons, makes The Grief of Stones quite similar to its predecessor. How one reacts to that will depend on the kind of story one prefers, as we’ll see. Some inevitable spoilers for the prior book will follow.
The Grief of Stones opens with the execution of one of the serial killers Celehar uncovered in the last book, a brief scene that works nicely to remind us of prior events, highlight Celehar’s sense of responsibility, their isolation (often self-imposed), and the emotional burden their job entails. After this short scene, the story turns to one of the two major plot lines.
Celehar is tasked with investigating the death of an upper-class woman, whose husband believes was murdered. In the course of investigating, Celehar also uncovers a second mystery involving a school of young girls. Two other complications involve the aforementioned undead encounter, and the sudden appearance of another Witness for the Dead Celehar is supposed to train.
I noted above that The Grief of Stones is similar in a number of respects to The Witness for the Dead, and one such way is that here again I’d say the mysteries are the weakest part of the story, with the same sort of issues that cropped up in The Witness for the Dead: thinly characterized and pretty obvious perpetrators and relatively desultory investigations that go extremely smoothly and lead to the solutions pretty easily (not in terms of actual events but the unraveling of the mysteries). And so I’ll say the same thing I said about the last novel. If you’re looking for a compelling mystery or impressive detecting in your mystery-fantasy, The Grief of Stones is not the novel for you.
That said, I’ll also repeat what I said about the impact of said weakness. While I would have preferred a better mystery, it didn’t really detract all that much because I so love this world, this character, and this voice. So no, don’t come for the mystery. But if you like immersive world-building, a wonderfully rich main character, and a gently quiet, contemplative voice (that doesn’t eschew action altogether), then this is absolutely the book for you. I started and finished it happily in one sitting and would have been just as happy had it kept going for another 100 pages (I was somewhat consoled by how it ends with a strong hint another book is to come).
Celehar is a fully realized character, one who doesn’t spring into existence in each novel free of context. Past events continue to haunt them, and that burden only grows heavier due to the events in this novel as well. Celehar is a gentle soul, withdrawn by nature from the people who would help Celehar carry their burdens, unaware of their own gifts, making them an easy character to root for and an emotionally painful one to empathize with.
Other characters try their best to break through Celehar’s isolation and grief, but to little effect so far. The addition of an apprentice of sorts is one newly possible path out of loneliness beyond the friendships that continue from the prior novel. Or halo Tomasaran also offers up a secondary benefit — the fish-out-of water character who needs things explained to them and who thus presents an easy and natural method for the author to explain those same things to the reader, such as bits of world-building or reminders of past events readers may have forgotten about in between books.
The writing remains smooth, precise, vivid, lovely in places (especially moments of introspection rather than physical description), and is frequently wryly funny, as when one petitioner, after some hesitation, finally reveals the question she wants Celehar to ask her recently dead friend: “Who is the dead body in the attic?” To which Celehar replies, in typically understated fashion, “That seems like a very reasonable question.”
An immersive story that draws you in via the compellingly vulnerable character at its center and its emotionally evocative voice and language, The Grief of Stones ends movingly and powerfully, leaving me looking forward to our next chance to spend some time in this world with this character.