The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
Book Review by Rich Duncan
One of the most exciting experiences for me as a reader is discovering a new voice and being utterly blown away by their talent. That’s what happened when I first picked up Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead, which focuses on a caver named Gyre, who is desperate to leave her home planet of Cassandra V by any means necessary. She has her reasons for wanting to flee and even though she has no professional caving experience, she lies her way into a dangerous yet lucrative solo mission. The payout from such a job is so great that it will only take this one job to get the money she needs to leave her world and make a better life. It’s a short cut golden ticket that would have taken her a handful of regular jobs to complete. Armed with the latest high-tech mining suit, Gyre’s bravado makes her believe she will accomplish this job with ease. However, the longer she spends beneath the surface of Cassandra V, the more she realizes this job is anything but normal. She’s down there alone, with no team to assist her and her only surface support is a mysterious woman named Em. As Gyre continues her journey deep into the heart of Cassandra V, she must confront a host of terrifying situations, creatures and the growing fear that she can’t trust the one person who can help keep her alive.
Starling’s world-building is impressive and immerses readers into a futuristic world that serves as the main setting for the story. The surface of Cassandra V is in a near constant drought and most of the water is found in the caves Gyre now finds herself exploring. In the few instances it did storm, it would wash away the soil and destroy homes on the surface. The harsh conditions of this world force people into this deadly occupation because it is the only way to make real money. Most of the other jobs involve backbreaking labor and low wages, which is simply the norm for people who live there. But even the high paying caving jobs come at a cost as Cassandra V’s resources are exploited to support richer worlds and the life expectancy is low for those who venture into the caves. These rough conditions fostered a culture of danger and poverty where “good” people either died early, left or had their kindness beaten out of them. Those rough living conditions are what shaped Gyre into the woman she is when we meet her. She’s self-reliant, brave, and incredibly strong. She never shies away from a challenge and the sacrifices she’s made and her determination prevent her from abandoning her job even when she is forced through a gauntlet of horrors few cavers have ever lived to talk about.
I consider myself a casual science fiction fan, but I really enjoyed some of the futuristic touches Starling incorporates throughout the novel, especially the mining suit. It serves as a second body and shelter for Gyre while she is in the caves. It can regulate her body temperature while protecting her from the elements using a special gel. It also uses infrared and sonar to generate a view of the cave system in her helmet as using natural light would be dangerous considering the stories of the Tunnelers lurking in the cave systems. The suit’s design also allows Starling to incorporate some cool body horror elements into the story, even if it isn’t necessarily designed to scare readers. In order to prepare for the excursion, they rerouted her large intestine so that there is no need to use the bathroom and feedings are accomplished by using a port embedded in her abdomen where she can just connect food canisters. Starling does a great job of incrementally showing readers these elements whether they be related to technology or the otherworldly creatures that live in the cave system. It gives just enough sci-fi elements to delight fans of the genre, but enough realism for more casual fans to engage with the story.
While the world-building and technological elements are what may initially draw readers in, the real strength of the story comes from the relationship between Gyre and Em. The initial interactions between the two women are cold and for the first quarter of the book, Em is no more than a disembodied voice being pumped into the speakers in Gyre’s suit. She tries to ask questions to ascertain the identity of this woman and her true motives for sending her down there, but she doesn’t get much in the way of answers. The only thing she knows for certain is that Em is the only person supporting her on this mission. But the longer the two women interact with one another, they begin cultivating an interesting relationship. Even as Em begins to appear more personable and open up to Gyre about her life, there is still a level of distrust between them. I don’t want to explore this relationship too in-depth for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the characterization of both women is impressive. Starling mines both character’s lives to give readers an intimate look into what drives their motivations and how their experience shaped them into the people they are. While that’s the hallmark of any great work of fiction, Starling goes a step further and instills self-awareness in them. This trait makes for some interesting interactions between them and makes their characters more complex. They both grow as people throughout the story and the Em and Gyre we meet at the beginning of The Luminous Dead are not the same by the end of the book.
The fact that The Luminous Dead is Starling’s debut novel is mind-blowing, especially when you consider the structure of the novel. The story is minimalist in that it mostly focuses on two characters and takes place in a singular location, yet Starling is able to make it feel grander through her descriptions without bogging the story down with too much exposition. She also creates a tense, creepy atmosphere by using Gyre’s isolation in the caves to drive the plot and create scenes of psychological and physical horrors. The Luminous Dead is a genre hybrid that succeeds on all levels and establishes Starling as a writer destined to be a force in the horror genre.