Book review: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Title: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication date: 2 April 2019

Genre: Horror | Adult

Page extent: 432 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: 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?

I let this book languish on my Kindle for months WHY RACHEL WHY?!? What idiocy was I thinking?!? This book, in all its terrifying, claustrophobic madness, was incredible.

Gyre is a caver. Taking a high paying job so she can escape the planet to find her mother, Gyre sets out to explore an uncharted cave system. But her handler, Em, is enigmatic and keeping secrets. Like why does she not have a team of handlers keeping her alive in these dangerous caves? Why is she really down here? And why are there bodies down in the caves….?

This is a tense and atmospheric delight of a book. Well delight makes it seem happy and joyful. It isn’t. It’s terrifying and dark and so fucking scary, but brilliant in every word. The fact that such a marvellous book could be written, when really there’s just one setting and two characters is incredible. I expected it to be very repetitive – I mean how many ways can you describe a cave tunnel? But it really wasn’t! The book manages to exceptionally stay tense and exciting throughout the story. As Gyre spends more time underground, and more time discovering the secrets Em is hiding, the more unhinged and unreliant she becomes. As we travel further into the book, and into the cave system, both the reader and Gyre begin to have no idea what’s real and what’s not. There are so many twists and turns, I would finally be convinced ‘yes this is real this is definitely the way the story is going’ only to have it veer off into more unexpected twists.

Both Gyre and Em are flawed and exceptional characters. Em, the monster, controlling Gyre from afar, drugging her and controlling her limbs if she desires. When beneath her facade is a tired woman, someone searching for something she’s never going to find. And then there’s Gyre, headstrong, stubborn Gyre, who refuses help even when she could use it, unwilling to admit defeat in her body. These two are both so strong to fight to the end. Until the very last pages, I honestly had no idea how the book would end. Would Gyre get out? Would she die? Would Em come for her? Was Em even real? My mind was as uncertain in reality as Gyre’s and I loved it.

This book is a horror masterpiece! A queer horror masterpiece to be even more precise, which makes this book even better for me. For such a simple narrative (explore the cave) there is such a depth to the writing and the emotions of the characters, the fear and horror at what lies in the system, and ultimately at what is happening to Gyre as she journeys further. Cannot recommend this one enough.

Paws out,
Rach + Draco

One thought on “Book review: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

  1. […] Now onto The Scary One on this post. The Luminous Dead is a terrifying horror sci-fi about being trapped in a caving system and trying to make it out alive. Told in only one setting, and with just two characters, The Luminous Dead is absolutely remarkable for such a small cast and setting. I thought it might get a little repetitive given the small setting, but it really doesn’t. It is a terrifying descent to madness, psychological horror at its best, as you never know if the main character is experiencing reality or hallucination. You can check out my full review here. […]

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