The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Gyre Price expects to be mapping mineral deposits and then cashing a nice paycheck at the end, but that’s not how the expedition goes. The further she delves into the ground, the more she suspects that critical information is being withheld by her handler. Inconsistencies start adding up, and soon her life depends on the person she doesn’t quite trust.

(WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers.)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I don’t read a lot of sci-fi horror, but when I do, I’m often blown away. The Luminous Dead was no different, and yet while I acknowledge the obvious writing ability of Starling, whose debut was this ambitious title, I couldn’t quite love it as much as I wanted to. Gyre has her reasons for lying to get herself on a high-paying caving expedition, but she discovers her surface team – those responsible for monitoring her progress – is only one woman, and so she begins to question everything she knows about the job. Honing in on the psychological effects of isolation and the stress of being trapped underground, it ticked many of the boxes I have about slow burning horror. It was great in how Gyre’s mental state deteriorated over the course of the book, as well as the complex relationship between her and her employer. Gyre and Em were the only two characters here, their interactions through voice comms. This created an unequal dynamic, where one person had more power over the other, and the second was wholly dependent, but despite the loose “romance” aspect born under unhealthy circumstances, I still wanted those kids to get together. It might just be I don’t read enough books where F/F relationships are present, and that’s on me.

Due to the setting being static and removed from the outside world, details on the alien planet and the state of the universe were pretty sparse. Instead it was comprised of claustrophobic darkness, the journey long and uneventful most of the time, with a tremendous amount of effort put into the specifics of caving. Gyre’s body being integrated to her suit was one of the elements that made me squirm, but it was brilliant, as was the intensity of her struggle in later parts. My biggest complaint is how long it took to get there; I reached the half way point, that being around two hundred pages, and had to keep myself from putting it down permanently. In hindsight I’d admit it was a good thing I didn’t – it’s not often I read something with over four hundred pages and only two characters. That in itself was memorable.

In conclusion: Taking place on the planet of Cassandra-V, The Luminous Dead accompanied Gyre as she descended into an unfamiliar cave system under the employ of a mysterious woman. It went hard on caving info, with the bulk of it focused on Gyre’s mental health as she attempted to complete the mission. There was bloat, my enjoyment reaching highs and lows, and I believe it could’ve benefitted from being tightened up a bit. Still, Starling’s prose transported me into the dark along with Gyre, witnessing the far-away rumble of a Tunneler.

Notable Quote:

How quickly everything seemed to change down here, when, at the same time, nothing seemed to change at all.

© Red Lace 2022

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