The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
Publication date: 16 May 2019
Genre: Science fiction
Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
My spooky October reading continues with the tense sci-fi thriller, The Luminous Dead. I was so curious about this one because I wasn’t sure what to expect — was it going to be horror? A thriller? A space opera? I ended up having mixed thoughts on this book, but they were mostly positive — if you’re looking for a tense thriller with a character in intense isolation, you should give this book a try.
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?
The Luminous Dead is a book that is super focused on the setting — the caves themselves seem to nearly be a menacing character on their own, taunting Gyre and driving her mad. Starling does a great job of making the caves seem more and more alarming as the book progresses and as Gyre’s mission gets more and more dangerous. I did, however, think that the hyper-focus on the setting did create some pacing issues in the book — we got incredibly tense horror elements interspersed between fairly lengthy and quiet passages about caving techniques. While the descriptions of caving were interesting, there was quite a lot of them!
This book is also incredibly character-focused, as it is pretty much just Gyre on her own for the entire book in near-complete isolation. Her only contact with the world outside the caves is Em via voice and video links, and Em doesn’t prove to be the most supportive person. What this book does best is charting Gyre’s descent into paranoia, mistrust, and possible madness as her journey deeper and deeper into the caves progresses and she gets further away from the world outside. She’s a character I both liked and was frustrated by in equal measure. I loved her pride, determination, and independence, but often found myself questioning her intense reactions and her extreme mistrust of Em — although to be fair, Em doesn’t do much to earn Gyre’s trust. As the mission continues and secrets are ferreted out, I found Gyre’s continuing stubbornness and attitude strange, so much so that I actually thought the book was going in a completely different direction and the ending left me feelin a little blindsided.
I think ultimately I liked this book, but I expected a little more from the set-up and execution. The ending left me feeling a bit dissatisfied, as I felt there could have been a number of more interesting conclusions to the plot of the book. However, it was still a good and compelling read!
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