Gyre Price is an experienced caver—or so she wants employers to believe. The truth is that she’s embellished her credentials, hoping her genuine skill will carry her through convincingly enough to satisfy an employer, because Gyre really, really needs the money to get off-planet and go looking for her mother. And on the face of it, this new job looks perfect: a little unconventional, perhaps, but the pay is excellent, and even better, no one’s looking too closely at her work history. Everything’s going well.
Until, that is, she’s miles underground and facing the dawning realization that nothing about this job is normal. That instead of the standard crew of technicians to communicate with her, guide her, and monitor the bioengineered exoskeleton that keeps her alive, there’s only one person on the other end of the audio link—and that person isn’t above manipulating Gyre’s mind and body by administering drugs through her suit. That that person, Em, knows Gyre lied her way into the job.
And worst of all, that Em isn’t sending her to scout mining routes or map deposits, as she’d assumed. No, Em’s quarry is far, far more deeply buried, personal, and dangerous. Dangerous enough that Gyre is the thirty-sixth person Em has sent into these nightmarish depths, none of whom succeeded, and twenty-seven of whom died in the attempt.
As Gyre read through the files again, she learned the name of each caver before her—and forgot half of them again just as quickly as she moved between each record. Some had died from equipment malfunction, some from human error, some from horrible luck. Some had turned and run—the smarter, smaller portion. Only five had made it down to what was marked as the final camp. Two had survived that, turned and fled.
The other three had died, two with their spines broken, one simply losing contact with Em’s computer as he was swept away. (p. 73)
I tend to talk about my MFA degree in somewhat mixed terms, such as always saying I “survived” it, rather than completed it or graduated. But one of the best pieces of advice I ever received about writing suspenseful fiction was from a professor in that program, and it went like this: “Give your character a budget, and then stick to it.” Say your character only had three flares when they got lost in the woods at night, and they just used their first. Say your character is underwater with forty-five minutes of air in their tank, and they just hit the twenty-minute mark. Severely restricting your characters’ resources—air, battery power, movement space, vision—and making sure the reader keeps track of the exact, excruciating pace at which those resources dwindle is an effective way of building tight, contained horror. Starling excels at this. Gyre’s caving suit is fused to her skin, and wired into her guts so she can slot in canisters of nutrients through a port. Her suit battery must be swapped out periodically, because the motorized joints will lock up and sentence her to a slow, immobilized death if it goes dead. And canisters, batteries, even the suit’s preloaded doses of painkillers and anti-anxiety medication—all are in finite supply. Gyre’s journey is measured in gulps of tension as she swims underwater pools in darkness and squeezes through rock fissures, periods of held breath as the reader waits to find out if her supplies will run out before she reaches the next cache. And when she does, they can breathe—until it starts all over again.
And that’s just the physiological aspect. Gyre’s choices are restricted too: give up on the job (and hence the money she needs to keep looking for her mother), or risk continuing, despite knowing how deeply abnormal it is? Trust Em, who feeds her information only in sparse, controlled scraps and holds all the cards, or try to manipulate her right back in turn with what leverage she can scrape together? Believe in the evidence of her own senses even after Em proves she can manipulate the suit visor to scrub specific objects (like the corpse of one of Gyre’s predecessors) from visibility, or allow herself to become seduced by Em’s desperation, Em’s almost fanatical obsession with her quest?
It’s the evolving relationship between Gyre and Em that forms the book’s backbone, and said relationship is a fascinating, nuanced exploration of what kind of bond—if any—can form between two queer women under conditions of constant stress, terror, and isolation, and with an extreme power differential thrown into the mix. The result is neither good nor bad, it just is: complicated, messy, potentially unhealthy, occasionally touching, sliding back and forth between hurt, betrayal, and attempts at recompense. Which is to say, it’s very human.
