TITLE: The Luminous Dead
AUTHOR: Caitlin Starling
RELEASED: April 2019; Harper Voyager
KEY INFO: cave expedition, psychological thriller, romance, unreliable narrator
REPRESENTATION: f/f (main/side)
claustrophobia, caves, absence of light, hallucinations, dead bodies, drugs & forced drug use, descriptions of bodily functions & fluids
Synopsis: 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 usually don’t read anything that might be considered as within or as straddling the horror genre but when I saw the cover for The Luminous Dead there was something about it that called to me. This year I had made a decision to be more adventurous with the types of books I am reading and, after having a quick skim through some Goodreads reviews, decided it looked more science fiction than horror and took a chance on it. On this occasion the risk didn’t quite pay off as I felt there were many opportunities within the plot that weren’t taken and the climax of the story felt, well, anti-climatic.
I received a copy of The Luminous Dead via Edelweiss from the publishers for free in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way influenced my review.
🔦 We’ve been here before…
Despite the impression that the cover may give, The Luminous Dead is not an out-and-out horror. There are no dead bodies walking around and no jump scares. Instead, there is an creeping sense of dread that slowly builds throughout the book which successfully sets readers on edge. As Gyre ventures deeper into the cave she has been hired to map, we encounter signs that all is not well… an absent above surface support team, missing cache’s, dead bodies and signs that Gyre may not be as alone as she first thought. Let’s get this out of the way, the pacing is slow. as. hell and this works as both the book’s strength and weakness. Strength as it allows the author to build a lot of tension up as the plot progresses and mimics the seemingly never-ending experience that Gyre is struggling through, yet weakness because it ends up causing the plot to drag on for far too long (The Luminous Dead is around 400 pages).
Because this is set in a cave with only two characters (Gyre and Em), there isn’t a lot going on in terms of action. Instead, character development and the plot unravels through intermittent conversations between the two characters, via Gyre’s increasing hallucinations, and Gyre’s physical journey through the cave. As such, I found that the story quickly grew repetitive, frustrating and was too slow for my liking. I think part of this frustration stemmed from disappointment that horror-filled moments never became fully realized but a large part of it also had to do with the relationship between Gyre and Em.
👥 …we’re going in circles!
Gyre’s physical journey through the cave isn’t the only part which feels like we’re reading in circles but the relationship between Gyre and Em is also incredibly repetitive. Don’t get me wrong, I am here for a f/f relationship in cool sci-fi/horror stories and, for the most part, I was here for the relationship that built between Gyre and Em. But after about 300 pages of Gyre and Em having basically the same conversation over and over and over and over again… well, my interest definitely waned. At the beginning, there are lots of interesting moments between the two girls and the relationship between Gyre as the caver and Em as the handler served as an interesting mechanism for tension building. Em is Gyre’s only contact with the outside world and Em has full control over Gyre’s suit. She has access to all of Gyre’s biological data, she can observe all of Gyre’s movements and she can seize control of Gyre’s expedition suit at any time (including forcing the suit to move and administering drugs). We also discover through Gyre’s intermittent conversations with Em that there is more to Em than first meets the eye and it was enjoyable to put the puzzle together as the story progressed.
However, the repetition of the same conversations and irritating aspects of each of the characters personalities began to grate on me as we neared the half way mark. In the end, I just wanted the two characters to stop talking to each other so I didn’t have to hear anymore of their on again/off again relationship bickering.
🤷♀️ Unrealized potential
Even though I finished The Luminous Dead a month ago, I still feel frustrated whenever I think about it because there were parts that I genuinely enjoyed but overall feel like the author never took full advantage of the opportunities the plot presented. I enjoyed quite a lot of the science-fiction elements in the story, such as the technology of the expedition suits, as well as the entire premise of caving expeditions but, surprisingly, I wanted there to be more horror?? Most of the time I read The Luminous Dead at night before bed and it still didn’t creep me out because the moments for horror never really materialized. It’s much more of an incredibly slow-burn sci-fi thriller than a horror and I think that’s the thing that disappointed me the most!