On the mining colony world Cassandra V, 22-year-old Gyre Price lies on her qualifications in order to take a dangerous, high-paying job to explore a cave. She is desperate for the money so she can buy her way off-world to locate the mother who abandoned her years before. Her only companion is a voice in her head from her top-side handler, Em. Gyre is fitted into a high-tech suit and has surgery to re-route her bodily functions so that she never needs to remove her suit and helmet during the weeks-long expedition. In the cave Gyre quickly learns Em hasn’t told her the truth about the mission, because Gyre isn’t the first person Em has sent down into this cave. As supply caches turn up empty and Gyre starts to see and hear terrifying things, she questions if she is really alone in the cave… or is she going insane?
Sounds good, right? I thought so too. The problem is you spend The Luminous Dead inside Gyre’s head from paragraph one. The book starts with her already in the cave and fitted into her suit. Very quickly Gyre demonstrates that she is desperate, reckless, arrogant, egotistical, and unstable. To be blunt, I grew to dislike her and I really didn’t like spending time with her. Her handler, Em, is not much better and is in many ways worse. The suit Gyre is wearing, a fully enclosed armor that acts more like a mech than a suit is a Swiss army knife. It is fully enclosed allowing Gyre to dive freely. It has a heads-up display allowing for a fully rendered map of the environment in complete darkness. It’s heated and augments her own strength. It’s a wonder. It also is kitted out with a vast array of drugs and equipment and Em has full access to the suit at all times. One major driving question in the book is can Gyre trust Em when early on Em demonstrates she can drug Gyre and lock her suit remotely. The answer to this is “depends on how Gyre is feeling at that precise moment”.
The major problem with Caitlin Starling’s debut novel for me is there are only two characters in the book and both characters are broken people. Gyre whipsaws between rage and sullen tantrums like an immature teenager. When things go wrong she lashes out at Em for not panicking right along with her. When Em points out her job is to NOT panic this just makes Gyre angrier. Here’s an example of Gyre’s character flaws from late in the novel:
Gyre was not a technician. She’s always cared more about the physical part of caving. The burn of her muscles as she free-climbed out of a deep slot canyon, the dehydration, the burst of energy, the sheer skill involved in smearing up an almost featureless wall. She’d thought of and prepared for the suit as a necessary evil, and she’d avoided learning everything about it that she safely could.
This suit, as mentioned previously, is the only thing keeping her alive. Gyre in her infinite arrogance decided that learning about the suit was boring and just wanted to get to the caving. At one point Em gives Gyre the option to turn back and she would still get her full pay. Gyre in her misplaced arrogance and frankly confused headspace refuses and declares she can go on. Catastrophy ensues and she blames Em. Later more bad things happen and she still blames Em for putting her in that position when Gyre is the one that chose to go forward. It’s infuriating and a key reason why Gyre is such an unpleasant character. She makes decisions on her own, then blames Em when they go wrong. For her part, Em is obsessed with the mission and at the fraying edges of sanity herself. She also has a tendency to nope out at inopportune times for vast stretches when faced with something overwhelming (or just when the story needs her to be gone) leaving Gyre on her own in the deep cave.
The blurb on the back compares The Luminous Dead to Gravity, The Martian, and Annihilation. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but this book is not at the level of those other movies and books. It’s too long for one, and not enough happens to justify the length. The book is spent with Gyre, a very unreliable narrator, talking to Em and appearing to lose her mind for over 400 pages while going deeper into the cave. Along the way she starts to see other people, those who came before her, as phantoms at the edge of her vision. Her suit doesn’t record anything of course. When she finds pre-stocked campsites missing supplies, she questions if she is alone and that growing paranoia shreds her mind and is tedious to read. I will admit, the book can be unbearably tense at times but that shock eventually wears off as the same events play out repeatedly. By the middle of the book I was questioning where the story still had to go for the last 200+ pages. Answer: the same place it went for the first 200.
The reader is always questioning if what Gyre is seeing is real and I’m not going to spoil the answer here but I did not find the ending satisfying. Also, Starling inexplicably introduces a romantic love/hate relationship between Gyre and Em and I rolled my eyes whenever it came up. I will point out Em and Gyre are both briefly described as dark-skinned so the book does feature an LGBTQ romance (albeit a deeply dysfunctional one) between two women of color but I don’t think it worked at all. It just makes Gyre seem even more unstable and ironically, unlikable. Both women seem to bond over their shared abandonment issues and the whole time I was just thinking “These two need to stay as far away from each other as possible if Gyre survives this.” The romance is too dysfunctional and suspect to be enjoyable to read.
The Luminous Dead has really high reviews on Goodreads so I know I am an outlier. But it simply did not work for me. The book doesn’t really have any explanations for what is happening to Gyre and several key questions are left unanswered at the novel’s conclusion. I was drawn to the book because it sounded like the terrific horror film The Descent and it is. Unfortunately, The Luminous Dead is the last scene in The Descent drawn out for 400 pages.