The Luminous Dead: A gripping thriller

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Some time ago, I read a novel that promised to combine a man-vs.-nature survival narrative with a ghost story. It disappointed me, not delivering enough of either. When reading Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead, I couldn’t help thinking that this book was what I wanted that one to be. The Luminous Dead succeeds at both the (wo)man-vs.-nature stuff and the eerie goings-on — not to mention a character study of two complicated, damaged people — and it all adds up to a truly gripping thriller.

Gyre is a caver, setting out on what might be the job of a lifetime. The pay is good enough to get her off her backwater planet so she can find her long-lost mother — but only if she survives. See, Gyre … embellished … her credentials a bit to get the job. OK, maybe more than a bit.

Gyre’s skill turns out to be more adequate to the cave’s challenges than expected, but there are still plenty of things that might get her killed. The caves are home to creatures called Tunnelers, which are attracted to human activity and cause deadly rockslides. Gyre’s boss, Em, may have told a few big lies about the job herself. And Gyre keeps seeing signs that she’s not alone in the cave. Is there another living person down there with her? Is the cave cursed or haunted by previous cavers who died there? Or is Gyre going mad?

Caitlin Starling

Caitlin Starling

Almost the entire novel takes place in the cave, with Gyre’s comm link to Em her only connection with the outside world. The psychological interplay between the two, trying to figure out whether to trust each other, unfolds alongside the technical challenges of the mission. If Gyre can’t trust Em, this job will get even deadlier, because Em has a frightening amount of control over Gyre by way of Gyre’s high-tech suit. (The suit is yet another source of horror. There are very good reasons it’s designed the way it is, but it requires drastic body modification, and has the potential to malfunction or to be used against her.)

Starling includes a lot of technical details about the caving that add verisimilitude. As a person who quakes in my boots at the sight of a stepladder, I can’t speak to how accurate they are, but they feel real. There’s a stretch in the middle of the book where it feels long, in a way that mostly works for the book rather than against it; when Gyre has to backtrack through a difficult stretch she thought was behind her, the reader feels her frustration and dread.

The novel is incredibly tense throughout, and becomes even more so as weird happenings mount and Gyre’s reliability as a narrator comes into question. I found myself sneaking a few pages at random times while I was supposed to be doing other things, because I just had to know what happened next.

I was left with a few questions, and I’m not sure I entirely bought the love story (though if you enjoyed Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, this has a similar I-hate-you-I-can’t-live-without-you vibe). But The Luminous Dead is quite good, a satisfying mix of futuristic survival story and horror. It has been nominated for the 2020 Locus Award for Best First Novel.

Published in 2019. Bram Stoker Award nominee for Best First Novel! A thrilling, atmospheric debut with the intensive drive of The Martian and Gravity and the creeping dread of Annihilation, in which a caver on a foreign planet finds herself on a terrifying psychological and emotional journey for survival. When Gyre Price lied her way into this expedition, she thought she’d be mapping mineral deposits, and that her biggest problems would be cave collapses and gear malfunctions. She also thought that the fat paycheck—enough to get her off-planet and on the trail of her mother—meant she’d get a skilled surface team, monitoring her suit and environment, keeping her safe. Keeping her sane. Instead, she got Em. Em sees nothing wrong with controlling Gyre’s body with drugs or withholding critical information to “ensure the smooth operation” of her expedition. Em knows all about Gyre’s falsified credentials, and has no qualms using them as a leash—and a lash. And Em has secrets, too . . . As Gyre descends, little inconsistencies—missing supplies, unexpected changes in the route, and, worst of all, shifts in Em’s motivations—drive her out of her depths. Lost and disoriented, Gyre finds her sense of control giving way to paranoia and anger. On her own in this mysterious, deadly place, surrounded by darkness and the unknown, Gyre must overcome more than just the dangerous terrain and the Tunneler which calls underground its home if she wants to make it out alive—she must confront the ghosts in her own head. But how come she can’t shake the feeling she’s being followed?

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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3 comments

  1. This sounds great– and scary.

  2. Jana Nyman /

    Oooh, I *have* to read this one!

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