Em’s initially clipped, distant demeanor gradually fractures as Gyre’s composure does. As Gyre skews from panic to suspicion, Em makes small gestures of comfort that slowly reveal her guilt over the cavers she’s sent to their death before Gyre (and chillingly, her unshakeable intent to continue sacrificing others after Gyre). She eventually reveals the reason she’s hell-bent on plumbing these terrifying depths—Em’s father and his team perished in the bowels of this treacherous cave system when Em was a child. Her mother, Isolde, made it out alive, only to go back in years later and never be heard from again. Em has been trying ever since to recover their bodies, or at least to confirm the existence of their bodies, channeling time, money, and human lives into her bloody quest for closure, for catharsis, for the irrational ghost of a hope that her mother might still be alive, or for something she can’t articulate.
I could write forever about the intricacies of Em and Gyre’s relationship, really. Starling plays masterfully with the murky edges of consent and bodily autonomy while carefully inlaying trauma, compassion, loneliness, and a human hunger for connection. How real are feelings of attachment that develop when you’ve been alone in the dark for weeks, with only the other person’s voice and face to keep you company? Can a bond precipitated by terror, with disorientation, drugs, and hallucinogenic fungal spores involved, endure once you’ve returned to sunlight and the ground above?
I found myself glad, by the end of the book, that we never really see or hear from a living character other than Em and Gyre. I didn’t want to see what the world at large would make of Em: a ruthless businesswoman working in STEM, calculating, driven, capable of doing self-acknowledged monstrous things while also deeply haunted by her past. I appreciate female characters who are allowed to exist as flawed, complex people without the narrative either excoriating them for it or demanding redemption arcs. I deeply appreciated that The Luminous Dead gives us Em’s guilt, her culpability, her obsession, and her manipulativeness solely through the very raw, personal, and subjective lens of her connection to Gyre, who manages to push back at her while still coming from a place of understanding and real sympathy (Gyre, after all, is also chasing the specter of a missing mother).
Em fell silent then, looking uncomfortable now that all the words had poured out of her. Gyre found herself trembling slightly, trying to parse everything. That calculus was as raw as Isolde’s pain in that exit interview, and Gyre couldn’t fight the feeling of Em’s grief being a living thing, as inexorable as a Tunneler but with a beating heart, a pulse that throbbed and curdled in the vein.
“I’m not a complete monster,” Em said once more, her voice quiet. “Just most of one.”
“Drama queen,” Gyre shot back, but the words felt hollow. She understood Em—more than she wanted to.
And with that understanding came the revelation:
She wanted to help her.
Fuck. (p. 160)
One of the many remarkable things about this book is how seamlessly it blends the terrain of the psychological with the terrain that is, well, strictly topographical. Fans of the Gothic will find plenty to analyze here—the association of underground caverns with secrets, of the unmarked grave with unresolved fears, the descent into the subterranean with the descent into mental instability, is an old and rich literary tradition, after all. Gyre is delving into Em’s trauma with every meter she delves into the earth, unearthing Em’s secrets with every supply cache, and when her sanity begins to fray, it is aptly mirrored and exacerbated by the labyrinthine, fractured nature of her surroundings.
As the fear and constant physical stress increasingly wear Gyre down over the course of the book, she clings tighter to Em’s presence, while simultaneously growing paranoid about her motives and trustworthiness. Like the silt-filled, treacherously current-racked waters of the sumps Gyre must swim through, her grasp on her surroundings grows more and more uncertain, until she starts seeing things that can’t possibly be real. Meanwhile Gyre’s life is jeopardized by mysteriously ransacked and damaged supply caches, the roaming activity of a Tunneler—a leviathan earthworm-like beast that move through stone like water—and worst of all, the possibility that not all of her missing predecessors may actually have died down there. Starling documents every cramped limb, every dislodged climbing spike, every downtick in oxygen levels and gap in memory and excruciating climb in such merciless detail that the reader is right there with Gyre, pinned into her mind like a butterfly as she begins to come apart.
I’ll refrain from giving away too much, but there’s a reason the book is titled The Luminous Dead, and it’s not just the presence of phosphorescent subterranean fungal growths. The dead and the absent and the gone permeate every nook and cranny of this book, their hold on the living threatening to pull them down too. The only way forward is to exorcize those ghosts, and the only way to do that is to take a (sometimes literal) deep dive into what haunts you, and what you can’t let go of. And—as suggested by the well-earned ending to this teeth-grindingly suspenseful, moving, intricate book about the human psyche—exorcisms come at a price, so it’s best not to go it alone.