Raised on a resource-starved and dangerous world, Gyre’s survival is a testament to both her durability and her motivation to do everything it takes to escape her home. With the planet’s only wealth locked in minerals below the surface, going underground as a caver comes with extreme risks, but it’s one of the only ways to make enough money to live—or to leave. With only a mysterious note in her wake, Gyre’s mother fled from her husband and child to seek a better life off-planet. Poverty and abandonment have propelled Gyre to risk everything for enough money to seek out her mother, to perhaps understand why she left. Gyre doesn’t have an issue with the surgical modification needed to suit up for extended subsurface exploration, nor regrets over the lies she tells to get hired, get paid and get off-planet.
Assuming she has a whole surface team to monitor and support her first exploration, Gyre trusts her suit’s technology and her own skills to ensure she completes her mission. But as her descent underground reveals missing supplies and altered routes, Gyre discovers that her surface support consists of only one handler, one voice in her helmet named Em. Communicating through the suit, Gyre finds her mounting concerns about the mission are met with misdirection and half-truths. Their terse exchanges begin to launch red flags that Em’s plan for the descent may by very different from the job Gyre signed on for.
The gulf between Gyre and Em seems as vast as the distance from the cave depths to the surface. As their combative communications evolve, they discover some fragile common ground. Each may hold the only key to answers for the other. But with lies and secrets damning both Gyre and Em, the only way for the two explorers to move forward is to keep going down. As Gyre navigates around the corpses of earlier cavers, deadly testimony to the harsh journey, each subtly whispers the dangers of putting faith in the voice they also trusted to guide them back. Gyre’s battle to survive may depend on which voices she trusts; the ones in her head, or the one on her headset.
While the story’s premise has the potential to be a bit claustrophobic, the literary landscape is surprisingly vast. Below ground the narrow passages open into great rooms, waterfalls plunge over subterranean cliffs and rivers run through tunnels left by the passage of enormous hidden creatures. Luminescent flora and fauna add haunting illumination that punctuates the descent, revealing hints of both horror and profound beauty. And the mental and emotional territory explored within the suit, between Em and Gyre, is enormous as well. With twists, turns, rock falls and drop-offs, the dangerous navigation of the cave mirrors the challenges they confront as their connection to each other evolves.
Boldly building a psychological sci-fi thriller with a cast of two, Caitlin Starling’s debut novel explores the horrors hidden within profound physical and psychological stress. As they navigate unknown territory, both caver and handler risk being trapped by emotional obstacles that could bury them both. Testing the limits of endurance and trust, The Luminous Dead sheds a revealing light on the extraordinary dark depths that the human mind and body will plumb in search of answers and illumination.