Review: “The Luminous Dead,” Caitlin Starling

Pros: Intense!
Cons: Mild confusion
Rating: 5 out of 5

Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead: A Novel is an intense psychological thriller that I couldn’t put down! Gyre is a caver, but she’s lied about how much experience she has. She lives on a dead-end planet where most of the work is hard labor, and this is one way for her to get the money to go off-planet and find her mother. She discovers as she descends that she doesn’t have the full team backing her that she assumed she’d have–she has only Em, who is distant and tells her the bare minimum of what she needs to know. There are many things to worry about, from the presence of Tunnelers (no one knows what attracts them) to unexpected flooding to rockslides. This job could literally kill Gyre, and she starts to worry when she finds the body of a previous caver. Can she get Em to tell her what this quest is really about? Can she get home alive?

The relationship between Em and Gyre is what really makes this story sing. For a significant period of time they are each other’s lifeline, and they’re each going through a kind of crucible. They change each other, and develop a remarkable relationship. The little bits of sci-fi influence allow unusual circumstances to arise, as the highly-developed suit Gyre wears becomes both a help and a hindrance, and also allows Em to influence her actions in certain ways.

The natural dangers keep things tense. Gyre navigates strong currents of underground water, climbs along barely-there shelves, and is exposed to mysterious fungal spores. She’s pretty sure once or twice that she sees someone else, and when she discovers that one of the equipment caches is missing, that possibility suddenly becomes all too real. Tunnelers, of course, are a danger–they can cause cave-ins and create whole new landscapes underground. Hallucinations also become a problem eventually.

My only (very mild) negative is that I got a bit confused toward the end with the different camps and different routes being cut off or opened up. There was also one plot thread that didn’t entirely get wrapped up, but I think that’s okay. It didn’t really need to be.

All in all this is a wonderful psychological thriller, and I’ll have to read more by Caitlin Starling!

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