Title: The Death I Gave Him
Author: Em X. Liu
Publisher: Rebellion Publishing
Length: 432 Pages
Category: Sci-Fi, Technothriller
Rating: 5 Stars
At a Glance: The Death I Gave Him is a sci-fi locked-room drama. Em X. Liu’s storytelling is utterly lush, and their world-building portrays the claustrophobia of the setting and duplicity of the characters while pushing the plot forward.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Hayden Lichfield’s life is ripped apart when he finds his father murdered in their lab, and the camera logs erased. The killer can only have been after one thing: the Sisyphus Formula the two of them developed together, which might one day reverse death itself. Hoping to lure the killer into the open, Hayden steals the research. In the process, he uncovers a recording his father made in the days before his death, and a dying wish: Avenge me…
With the lab on lockdown, Hayden is trapped with four other people—his uncle Charles, lab technician Gabriel Rasmussen, research intern Felicia Xia and their head of security, Felicia’s father Paul—one of whom must be the killer. His only sure ally is the lab’s resident artificial intelligence, Horatio, who has been his dear friend and companion since its creation. With his world collapsing, Hayden must navigate the building’s secrets, uncover his father’s lies, and push the boundaries of sanity in the pursuit of revenge.
Review: The play-within-a-play is the trap Hamlet devised to catch the conscience of the king. Em X. Liu (they/them) uses this device to great effect in their novel The Death I Gave Him, a futuristic reimagining of Shakespeare’s tale of murder, betrayal, and madness.
Being familiar with Hamlet, let alone an expert on Shakespeare, isn’t a prerequisite to becoming absorbed in the events that transpire after Dr. Graham Lichfield is found dead in his laboratory. This story isn’t as much a whodunnit as it is a story of proving whodunnit and then exacting revenge. Graham Lichfield’s son, Hayden, has vowed to make his father’s killer pay and to protect the Sisyphus Formula, a project that has the potential to change the world. Whether it’s for the better or for the worse isn’t the subject of debate. What is debatable is if Hayden Lichfield is entirely lucid while he uncovers secrets and plots to commit crimes of his own. The question of whether Hayden is afraid of dying or afraid of living remains at the fore as the story progresses.
Felicia Xia is the ersatz Ophelia of the story. She is Hayden’s ex-girlfriend and is employed at Elsinore Labs. She is at times Hayden’s adversary and at times his ally. She is capable and resilient and angry and conflicted, which makes her an interesting point-of-view character. Felicia’s circumstances are as tied up in Hayden’s obsessions as her motivations are compelled by the memories of what Hayden once was to her. The author gives Felicia agency in their rendering of the drama, and Felicia in fact directs the progression of the events in which Hayden has little to no control. Felicia, however, is not the sole storyteller, which gives The Death I Gave Him complexity and dimension.
The most sympathetic character in this novel is Horatio, which says something about the ways of humans. Horatio is the entity, the working organ that keeps Elsinore functioning, and he is, inarguably, Hayden’s closest companion. It’s too restrictive to call Horatio artificial intelligence, even though he is indeed a computer, simply because it limits his role and implies his purpose in the story is passive, which is not the case. Horatio may very well be the most civilized character in the cast, he’s certainly the least duplicitous, and he feels things for Hayden that a machine hadn’t ought to be able to feel. That’s what makes him wholly intriguing.
The Death I Gave Him is a sci-fi locked-room drama. Em X. Liu’s storytelling is utterly lush, and their world-building portrays the claustrophobia of the setting and duplicity of the characters while pushing the plot forward.
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