Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Paperback book
I found this novel on the New Releases shelf at my local library, and I took one look at the cover and knew I had to read it. It’s cave horror! With a sci-fi twist! And two female characters, who (based on the back cover summary) are both hiding secrets and developing feelings for each other! Plus: that title! I was also intrigued by the concept of an entire novel with only two characters, and wanted to see how author Caitlin Starling would pull that off.
As a lover of cave horror, nail-biting tension, strong female protagonists, and unlikely romances, I had high hopes, and they were not disappointed. I finished this book, all 411 pages of it, in just three days, because I couldn’t put it down. I think that’s a new speed record for (adult) me.
The sole protagonist in The Luminous Dead is Gyre Price, a young woman raised on a mining colony on a distant backwater planet. Gyre is so desperate to get off-world she lies about her credentials and obtains a solo cavern expedition gig that promises an enormous payout. Almost immediately, however, she realizes the job is much more dangerous and complicated than she was originally led to believe. Trapped underground, with only a mysterious handler named Em to guide her, Gyre has to climb, swim, and trudge her way out while battling fatigue, ghosts, her own mind, and Em’s attempts to warp or obfuscate the truth about the caves.
There are so many elements at work in this novel that all come together to keep the tension high. Underground on Gyre’s planet, graboid-like creatures called Tunnelers present a constant danger. Because they’re attracted to human spelunkers, the cave-divers have to go down individually instead of in groups, wearing special suits so technologically advanced that Gyre requires surgery in order to wear one. Even with all this precaution, however, the threat of Tunnelers looms ever-present throughout the story, a distant rumbling in the background to everything Gyre does.
Another element: the cave itself, which hosts all manner of underground life forms, some of which may be toxic to Gyre if she removes her helmet or her suit in damaged. Sometimes she has to rappel down or climb up sheer cliff faces where a fall would mean certain death. Other times, she has to swim through underground lakes called sumps, unable to see, her helmet showing her what’s ahead using sonar and the mapping completed by previous explorers. One of the sumps in particular has a swirling vortex in it! The cave is like a labyrinth of death, y’all, and there are definitely some scenes where I held my breath for Gyre, terrified she wouldn’t survive.
And then there’s the human element. Em is able to take control of Gyre’s suit–including injecting her with drugs and freezing her in place against her will! And, as the truth about Em and the dangerous expedition come to light and the lonely darkness presses in, Gyre begins hallucinating. Or is she? The question of whether she’s alone in the cave haunts her throughout, ramping up the tension every time she starts to relax.
The Luminous Dead is honestly one of the best Science Fiction novels I’ve ever read. It’s like a master class in how to write a high-tension book that keeps the reader turning pages. My only, minor criticism is that the blossoming romance between Gyre and Em felt wrong to me, forced, more like Stockholm Syndrome than any kind of legitimate relationship. Maybe this was meant to be part of the horror? I honestly don’t know. I’m glad to see a f/f relationship in mainstream genre fiction but, this one just didn’t work for me.
Final Rating: 5/5 stars
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