The Death I Gave Him (Em X. Liu) – Book Review

Adapting from a classic work of fiction is nothing new – in any given bookshop you can find a multitude of adaptations, reinterpretations, and revisions of classic texts, ranging from Jane Austen to the Brontes, from Mary Shelley to Bram Stoker, and from classic mythology around the globe to Shakespeare.

Em X Liu’s The Death I Gave Him falls squarely into the last category, pitched as a sci-fi, Black Mirror-esque reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Hamlet, throwing the classic players out of 16th century Denmark and into the world of the future, following a series of tragic deaths in a remote Scandinavian tech lab, and through the footnote-dotted perspective of a young doctoral student trying to piece together a narrative of the events for their thesis.

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Liu proves their mastery at building character and tension, using the existing framework from Shakespeare’s play and building upon it to give a true point-of-view to some of the characters. Hamlet himself (now renamed Hayden) is a conflicted, driven, selfish force of nature, thrown into disarray by the violent death of his father that opens the novel, while Horatio, secondary in the play as Hamlet’s friend, is now an omniscient A.I programme aiding Hayden in rooting out the murderer of his father amidst the chaos of the locked-down laboratory. The other characters are given agency and motivation; best of all is Liu’s transformation of Ophelia (here named Felicia), who sheds her skin as Shakespeare’s most tragic heroine (save for, perhaps, Cordelia) to become an empathetic, principled character and the closest thing The Death I Gave Him has to a hero.

The other parts of the story, namely its focus on the immortality formula that drove the function of the lab and also proves a MacGuffin for the novel’s events, is of less interest. Liu is intent on trying to balance a number of narrative spinning plates, whether that’s the switching of media within the novel (it goes from interview logs, to memoir extracts to digitised reinterpretations of character motivations. all for the doctoral student to try and fit together, and then back all over again), or the focus on queer characters and romance throughout. One of The Death I Gave Him‘s most memorable – and explicit – scenes involves the use of nerves as a seduction technique and if nothing else, it’ll make for a talking point over book club drinks.

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Solid and smartly-drawn, The Death I Gave Him shines when it focuses on its characters and themes of relationships, legacy, and immortality, although its heavy focus on an unreliable narrator and deliberately murky motivations will prove a boon to some readers and anathema to others. Liu is clearly a talented writer and with their fresh, speculative, distinctly queer eye (no pun intended), it will be interesting to see what their future writing holds beyond Shakespeare’s walls. After all, it’s the Bard himself who said “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves”.

The Death I Gave Him is out on 14th September from Solaris Books.

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