Title: The Luminous Dead
Author: Caitlin Starling
Page Count: 432 pages
Rating: 4.5 / 5 ✨✨✨✨✨
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?
First, can I just say how impressed I am that this is Caitlin Starling’s debut novel? Seriously, well done – applause, applause, applause! This one has been widely hailed as amazing, and I had very high hopes when starting it. These high hopes due to fellow reviewer’s ecstatic praise of a book can sometimes lead to disappointment, but I’m very happy to confirm that with The Luminous Dead, my reviewer friends were right on the money!
Anyone who knows me knows that my preferred brand of specific horror is usually science fiction related in nature, largely due to my childhood spent watching Star Trek episodes & reading books. I love settings in other worlds or on other planets, and the futuristic and sci-fi focus of this novel really hit home for me with my personal tastes & the things I love. I mean, I don’t want to give anything away, but how freaking cool are the suits in this book?? I love it!
Starling’s prose is both lush and succinct, describing the environment in the caves system in ways that can both evoke wonder, but also horror. From incredible phosphorescent growths to terrifying Tunnelers, each new thing our main character, Gyre, encounters was written in a way that you feel as if you’re encountering it yourself.
Although I’ve never been in a real cave, I could also fully relate to Gyre’s mental health deteriorating over time while down there. Her fears taking over the longer she’s under – of the dark, of things moving just out of sight, of being watched – are such primal, base fears that all humans can empathize with, regardless of cave life experience, which makes for some really absorbing reading.
While I loved the tension & fear, and as much as I enjoyed the imagery and incredible writing, I did also feel that the pacing was a little slower than I would have preferred – especially around the second quarter of the book. There was a lot of back and forth trekking in the story, and while it was explained as necessary, I just felt some of it was a little bit superfluous. The beginning set the book up great and kept me turning pages & wanting more, and the last half of the book had me totally hooked until the very end, but there was a little in the middle where I lost focus slightly.
I also would’ve enjoyed more video flashbacks, ’cause having access – even minimal access – to other characters outside of just the main two was a nice change from the rest of the story. But don’t get me wrong – even with just the two main characters, I was invested! I just found myself really looking forward to those video bits with this sort of hopeful dread that I’m really impressed the author got me to feel!
That all said, I’m very happy to have pushed through the tiny bump I had, as the build up and tension do really ultimately explode into a pretty satisfying ending. I appreciated the diversity rep & F/F romance aspect with the characters – especially considering how few there were overall – and had a lot of fun exploring the caves, and being terrified by the unknown.
Thanks to E for buddy reading this one with me!!
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