The Luminous Dead
by Caitlin Starling
April 2nd 2019, Harper Voyager
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 meant she’d get a skilled surface team, 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.
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. 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—she must confront the ghosts in her own head.
But how come she can’t shake the feeling she’s being followed?
The Luminous Dead certainly surprised me. A sci-fi psychological horror, it’s intense and fast paced, with enough action to keep your heart racing, but there’s a focus on the psyche of these characters and their pasts, what motivates them to keep going. Its ‘horror’ elements are grounded in reality and science, but it’s still a thrilling read.
I love the focus on psychosis, and how claustrophobia and fear can begin to alter your brain in such an enclosed space. I definitely understand comparisons to The Descent, although, if you’re looking for aliens in here, you’re going to find it sorely lacking. There’s the pervasive threat of the Tunneler, but it’s mostly human threat that takes the centre. Still, there’s definitely some terrifying moments, and I think listening to the audiobook only made it more intense. Being in the head of an unreliable narrator has never been scarier when you know it’s happening, but they don’t.
There is a lot of body related horror and issues in this, on top of all of the issues Gyre tackles mentally. There are descriptions of cannulas and bodily functions, vomiting, infections, as well as descriptions of dead bodies and what happens to them in different stages of decomposition and general destruction. I’m a big fan of body horror so I loved how in depth some of the descriptions could get, but if you’re not a fan of things like that, this might not be the read for you!
What I love most of all about this book– other than the narration, which I will talk about next– is the focus on character. It’s predominantly these two characters forced to interact and confront their traumas, suffering deeply from familial tragedies and abandonment, which you see throughout the novel. Both are flawed and make increasingly stupid decisions, but their actions always feel rooted in truth and are mostly pushed on by anxieties over having to trust another person completely for the first time in their lives, after how much they have lost in the past. The best and worst parts of both are brought out in this tense environment, and it’s handled so well by the author.
I think what’s most interesting is how the relationship between Gyre and Em isn’t strictly healthy. It could be argued there’s an element of Stockholm Syndrome to their relationship, a desperation at being the only other person who knows what the other is experiencing, but by the end you definitely feel their care for one another is genuine, however unconventional it is. This does have an LGBT+ relationship between two women, but I wouldn’t call it a romance. There aren’t specific labels, but it’s on-the-page representation and not left up to the imagination, and I really love how it was written.
The audiobook for The Luminous Dead is also expertly narrated by Adenrele Ojo. She gave the characters such distinct voices that you knew exactly who was speaking in what situation; sometimes, when you don’t have a book open in front of you, the punctuation and change in paragraphs and speaker can be difficult to navigate, but I always knew what was going on with Ojo’s narration.
I think The Luminous Dead is an incredible debut novel from Caitlin Starling, and kept me on the edge of my seat from the very start. I’ll definitely be reading her future novels, I can’t wait to see what she comes out with!
Content Warning: descriptions of dead bodies, descriptions of bodily functions and infection, psychosis, death of a parent, abandonment
If you liked this review, you might like:
🍎Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
🍎Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
🍎Review: A Head Full of Ghostsby Paul Tremblay
If you liked this post, consider buying me a coffee? Ko-Fi.