In The Death I Gave Him by Em X Liu, Hayden Lichfield’s world shatters when he discovers his father has been murdered and crucial camera logs in their lab have been deleted. The motive is clear: the coveted Sisyphus Formula, capable of potentially defying death. To draw out the killer, Hayden attempts to abscond with the research, and in doing so stumbles across a recording left by his father, beseeching him to avenge his death…
Trapped in the locked-down lab, Hayden is surrounded by four potential suspects: his uncle Charles, lab tech Gabriel Rasmussen, intern Felicia Xia, and her father and security head, Paul — any one of whom could be the killer.
Hayden’s only trustworthy ally is Horatio, the lab’s AI, a trusted companion since its inception. As Hayden grapples with a crumbling reality, he must unravel the lab’s enigmas, expose his father’s deceptions, and teeter on the edge of reason to exact his revenge.
Billed as a queer retelling of Hamlet through the lens of a locked-room thriller, Em X. Liu’s novel is built around a cleverly and deliberately constructed narrative. A woven tapestry of fabricated interviews, autobiography excerpts, AI recordings, and speculative sequences, the story is then contextualised with a selection of footnotes serving as commentary from an unidentified narrator.
This framing technique creates enough distance from the Shakespearean inspiration such as to allow the story to breathe on its own merit. The parallels to Hamlet and its themes of life, death, madness and privilege are clear and present, but by serving them within a near-future setting where the promise of eternal life through advancements in science are just within humanity’s grasp, Liu is able to provide a freshness to the preconceptions that would normally weigh down the concept.
Addictive and nuanced, this is not just a Hamlet rip-off, but an intelligent evolution of a classic. Deploying innovative storytelling techniques acts as an intelligent distraction from assumed foregone conclusions. Dressed up in a science fiction jacket, Em X. Liu is able to lean heavily into character, leveraging assumed tropes to smartly captivate readers despite the fact that we all think we know the ending.