Title: The Luminous Dead
Author: Caitlin Starling
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: April 2019
Hardcover: 352 Pages
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?
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Review copy from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print / Audiobook
If you have been following my reviews for any measure of time, you may know I am a sucker for unreliable narratives and The Luminous Dead has that up the wazoo.
Gyre is a caver with limited experience who lies her way into a new expedition that pays really well. A new, unexplored cave in a foreign planet, a mission to map mineral deposits, a super advanced enclosed suit and that’s it – easy gone in and out, with enough money to finally find her mother who one day up and left. But there is nothing at all easy about the expedition. The cave is deeper, there are unforeseen problems and creepy things in the dark. Also, Gyre assumed she would get a team in the surface monitoring all of her steps at all times. Always communicating and keeping her safe – and sane.
But Gyre is wrong. There is only Em. The expedition leader, the creator of Gyre’s suit and the only support Gyre has in the surface. Can Em ever be enough? She will have to be enough: but what if something goes wrong when Em is resting and not paying attention?
And then things get worse: Gyre finds bodies of previous cavers from Em’s other missions. Too many of them. She also realises Em knows about Gyre’s faked credentials and that she has complete power over Gyre’s suit. Power to move it or lock it and power to feed Gyre meds, adrenaline and any number of things to effectively and completely control her. But if Gyre quits and she should quit, it will be the safest, sanest thing to do. But then she gets nothing.
The Luminous Dead is a horror novel, a thriller: a claustrophobic, atmospheric, terrifying novel that explores its enclosed, dark setting – and the fears those things engender – really well. It provides the thrilling read its premise promises, with Gyre tackling her survival at all costs without missing out on the psychological torments said setting offers. It is hard to know if Gyre is hallucinating everything she sees (she thinks she sees?) down there and even harder to know if Em is ever being truthful. Second guessing everything – what a journey.
It is also a novel with two queer women of colour at the centre: both of them flawed, self-destructive, desperate and so, so fucked up. When romantic feelings start to develop it adds one extra unreliable level to the narrative: it’s part Stockholm Syndrome, part survival instinct, part “SHE IS THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN EVER GET ME NOW THAT WE ARE SO BROKEN”.
But it was also a somewhat repetitive read – stuck inside Gyre’s head and her narrative repeats certain beats over and over. In fairness, this is partly due to the confined environment and an intrinsic part of the specific type of horror at play. But I couldn’t help feel the story would have been better served by a shorter word count.
Still, I enjoyed this trippy trip rather a lot.
I really like climbing and I really like caves–both in real life, and also in fiction. Another thing I really like is horror–particularly the claustrophobic, building dread kind of horror that so often comes with exploration of dark, unknown places.
Enter Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead.
Imagine you’re a young woman on a backwater planet that is on the map solely because it has caving systems rich with ore and mineral deposits for exploitation. There isn’t much you can do to rise above your meager station–especially after your mom took off, leaving your dad kind of sad and bitter, and you all by yourself–and so you throw yourself into becoming a caver. It’s not an easy job or a safe one, and most cavers die after their first few climbs due to equipment failure or because of tunnelers (vicious burrowers that cause massive cave ins and are drawn to humans in any number–think Tremors). You’re good at climbing and exploring; you love the thrill of caving, the physical challenge of climbing and setting your own anchors and routes. Most of all, you are hungry for the chance to get out–to take a job as a caver for a mining conglomerate and maximize your chances of making enough money to find your mom and tell her “fuck you” to her face.
So, when the job comes along–highly dangerous (but what caving gig isn’t?) and highly lucrative (same story)–Gyre jumps on it. It’s Gyre’s first job, and one she had to lie her way into, pretending that she is an experienced hire with other missions under her belt. Sure, she doesn’t have the real credentials, but Gyre is a climber and is confident in her hours and years of practice and her own abilities.
But when she gets to the cave, everything is different. Instead of having a team in her ear supporting her mission, there’s just a single cold, taciturn woman named Em. As Gyre gets deeper into the cave, hauling future caches of supplies to preset camps left by climbers before her, she learns more about Em, and with growing dread, more about the mission. Em knows Gyre lied about her background. She can control Gyre’s every move, sedating her with heavy drugs or amping her up with forced injections of adrenaline. She, for all intents and purposes, is Gyre’s god, on her own personal crusade for which she is willing to make any sacrifice.
And all the while, the cave watches.
I loved the simple premise of this book–two women in the literal and figurative dark, each playing games with the other and desperate for their own separate end goals. As our narrator and protagonist, Gyre is naive but tough, pushing herself to every mental and physical limit in order to survive and stop Em from luring any other caver to their death. At the same time, she starts to feel an attraction to Em and understand her, even if she doesn’t agree with her. I absolutely loved the character development and the fucked up relationship between Gyre and Em. (In my opinion it is NOT romantic but a version of super-intense Stockholm Syndrome and these ladies are gonna be real bad for each other.) As the women learn more about each other, they necessarily have to trust each other. And the longer Gyre is in the cave, the more she craves basic human interaction–the touch of someone else, the sound of their voice, especially as the darkness and gaping maw of horror of the cave and her suit presses in on all sides.
Similarly along the brilliant premise lines, I love the cleverness of this contained, cabin fever (space madness) trope plot. Gyre must remain in her
spacesuit the entire time, lest she attract tunnelers or become exposed to cave fauna that could kill her. The suit is a brilliant piece of technology, allowing her to eat by inserting a can of food directly into her redirected digestive tract, recycling her waste (important question that is not satisfactorily answered: where does the poop go), regulating her temperature, allowing her to breathe underwater, and, most importantly, interact with her topside guides. The suit is super cool… but it also is a kind of prison, in an already terrible and dangerous situation. Gyre is deep in the bowels of the cave, days, even weeks, away from sunlight and other humans and she can’t even rub her goddamn face. This plays a big, necessary part in Gyre’s psychological deterioration as the book progresses, for good reason, and I appreciated the author’s skill in crafting this underlying baseline of tension and discomfort, ratcheting it up several notches with each passing chapter.
Where The Lumious Dead isn’t as successful, however, is with its overall pacing and with some basic suspension of disbelief questions. Overall the novel is an effective piece of horror, but the story sags a little towards the halfway mark as it is hard to write a high-tension novel set entirely in a cave from one person’s perspective without reader fatigue (though Starling does an admirable job). The bigger offense, in my opinion, is that The Luminous Dead is never really clear what kind of horror it wants to be.
I kept expecting there to be a ghost story a la Event Horizon, or some The Descent-style monster showdown. (It isn’t, and there isn’t.) There are several gestures made towards ghosts, biological agents, malevolent spirits, raggedy Sunshine-style survivors, it’s all in your head My Bloody Valentine… and there isn’t really any clarity until the end of the book and by then it’s kind of too late.
Along the suspension of disbelief vein, while I loved the spacesuit in all of its restrictive but necessary glory, the entire solo-multi-pitch climb day in and day out without a belay partner and without the ability to feel the rock either under her hands or in (what I assume are super clunky, heavy) spacesuit shoes is just a little hard to believe. Gyre runs hours and hours of climbs with no sleep, no belay partner, and makes no mistakes. (It’s kind of like expecting Alex Honnold to free solo El Cap every day for a week.) I call shenanigans, and found it jarring in the extreme.
And yet, for all this? The Luminous Dead is a solid read and one that I still absolutely enjoyed. Recommended, especially for readers of the unreliable narrator persuasion.
Ana: 7 – Very Good
Thea: 7 – Very Good