This is one of those rare books that is exactly what the cover copy promises: “A lyrical, queer sci-fi retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet as a locked-room thriller.” The Death I Gave Him lives up to this hype, and I can easily see how some people would adore this book. I loved Em X. Liu’s obvious love for Shakespeare, and as far as Shakespearean retellings go, this one is pretty good. As far as thrillers go—well, we all know I’m not the biggest fan of thrillers to begin with. As far as murder mysteries go—well, it’s not much of a mystery, now is it? Thanks to NetGalley and publisher Solaris for the eARC.
Look, I won’t summarize Hamlet for you. Elsinore is a lab rather than a castle; Hayden and his murdered dad are scientists working on life-prolonging serums; Felicia (Ophelia) is an intern, and her dad, Paul (Polonius) is the head of Elsinore’s security. Liu casts Horatio as the lab’s disembodied artificial intelligence. The book opens on Horatio “regaining consciousness” and seeing Hayden next to his father’s body. From there, things quickly spiral out of control. It’s tense; it’s queer; it’s hot and heavy at points (not my thing).
I’m mostly interested in looking at this book and how it represents an evolution of Shakespeare. What I mean by this is that Shakespeare has been reinterpreted from the moment his plays started to be performed. Each era, each society, projects its own ideas on to Shakespeare’s stories and reifies them in different ways. Liu has taken Hamlet and reimagined it as a locked-room murder mystery set in the 2050s—yet it is still definitely Shakespeare. However, I also really like how Liu took liberties with the characters and plot—this is more reimagining than retelling, and that is for the better.
If Shakespeare were alive today, I have no doubt he would write science fiction (and also historical fiction, and let’s face it, he would probably make his living writing erotica or porn or something). The inclusion of an AI main character—Horatio, no less—and the subplot around developing a life-prolonging serum both feel true to ideas that show up time and again Shakespeare’s work. So much of what he talks about, in Hamlet but also in The Tempest and other plays, comes down to ruminating on how well we can really know others (or even ourselves). Horatio and Hayden’s relationship here, the use of a neural-mapping interface to allow them to communicate with each other and know each other far more intimately than would otherwise be possible, is an intriguing reading of Horatio and Hayden’s relationship in the original play. That Horatio is an AI and thus an “other” speaks to the ambivalence with which the play treats Horatio, the way that he always seems to be present yet seldom gets much acknowledgement from everyone else.
I don’t want to go into spoiler territory, but let’s just say that I think what happens with Horatio and Hayden in the end is a great change to the original story. The same goes for the fates of Felicia and even the way that Liu characterizes Hayden’s mother—I feel like Liu spent a lot of time thinking about the role of women in the original play. Felicia certainly receives much more depth and time than Ophelia does, and her fate is likewise both more hopeful and more palatable. She is arguably as much of a protagonist in this book as Hayden is, and the story is better for it.
The “lyrical” nature of the book is where The Death I Gave Him loses me. While I really liked Liu’s plot and character choices, I didn’t like their writing style as much. Both the description and the dialogue would occasionally grate on me, and the conceit that the book is a manuscript by a researcher looking back on the entire incident felt unnecessary. There’s a lot of layers here that I’m not sure the story needed.
The Death I Gave Him is creative and original (despite being based on Hamlet). It didn’t land all the way for me, but it came close enough that I know there’s an audience out there just waiting to fall in love with this tragedy. I can’t wait for that audience to find it, for I would like to see more of what Liu has to offer in the future.