Review : The Death I Gave Him by Em X. Liu

It’s rare that I pick up a book the day it comes out. But when somebody tells me that we’re doing a science-fiction locked-room murder mystery version of Hamlet where Horatio is an AI, I’m getting in line. So it is with The Death I Gave Him by Em X. Liu. Was it worth the effort? Read on!

I always appreciate a good Hamlet modernization/novelization. There’s so much room to work with. How close will they stick to the original, and where will they go off on their own? After all, the original’s got ghosts and poison and all sorts of murder, intentional and accidental. How do you compose a believable story that doesn’t take place in the Danish royal court?

An AI vision of what the lab might have looked like

This one’s pretty good, all things considered. We’re in a super secret lab where they’re experimenting with the kind of thing that will revolutionize everything … so, of course, people will kill for it. You’ve got the father, chief scientist, already dead when we start. So we go into lockdown. Did the son do it? Or the uncle? What about the trusted advisor, who is also the father of the young intern who used to date the son? The characters are all there. And the plot does hit most of the necessary beats, I’m happy to say.  They handle the ghost thing in an original and, for the purpose of this story, believable way.

In the end, though, it started to lose me – and I blame the narration. If you know Hamlet, you know that there’s really only one character who can be the one to tell the story. But is that true here? The author opts to go for this sort of “I’ll justify an omniscient narrator through various excuses” approach where sometimes it’s in first person; sometimes it’s transcripts from other people’s diaries, sometimes it’s log files from the computer or security tapes … basically, especially in audiobook, when you heard “I felt this and saw this so I did this” you typically have no idea who I is. Whenever you think you know, suddenly that character’s being referred to in the third person again, so now you have to figure it out all over again.

There’s one thing I hated about the book, though, and I’ve debated just saying it since it would be a total spoiler (that has nothing to do with the plot resolution), I’ll just say it like this. Do you know how sometimes people get overly obsessed with how the Hamlet/Horatio relationship could have gone? Yeah, this is one of those books. I thought you said Horatio was an AI? I did. You’ve been warned.

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