The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

“Nothing about cave exploration should be done on autopilot.”

The Luminous Dead Cover

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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?


CW: gore, body horror, loss of bodily autonomy, graphic injury, loss of a loved one, suicide

As always, middling reviews are SO HARD to write, especially for books I wanted to love with all my heart. Going in, I wanted The Luminous Dead to absolutely terrify me; I don’t read horror often, and when I do, I expect that it’s going to deliver. I should want to read it during the day because reading it at night will keep me up, and I should still end up not quite sleeping. Plus, I went to Caitlin Starling’s author event back in April, and it sounded so good! And she was lovely to meet in person! And she described her book in five words as “angsty traumatized lesbians in space!”

But I get the sense that this just wasn’t the book for me, and that’s hardly anyone’s fault except my personal tastes. Turns out The Luminous Dead is far more psych horror than grab you by the throat and rattle you around horror. It’s a sort of paranoia, looking over your shoulder and wondering who you can trust, if anyone, if even yourself. If I were actually in Gyre Price’s situation in the cave, I would be terrified out of my mind, but as a reader, it just didn’t really hit me the way I was hoping it would.

That’s not to say this is a bad book. In fact, from a craft perspective, it’s absolutely stellar. Working with one two characters in one cave system, teasing out their dynamic and the uses and abuses of power between Gyre and Em, is hardly easy. Just as a large ensemble cast can be a lot to manage, moving a story forward with only two characters and the deep dark expanse of a dangerous cave is a lot to manage in a different sense. Everything was fine-tuned to needle at the levels of trust between caver and handler, and their relationship was a messy one.

That more than anything else, I really appreciated. As much as I love a queer relationship that’s happy and healthy, it’s time we get queer stories from queer authors (yes, Caitlin is bi, she tweeted about it on Bi Visibility Day!) that aren’t perfect and soft and sweet. Em and Gyre are messy, all tangled up in the past in ways that impacts their interactions in the present, and they teeter between moments of complete disgust with each other to unquestioning dependency. Even better, while I don’t normally like a sudden reversal where the characters actually like each other, turning on a dime, the structure of the cave makes it so plausible. Em and Gyre only have each other for the span of nearly a month, and a relationship develops out of that isolation, like it or not. It’s not necessarily healthy, but it sure as hell ends up being fascinating, and it compounds the psych horror aspects of the book nicely. If it’s just you and one other person for a month, up against the unknown in the dark, and you can’t always trust each other, then what?

Another great aspect of the book was the way time was scaled. You actually tend to lose sense of how long it’s been, which is an actual thing that can happen in caves. So much of the craft of The Luminous Dead amplifies the setting and all of its unsettling features, from the emptiness to the loss of certain time to the sense that there’s still something down here that hasn’t shown its face yet.

So for all this praise, why only three stars? It seems a little harsh, even to me, but by the end of the book, I was disappointed. I wasn’t scared witless like I was expecting, the pacing had been too slow at times to really help me get into it more fully, and certain aspects about the conclusion felt too open ended to me. A lot of these are just conventions of horror (particularly psych horror), and I can’t condemn the book for that, not at all. It’s just a matter of my own tastes. I like my books a little faster than this, a little less psych horror than this, a little more conclusive than this (that’s murder mystery brain talking right there, if I had to guess).

However, if you like psych horror, if you like books that have certain layers of ambiguity and danger and unease, if you want to see two characters crammed into a highly claustrophobic setting with the unknown lurking just out of sight, then you may still want to try this. Just because The Luminous Dead wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it won’t be for you. A couple of my close friends adored it, but that was because it was more in line with their tastes in horror than mine.

Go forth, get your spooky cave lesbians, and hopefully enjoy The Luminous Dead more than I did!

3 thoughts on “The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

  1. Great review! The things that didn’t quite work for you sound like things that would work for me, so I’ll definitely be giving this a shot. 🙂

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