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The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

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In various iterations, both as a teacher and a reader, I’ve seen the above question floated around a lot. What was your first meaningful reading experience? For many, it’s Eric Carle’s The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, or Harry Potter.  

For me, it was Clive Cussler’s Inca Gold. Early in the novel Dirk Pitt descends into an ancient rain forest well in scuba gear and goes cave diving in silty water. I’d never been transported to such far off places or experienced such despair as when his rope was cut and he was left treading water, implausibly working out how to escape before the next high intensity scene started. That scene proved reading could take my boring third grade life and turn it into something amazing.

So it’s no wonder that The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling, spoke to me on a level that awoke childhood wonder. Gyre, an inexperienced caver who lied on her resume to get the job descends into a labyrinthine, inhospitable cave system on an alien planet in a technologically advanced, sealed suit. Her bowels have been rerouted so that she doesn’t have to evacuate, she eats food through canisters, and the suit can administer sleeping or pain medication. It’s rugged enough to mechanically assist her on difficult climbs or lock so that she can get comfortable enough to sleep and, most importantly, it dampens sound and hides her heat signature from tunnelers. She also isn’t entirely in control of it. 

The suit’s heads-up display connects to her topside handler, Em, a billionaire who will stop at nothing to discover what happened to her mother’s expedition years ago. As Gyre descends, it becomes clear that she didn’t understand the contract she signed. She’s not in control of her body and Em can physically make her walk if she wants to. 

She’s trapped.

What’s worse, Em knows she lied about her experience. 

In this claustrophobic thriller, Gyre is forced to descend deeper as she engages in a battle of wits with Em, learning the truth of her mother, and unraveling all the secrets Em has hidden from her in the cave, even going so far as to conceal the dead bodies of previous cavers on her heads-up display. Twenty-seven people have died in the cave, and there are ghosts. It becomes unclear if it is the electronics glitching or if Gyre is going crazy. If Em is a friend or if she is just using Gyre. 

Perhaps they can be lovers. Or maybe Gyre is just one more tool used by a rich person to achieve whatever ends they wish to turn their will and fortune toward. 

At the heart of the novel is a subtle social criticism: the math of capitalism doesn’t add up: “At least the people who get involved in my mess know this is a very dangerous mission,” Em says. But she’s led twenty-seven people to their deaths, all of them desperate to earn a fantastic payout that will buy their freedom. Capitalism takes advantage of other people’s needs, putting the interest of the greater dollar sign first, and capitalizing on their dedication and hard work.  Gyre’s conscience won’t let her abandon the mission. She wants to make sure Em finally finds what’s she’s looking for so more people don’t die in the cave, then she can move to a garden planet and find her mother. 

Before she can do that, she’ll have to make it out alive. 

It’s hard to believe this is Starling’s debut. There are beautiful, heart-pounding climbing scenes, you can feel the vibrations and rumble of the ever-present, circling tunneler zeroing in on your location, and see the silt suspended in the water of the sumps when Gyre dives. It feels as though I’ve been inside every inch of the cave, crawling on my hands and knees.

The Luminous Dead is the kind of book you can hand to reluctant reader and say, “Here. Go somewhere you’ve never been,” or pass along to someone like me, who has been all over the multiverse and back and is just looking for their next good book.

The Luminous Dead will live in the caverns of your mind for a long, long time.

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