The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling (4.5/5 stars)

**This ARC was provided by Harper Voyager in exchange for an honest review**

Publication Date: April 2nd, 2019

Execution: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Enjoyment: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Key Descriptors: horror, scifi, cave exploration, psychological, unreliable narrator, LGBTQ+

Premise: Motivated by a desire to follow after the mother who abandoned her, Gyre Price lies about her experience in order to land a lucrative cave-diving gig. Gyre anticipates a topside team that matches the quality of the gear and paycheck she’s to be given…. only to find that her crew is a single woman, known only as Em. Em has no compunctions about manipulating what Gyre sees, hears, and feels in the cave through control of her diving suit. As claustrophobia and panic settle in, Gyre finds that she can trust no one – including herself.

“THE CAVER AGREES TO SURRENDER BODILY AUTONOMY TO THE EXPEDITION TEAM FOR THE DURATION OF THE EXPEDITION PERIOD, IN ORDER TO FACILITATE THE SMOOTHER OPERATION OF THE EXPEDITION AND TO PROTECT THE CAVER’S WELL-BEING. AT THE EXPEDITION TEAM’S DISCRETION, THE EXPEDITION TEAM MAY PERFORM THE FOLLOWING NONEXCLUSIVE TASKS:

ADMINISTRATION OF CERTAIN HORMONES AND NEUROTRANSMITTERS, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO ADRENALINE, DOPAMIN, AND MELATONIN.


ADMINISTRATION OF CERTAIN PHARMACEUTICALS, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO ANTIBIOTICS, OPIOD PAINKILLERS…”

Review: I came for the creepy cave monsters and stuck around for the amazing character development and the interactions between Gyre and Em. The Luminous Dead utterly blew my expectations out of the water, and I enjoyed every minute of it. What an incredible debut novel!

I was kept on the edge of my seat by the sheer sense of claustrophobia and terror the author evoked in this novel. I made the horrible mistake of reading this late at night (I simply couldn’t put it down), and was certain that if I looked up into the dark I’d see a face staring right back at me. I recommend reading this novel in a brightly lit, open space that is as dissimilar to a cave as possible. Gyre has to contend not only with the normal dangers of a cave – which are dangerous enough – but also with the growing certainty that there is someone else with her in the cave. Resupply boxes go missing. Bodies of previous cavers are moved. And her suit’s battery is getting low…

“She stared down at the wreckage. The suit had been half crushed. The mask was off, revealing pits where eyes had been, and tight, dried skin stretched over a prominent, masculine chin. The caver’s chest had been split open, and a filamentous white fungus grew from the hole. . . Bile rose in the back of her throat, and she turned away.”

Gyre Price is the absolute epitome of strong female character. She is, excuse my french, a fucking bad-ass. She panics, she cries, and she falls apart, but by god if she doesn’t pull herself back together as best she can. She responds like humans do to intense stress, but she does not give up. She does what is needed to stay alive and preserve whatever shreds of sanity she has left. Additionally, Gyre takes absolutely none of Em’s bullshit. When Em goes too far in attempting to control and manipulate Gyre through the use of dopamine, adrenaline, and other pharmaceutical injections, Gyre threatens not only to cease cooperating but to pull off the helmet of her suit – potentially calling a Tunneler down and ending not only Gyre’s life, but also the integrity of future missions in that cave system.

“You don’t take control of my suit, and you don’t lie to me. I’ll check. . . I can’t do my part if I can’t trust what I see. If me getting through this is so important to you, then you need to trust me. And in return, I don’t need your help getting to a garden world. What I do need is your help tracking down my mother.”

Gyre was born and raised on Cassandra-V, a planet populated primarily for its mineral deposits. Typically, a caver is seeking out new deposits and possible new mine locations. As Gyre’s expedition continues, however, Em’s motivates are slowly revealed to be quite a bit different from what Gyre initially anticipates. Em’s past issues are slowly brought to the forefront, and the depth of the danger Gyre is in is gradually revealed along with them.

It’s unusual for a book to have a cast of only two characters. I’d consider it to be a bit of a risk, especially for a debut novel. Quite frankly, however, this book thrived off of the limited interactions available to our protagonist. Watching Gyre and Em’s relationship grow and change throughout the novel is fascinating. Gyre’s slow descent into paranoia, panic, and uncertainty drags you right down into the thick of things. Despite her misgivings, she’s forced to rely on Em if she wants to make it out alive. As she gradually realizes she can’t even trust herself, she is forced to accept whatever aid can be offered… yet even as she begins to trust Em, Em is beginning to break down and fall apart the closer she gets to obtaining her goal.

My only real critique of this book was the ending. The ending wasn’t bad, per se, but some bits of it also felt like a slight let-down. That said, I don’t think there were many alternatives to how it ended. I think it only felt like a bit of a let-down due the ridiculously intense ramp up we had moving into it; I felt almost like I’d been slammed into a brick wall with the change of pace.

All in all, I am very excited to read more of Caitlin Starling’s work in the future. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes atmospheric horror, psychological terror, or intense characterization.

The Luminous Dead can be found on Amazon and Goodreads.

If you liked The Luminous Dead, you might also enjoy:

  • Firewatch (video game, heavily narrative focused)
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
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