Character Goes Deep in ‘Luminous Dead’

I love the Nathan Pyle comic about reading. The simple four-panel comic really nails the immersive reader experience.

I’ll stop posting this when it stops being relevant.

Sometimes the immersion is as good as being on a sailing ship exploring new waters. Sometimes it’s tainted with magic and quarreling gods. And sometimes, it thrusts you in a dark, unpredictable cave where sight and sound can’t be trusted. I’m talking, of course, about Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead, which I can’t remember putting on my list or anyone saying anything about it ever. However it ended up there, I’m so glad I discovered this sleeper.

The premise of The Luminous Dead is simple enough that the back-cover copy doesn’t have to leave out much. Gyre forges her cave-climbing credentials to get a gig that will get her off her podunk planet and help her find her long-missing mom. Em is the mysterious corporate representative that overlooks her lack of experience for an extremely shady and suspiciously well-paid gig. Once Gyre starts descending, Em can control everything: what information Gyre knows, what her climbing suit shows her, even the nutrition and drugs she gets. The cave is full of expected and new, terrifying dangers, and the deeper Gyre goes, the more questions she has for and about Em—and the less likely it seems she’ll ever see daylight again.

Because what Em isn’t telling Gyre is that Gyre isn’t the first climber to go into the cave system, or the second—she’s the thirty-sixth. Twenty-seven of the previous climbers died or disappeared, and none of the thirty-five ever got to Em’s goal way at the bottom of the cave. Few, if any, knew what they were looking for. It takes Gyre days of conversation with and convincing the terse Em to get even the barest details. In essence, Em’s murderous mission is this: Twenty years ago, her mother, father, and three friends climbed down the cave for exploration purposes. Four never resurfaced, and the only survivor, Em’s mother, was so badly traumatized that she eventually returned to, and disappeared in, the cave, leaving Em alone to make sense of the tragedy. And to Em, “make sense of” means “find their bodies at all costs.”

There are plenty of ways to die as a caver, even before you add in the sci-fi elements, such as a line breaking and the climber falling to their death, or getting stuck with no way of extracting themself. Gyre is fully dependent on her suit to withstand the temperature changes and air quality, so if she runs out of batteries, she’s dead. Several passages fill up with water at various times of the year, so if she gets swept up in any of those currents, she’s dead. Fungi grows in the cave, and if her air supply is tainted with their spores, she’s dead. Huge creatures known as Tunnelers roam the cave and if one gets too near, Gyre risks being crushed by the stone displaced in their wake or having her pathway collapse. And then there’s the pernicious fact that her supply caches, carefully set up by past climbers, seem to be moved or missing, and the nagging feeling Gyre can’t shake that someone’s following her through the dark.

What you don’t know can definitely, absolutely kill you.

The greatest strength of The Luminous Dead is that aforementioned immersive quality. Opening up the book really did feel like suddenly only being able to see what a headlamp illuminated, along with whatever appeared on an Iron Man-like face plate. Starling’s descriptions are on point, painting pictures of stalactites and glowing fungus and freezing, churning water, without becoming overwrought. There are really only two characters, Em and Gyre, and you do get a sense of the loneliness and dependence that can develop in such a restrictive and all-consuming situation such as the one Gyre’s desperately trying to survive.

Pacing is spot-on, too. Gyre has to be methodical, so Starling is, too, rarely summarizes and never montaging away the tediousness that comes between life-and-death terror, but there are enough dangers that Gyre can get herself into a new pickle at almost every turn without it feeling like a parade of perils. Starling’s plotting is such that whenever a chapter ended with even the barest sense of satisfaction, I both appreciated the breather and felt unease wondering what false sense of security the cave (or Starling) was luring me into now. And the farther we got without the metaphorical Chekov’s Gun being fired, the more warily I looked at its spot on the mantle.

If there is a quibble, it is a pretty massive spoiler, so I’ll try to be vague but there are only so many specifics I can leave out. Consider yourself warned. The end brings a foreshadowed but, for me, unwanted romantic pairing. I appreciate having the characters have a change of heart in terms of trauma bonding, especially when truthfully no one else would understand either character after they have each been changed by the cave. But it’s also well established that one of the characters is reprehensible in multiple ways and although they learn and grow over the course of the book, it is hard to believe the other character would choose to forgive their many, many, many failings rather than strike out on their own. I know everyone likes shipping characters with sexy villains but apparently I need a much bigger and better redemption arc for these characters than authors, publishers, and/or target audience. (My ace heart would also like to know why all love has to be romantic love. More stories of platonic companionship, please.)

But given the popularity of villain shipping, I suspect this won’t be an issue for most readers. It is, after all, just a story, and I’ll keep my rant to myself. And that aside, The Luminous Dead is an immersive and creepy read that will infect my dreams for weeks—and I welcome each and every one of those nightmares.

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