the death I gave him coverRating: 4.5 stars
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Length: Novel

 

Hayden Lichfield has found his father, Graham, murdered in Elsinore Labs. The laboratory is his father’s life, his obsession, and it has come to take over Hayden’s life as well. When Hayden realizes that the security footage from the time of the murder has been erased, he knows the killer must be after the Sisyphus Formula. Hayden and his father have been studying how to create eternal life, how to keep the body from slowly breaking down over time to reach the ability to ultimately life forever. Hayden knows he can’t let that research get into the wrong hands, so he downloads and hides it. He also discovers footage of his father before death, plus a haunting message that makes it clear that Graham believes the killer is Hayden’s uncle, Charles.

With a killer potentially on the loose, Charles puts Elsinore Labs on lockdown in an attempt to find who murdered Graham, and (more importantly, Hayden suspects) to figure out what happened to the formula. The list of suspects is quite small, as the murder occurred late at night at the lab. The only ones present besides Hayden and Charles are researcher (and Hayden’s ex) Felicia Xia; her father and head of security, Paul Xia; and lab tech, Gabriel Rasmussen. Plus, the lab’s artificial intelligence system, Horatio.

Hayden is determined to avenge his father’s death, even if that means killing his uncle to see it done. But as the night wears on and secrets are revealed, the stress of the lockdown takes it toll on everyone — particularly Hayden. As Hayden slowly falls apart, everyone in the lab is caught up in the chaos as they try to find the killer and the formula before it is too late.

The Death I Gave Him is a fascinating and engaging locked room thriller. It takes Shakespeare’s Hamlet and gives it a sci fi twist. This is a fairly long book and I just tore through it, and found myself utterly caught up in the both the intensity of the story and the horror of watching the destruction unfold.

First off, as I said, this is a Hamlet retelling and I think this part is really well done. I don’t always totally click with literary retellings, often finding them either too literal a version of the original, or so far afield that I find myself struggling to see the source material in the new version. But here I think author Em X. Liu really gets things spot on. Like Hamlet, we have the story of a young man and heir apparent whose father is murdered. Hayden too gets a message from the grave (not giving away details, but wow, this part was intense) from his father accusing his uncle of the murder and tasking him with revenge. Paul fills the role of Polonius, Felicia of Ophelia, and Rasmussen sort of plays the role of assorted background characters. While Hayden’s mother and Felicia’s brother aren’t in the lab during the murder and therefore not there for the lockdown, they do play a part as well. And, of course, Hayden’s close companion and confidant, Horatio (right on the nose with that one), the building’s artificial intelligence system. The story maintains the basic plot of Hamlet, so if you read the play, you know the killer, and while the end doesn’t shake out exactly the same, it is definitely contains tragedy. The story also explores many of the same themes — Hayden’s stress and mental collapse over the course of the story, the role of his father in his life, questions of mortality and suicidal ideation, and more. It is really impressive how Liu takes a story that most people know and still manages to make it so intense and thrilling and compelling in a totally new way.

The other thing that really makes this story so fascinating to me is the structure. This is a story that take place in 2047, as told from a point further in the future by a historian who is studying the events of that night. The historian is piecing together the story from a combination of archival camera footage and recordings, an extensive article Felicia writes after that night, and various interviews, among other sources. We also get information that comes from Hayden, derived from a neuromapping with Horatio that allows the AI to sort of sync with his brain and explain what Hayden is doing and thinking at the time.The “author” of the story provides footnotes occasionally, noting things like how the science the characters discuss has since been proven or disproven, or pointing out that no one has been able to verify a particular statement, etc. So there is almost this documentary quality to this story, a sense of reviewing found footage of this catastrophic night, in some cases directly from those involved, but looking back at it all years later. It gave both this archival sense to the events, as if we are looking back and trying to make sense of this catastrophe, but at the same time, there is an immediacy, as it feels like the characters are telling us their story directly.

While Hayden is the focus of the story, and his slow descent into a sense of madness as the night wears on is the train wreck we can’t stop watching, we really get three points of view here. Hayden is the one around whom this all revolves, the one with the quest for revenge, the desperation to prove himself worthy to a father no longer alive to see it, and a sense of spiraling panic that grows throughout the night. But we also get portions told from Felicia’s POV and I liked how this version of the story gives her character more to do. She attempts to be the voice of reason, the one who ends up between Hayden and Charles, the one who is able to take a step back and try to wrest control of this disaster back. She is also the one who is perhaps the most harmed by it all when all is said and done. Her chapters are told in first-person as recounted in a story she wrote later about the events, which gives a nice intensity and immediacy to her narrative. And the third main character is Horatio, the AI. While he has no physical body, there is a sentience to Horatio. Not only that, but he has a clear emotional connection to Hayden, and while he is at times hampered by his programming as to whether he can intervene in events, he is clearly working on Hayden’s behalf and wants to help him. So these three POVs combine well to really bring things together.

My last note is that this book is labeled as a “queer sci-fi retelling” and I had a trouble quite seeing that aspect of the story. First, let me make clear that this is not a romance, this is a tragedy. There is a past romance between Hayden and Felicia, but they don’t have feelings for one another anymore. The closest this story comes is the emotional relationship between Hayden and Horatio. I’m guessing this is what the marketing is defining as the “queer” aspect of the story, based on the absence of any other indicators. Horatio is referred to as male, both by name and pronouns, though as he is a computer, his gender is more a construct. He and Hayden very clearly have an emotional relationship, as I mentioned. There are also a couple of scenes where things become physical, as the neuromapping means Horatio is able to influence Hayden’s physical sensations in a way that simulates sex. But this doesn’t feel like sexual attraction between two partners to me. There is no sense that Horatio is attracted to Hayden, more that Horatio is trying to take care of Hayden. And no sense that Hayden is attracted to Horatio, just that he is enjoying the physical sensations. I guess this just doesn’t feel like any kind of romantic or sexual attraction to me the way I was expecting from the way the story is marketed. It feels like an emotional connection and a strong friendship. But I think the whole dynamic between Hayden and Horatio is really interesting, so however one perceives their dynamic, I think it works for the story.

Overall, I found this one just really fascinating. I tore through it and was totally absorbed in watching it all unfold. If you enjoy intense thrillers, Shakespearean retellings, or just some really unique storytelling, definitely check this out.

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