Review of The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

CWs: claustrophobia, body modifications, body horror, underwater scenes, slow-burn suspense, violations of bodily autonomy, violations of trust, isolation and the resulting mental health decline, moments when you’re not sure you can trust your own mind

Rep: Gyre is queer. Em is queer and a mixed-race WOC. I also feel like Gyre might have ADHD really similar to mine and Em might be autistic, but it is not confirmed on page. It is very strongly my head canon.

5 of 5 stars

I received a free e-ARC from Edelweiss for review. I proceeded to buy the paperback and audiobook I loved it so much.

If you know my reading tastes at all, you know there are a few things that are good indicators I’ll like a book. I like sci-fi. I like slow-burn character-driven stories. I like books with strong atmospheres, mysterious elements, and queer characters. I knew that all of these things would be in The Luminous Dead and I had incredibly high expectations. It did not disappoint.

Let’s go through these things step by step so I can gush in the most thorough way possible. The author describes this book as horror-tinged sci-fi which is a categorization that fits perfectly. The main character is wired into a caving suit on a solo expedition that should take at least a month, probably more. Literally wired in. If you’re not into body-horror, this might not be for you. I thought it was incredibly cool. The things this suit can do— and that people controlling the suit from the surface can do— are awesome in the most literal sense. It made my science-loving, rock-climbing, geeky heart very happy. The climber in me wants that suit. The self-preservation part of me is really glad it doesn’t exist.

I say that this book is a slow-burn and character driven for a few reasons. There are really only two characters in this book: Gyre, the caver, and Em, her contact on the surface (a strong argument could be made that the cave is a character, but that’s a conversation for the next paragraph). A large portion of the plot is these two figuring out how to work together when they both have their own agendas and there is a serious power imbalance between them. Em has almost complete control over Gyre’s body. She can inject her with drugs. She can lock down the suit and move it herself, abet more crudely than Gyre. It’s completely dark in the cave and Gyre sees things through a reconstructed sonar HUD: Em can control that too. The real point of this book is watching the characters change, both individually and in relation to one another.

Now, let’s talk about the cave. I am a sucker for a strong setting: think Cabeswater in The Raven Cycle, the Southern Reach in Annihilation, the Gray in The Devouring Gray. The cave in this book has that in spades. It’s the perfect blend of creepy and controlled; it has its own rules, even if we don’t know them. In this case, those rules are pretty much the layout, but there are some factors that influence that. The cave is infested with Tunnelers, these worm-like creatures that carve new paths through the rock (and anything else in their way) and are inexplicably drawn to a human’s presence (hence the solo mission and the super high tech suit). On top of that, the author does such an amazing job with her descriptions that I somehow fell in love with this cave and hated it at the same time.

The Tunnelers aren’t the only things throwing wrenches into Em’s maps and Gyre’s mission. As the book progresses, Gyre starts to wonder if she’s actually alone in the cave. She knows she isn’t the first person to climb around those caves— someone had to leave her supply drops, after all— but the longer she stays isolated from civilization, from light, even from her own skin, the more convinced she gets that she’s not alone. On top of that we also get the mystery of why Gyre is really down there which Em reveals one tiny bit of information at a time. I spent pretty much the entire book curious and I loved every minute of it.

Finally, the number one reason I become interested in books: there are queer characters. In this case 100% of the human characters are queer. The fact that Gyre and Em’s relationship was in all capacities fucked up from the beginning didn’t stop me from hoping they would build something that would survive the cave. And it is rather seriously fucked up. On the surface there’s the power imbalance, lying, and resulting complete lack of trust. On a deeper level there’s the issue that their respective missions might be more important than the other person; in Em’s case, that could cost Gyre her life. It’s messy. Neither character is good and they both lie. I cannot express how much I loved the mess and both the people in it.

It’s possible this book isn’t for you: if you don’t like slow-paced stories, if you’re claustrophobic, if you’re particularly squeamish about body modifications, if you don’t like unreliable narrators or characters. If any of the above elements are interesting to you, though, and you don’t have any huge red flags regarding content, I highly recommend The Luminous Dead. It was everything I wanted it to be and several things I didn’t know to ask for.

Author: SeeOwlRead

They/She. I’m a queer reviewer and librarian.

6 thoughts on “Review of The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling”

  1. I was already so intrigued by this and wanting to read it SO BADLY, but then you mentioned the cave, and I was SOLD. I love cave settings. I don’t know why, because I’m slightly claustrophobic myself, but maybe that’s it: I’m just freaked out enough to have fun, without being panicked or triggered enough to NOT have fun. 😂 Anyways, definitely grabbing this when I can!


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