Spelunking Through Hell by Seanan McGuire (Incryptid #11)

Love, noun:

1. An intense feeling of deep affection; may be romantic, filial or platonic.

Passion, noun:

1. A strong or barely controllable emotion. 2. Enthusiasm, interest, desire. 3. See also “obsession.”

It’s been fifty years since the crossroads caused the disappearance of Thomas Price, and his wife, Alice, has been trying to find him and bring him home ever since, despite the increasing probability that he’s no longer alive for her to find. Now that the crossroads have been destroyed, she’s redoubling her efforts. It’s time to bring him home, dead or alive.

Preferably alive, of course, but she’s tired, and at this point, she’s not that picky. It’s a pan-dimensional crash course in chaos, as Alice tries to find the rabbit hole she’s been missing for all these decades—the one that will take her to the man she loves.

Who are her allies? Who are her enemies? And if she manages to find him, will he even remember her at this point?

It’s a lot for one cryptozoologist to handle.

TITLE: Spelunking Through Hell: A Visitor's Guide to the Underworld
AUTHOR: Seanan McGuire
YEAR: 2022
LENGTH: 352 pages
AGE: Adult
GENRE: Fantasy

Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Secondary Character(s), Bi/Pan Minor Character(s).

If the Incryptid series is one great big "I told you that story to tell you this story", SPELUNKING THROUGH HELL is "this story", and it's more than worth the wait. Alice has been hunting for Thomas, her missing husband, for decades and it's time to get a fresh round of ink and try one more time.

I’m so happy, this is everything I could want for Alice and Thomas’s arc. If you don’t know who they are please stop reading now and go back to the start of Incryptid, or at minimum back to the start of Antimony’s arc with MAGIC FOR NOTHING, as that’s the most recent jumping-on point which should still let this book be satisfying. The other way is to read all the Incryptid short stories (including the ones on the author’s Patreon page) and approach this as a pivotal moment in Alice and Thomas’s story while skipping the younger generations. My fervent recommendation is to read everything Incryptid (including the main series, the short stories, plus the first three Ghost Roads books) before this one, but there is more than one path which will prepare you enough to enjoy this.

Alice has been emotionally broken by her husband's disappearance and the ensuing five decades of searching for him, and often physically broken by turning into a bounty hunter in order to keep moving. She's been physically patched up along the way, but she's aware that the process of leaving almost everything and everyone behind to find Thomas might have turned her into someone he wouldn't recognize. It's also turned her into the kind of person who notes that change, has that worry, but doesn't overly dwell on it because staying the same when she lost him was never an option, she just was able to choose the path of her transformation.

Alice has some people who regularly help her in her travels. The main one is Naga, a giant snake person who she met when she was a kid. He oversees the process which lets her stay young and provides her with magic to travel and defend herself. There's also a pair of satyrs, Helen and Phoebe, who Alice has known for a long time as their world is often in the right direction for her travels. Of course Alice's biggest relationship, whether he's present or not, is with Thomas. I like their dynamic together, and I would like to restate how damn happy I am with how this book turns out. 

The worldbuilding for the dimensional travel is nice. There’s specific details for a couple of particular worlds, guidelines for how the whole things works, and then the logistics get out of the way of the plot and Alice handles the travel to her destination. A lot of the worldbuilding for cryptids more generally has been built up over the rest of the series so far, with a little bit of previous info on other dimensions, but this is the big one for how someone actually, repeatedly, would travel between dimensions in a way that isn't a giant ordeal like in CALCULATED RISKS.

This does much more than wrap up things left hanging, it’s what the whole series to this point has been heading towards. It features a new narrator, Alice (new at least in the main series, since there have been previously canon short stories which follow her). This is, from one perspective, a new storyline, but for anyone who has read the available Thomas and Alice short stories this is the first time hearing from Alice after Thomas’s disappearance (as of this review the only short stories featuring them are from before that event). A major thing is both introduced and resolved here. Technically it has been noticed but not explained earlier, and this time it’s fleshed out and handled for good. 

This is not the last book and it specifically leaves something for later, having clearly stated what Alice’s immediate plans are and the approximate time planned to carry them out. I have no idea whether the next book will pick up with those plans, return to Sarah’s storyline (last featured in Calculated Risks), or follow one of the other Healy’s. The options are many, and the important thing to note is that this series has plenty to keep it going from here. Telling this particular story was the goal of the series so far, but it’s definitely not the last entry. Alice’s perspective is consistent with her previous appearances in various short stories as a teenager and younger adult, but she is a new narrator for the main series. Her voice is distinct from the other characters and I enjoyed finally getting her point of view in her life after Thomas’s disappearance.

As an individual volume which tells a coherent story, SPELUNKING THORUGH HELL would likely make sense if read on its own but it wouldn’t be emotionally satisfying. This is the resolution point of a slowly-building relationship and fifty years of dimension hopping, so the catharsis works best when there’s something to emotionally resolve for the reader alongside the main character. I love the plot! The balance between journey and destination (with additional events at the destination) is good. I’d been worried that the whole thing would be a tour of dimensions with just a “hi” to Thomas at the end, but she reaches his probable location early enough in the book for a bunch of stuff to happen there. 

The included short story is SWEEP UP THE WOOD... and ends the book on a great note. I love the whole combination of the main story and the short story, these two in particular are great complements to each other.

CW for cursing, grief (graphic), sexual content (brief), confinement (backstory), pregnancy, emotional abuse (flashback), panic attacks, mental illness, fire/fire injury, blood, violence, gun violence, medical content, medical trauma (graphic), body horror (graphic), torture (graphic), cannibalism (not depicted), self harm, suicide (brief), death.

SWEEP UP THE WOOD… CW for sexual content (explicit), blood, body horror, medical content (graphic), medical trauma (graphic), self harm, suicidal thoughts, parental death, death. TW for insects.

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