Friday, June 23, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

by Karen S. Wiesner

In the 2019 sci-fi horror The Luminous Dead, Caitlin Starling's first novel, the protagonist, 22-year-old Gyre Price, has risked everything to join the Lethe expedition, supposedly tasked with mapping the cave system, performing mining surveys, and restocking the camps set up along the way. This job will require top-tier cave climbing and diving skills. Because of the extreme danger involved, a hefty reward is promised once the task is completed at the end of the allotted weeks. Gyre's not only lied  by embellishing her work history, but she's also had medical procedures that bolster her credentials as an expert instead of the rookie she actually is, providing physical evidence of prior experience she doesn't actually possess.

Growing up on the mining colony Cassandra-V, Gyre had spent most of her time in slot canyons and pseudocaves near her home (avoiding her dad), teaching herself the ropes of climbing. She has no actual experience diving, something she'll need as this cave system is partially underwater.

In order to qualify for this mission, she was required to have intestinal rearrangement surgery and a catheter put in, custom-fitting her to a drysuit that becomes her home for the duration of the mission. What she's wearing and has to keep on and sealed at all times during her trek is what allows a life-and-death voyage like this to be possible, as it's capable of keeping her alive and protected in numerous ways. The suit maps the terrain, takes and stores samples, along with providing details far superior to human eyes in absolute darkness. Additionally, it allows for the administration of nutrients, water, and medication, but can also be accessed by the handler on the surface, providing real-time communication and intervention, and so much more.

Gyre grew up without a mother. This conflict and motivation is at the core of the plot in this story. It's the reason Gyre signed on for this deadly expedition and what keeps her going even when all logic tells her to abandon her contract with Lethe and haul ass out of the cave ASAP--at the risk of losing her payout in part or the whole, as well as being sued for breach of contract, which will destroy her chance of ever finding future work again in this field.

Gyre quickly learns as this story opens that her handler isn't a team of professionals on the surface working together to keep her alive but a single person: Em, who owns the company and has poured a fortune into this cave and investing in perfecting a suit capable of functioning on so many levels to keep cavers alive. Having a single handler is suicide, as at least two are needed to allow for sleep and downtime.

Before long, Gyre learns Em isn't what she seems, nor is this mission or its endgame. Em has hired on cavers like Gyre often in the past, losing 34 to the horrors of the cave. Her justifications for her actions parallel Gyre's own for signing up in the first place. Their mothers. Em lost both her parents to this cave. Her mother escaped the first time without her husband or the rest of her team, but she was never the same afterward and never healed from her traumatizing losses. Yet the cave called her back, forcing the child Em to endure the loss of her mother all over again.

In this tale, the labyrinthine cave is very much like the third main character, and most definitely a villain with death written all over it at every level, not the least of which includes a humongous monster called a Tunneler that calls the mine its home. This creature is attracted to living beings, the sounds they make, the scents, the very air they breathe. The suit has been designed to mask the person wearing it from its sensors. A Tunneler travels through solid rock, forcing the ground around it to give way, expanding and distorting and exploding it. If a human is nearby, death can be instantaneous as spaces, tunnels, and caves collapse, shatter, and are reformed in incalculable ways. The horror angle of the Tunneler was a very nice touch in this story, adding another layer of tension when it was most needed. But it's not the focus of the story, just a "fun perk" to ratchet out a little more suspense throughout.

From the very first page of this book to the last, I found it hard to put the story down for any length of time. Gyre isn't the kind of character I'd normally root for. She's a head case with mother issues so deep, disturbing, and violent, it's hard to feel sympathy for her, even as I could understand the pain she felt having her mom walk away when she was just a child and also finding out in the course of the book exactly who her mother is--and how selfish. Gyre's whole point signing on to this mission was to get a huge payoff to fund her ability to leave Cassandra-V, find her mom, and kick her in the face. While I get the gut reaction, Gyre was so badly twisted by this driving force that is nearly her entire focus and motivation as a human being that she was forever making impulsive decisions with no basis in logic or reality.

In large part, this was needed for the story's suspense. It was the beauty of it. As Gyre descends further and further into the black hole, it was hard to know how much the darkness, silence, and loneliness; the vast and mysterious abyss all around her with strange, unnatural creatures, flora, and fauna; her complete reliance on the technological marvel of her suit that, at the end of the day, was little more than a fancy cage; and the uncertainty at any given moment about whether her handler Em--her only connection to the surface--was friend or foe contributed to Gyre's growing insanity. The combination of a defeatist attitude toward life was at complete odds with Gyre's extreme will to survive. And that is, oddly, one of the major selling points of this story. In any other story, I'm not sure it would have worked, but the tension it created here was amazingly propelling. I literally never knew from one moment to the next what would happen.

In pairing this main character who lives her life on the knife's edge every second with secondary character Em, who's just as much of a lunatic, the story went back and forth between these two pitted against each other on one end of the spectrum and then fighting together tooth and nail to ensure survival on the other. I consider that the very definition of a nail-biter. At the end of the day, though, crazy plus crazy equals psycho all over the place, not a match made in heaven, as I got the impression it was supposed to ultimately be. 

The author clearly knew a considerable amount about diving, climbing, caves, spelunking, and just about every scientific topic she delved into within this story. I loved every aspect of those breathtaking descriptions. It was the reason I picked the story up in the first place, and Starling delivered in spades.

Anyone who likes sci-fi horror with tension that escalates continuously, filled with flawed and unpredictable characters, and a landscape that's so real and visual it could actually exist in the real world won't want to miss this story. As a testament to the author's finely tuned writing skills, before I was even half done with The Luminous Dead, I bought everything else she has available. Fingers crossed I find another favorite, must-read author.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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  1. That suit sounds horrible. The protagonist would have to be truly desperate to accept essentially being turned into a temporary cyborg.

    1. Anonymous10:30 AM EDT

      Desperate times. The book describes it even more horribly, and yet it makes sense that the heroine went along with it based on what motivated her from start to finish.

    2. Desperate times. The book is even more graphic and horrible. And yet it makes sense given the protagonist's motivation. Apparently, for money to get off this planet, those skilled would do just about anything. It's a plausible scenario in context.