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The Luminous Dead

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Horror (2019)
A thrilling, atmospheric debut with the intensive drive of The Martian and Gravity and the creeping dread of Annihilation, in which a caver on a foreign planet finds herself on a terrifying psychological and emotional journey for survival.

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?

432 pages, Kindle Edition

First published April 2, 2019

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About the author

Caitlin Starling

6 books1,084 followers
Caitlin Starling is an award-winning writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction. Her first novel, The Luminous Dead, won the LOHF Best Debut award, and was nominated for several others. She tweets at @see_starling and has been paid to design body parts. You can find links to her work at www.caitlinstarling.com.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,657 reviews
Profile Image for carol..
1,538 reviews7,882 followers
January 6, 2019
Totally Unauthorized Review*

It was very good, just the sort of read I wanted. Read it if you enjoy survival stories, or caving, or psychological mysteries where people are unreliable, conflicted, and determined. 

I read for three reasons:

--A certain unnamed good friend strongly suggested it after reading it. Here's how she sold it: "It takes stones of steel to write a full novel with only two characters and a cave for the setting. So far, it's done very, very well."
--I confused Caitlin Starling with Caitlin Kiernan, who also has a effed up book I want to read (The Drowning Girl).
--The darker, the better. 

Like The Children of Time, it could have played on fundamental fears--in this case, claustrophobia--but somehow, through the writing, I was only riveted. Except for the water scenes. Those were scary. In some ways, it is like The Martian, only with a main character who is far less well-adjusted and funny. I'd say character-building is the clear strength of this book.

Do not read the GR book blurb, as it does give far too much away, including one plot point that happens two-thirds of the way in. I read an early copy--hopefully very early--so I look forward to re-reading a print copy that might have even more polish. Just for me--for heaven's sake, do not read the spoilers if you intend to read--

That said, the end result was a one-two gut punch. Absolutely wow.

"She hadn't planned, because her goal hadn't been in the future. It had always been behind her, pulling her back, pulling her down."

*Black market ARC. Oh, you didn't know there was such a thing? There is, my friend, and the stories around them are sordid.**


***On the up side, I don't have to put anything in about thanks to the publisher, or totally honest review, or unbiased opinions, or any of that other legalese baloney.
Profile Image for Sumit RK.
492 reviews459 followers
June 19, 2019
Set in a remote dystopic future, The Luminous Dead is the story of Gyre Price, a young woman raised on a mining colony on a distant backwater planet. Gyre obtains a solo cavern expedition job that promises an enormous payout. Almost immediately, 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 battle her way out of the many dangers and something sinister lurking in the caves.

It’s hard to describe a book like The Luminous Dead. It’s part science fiction, part psychological thriller with a hint of horror but at the heart of it, it’s a story of two people who are looking for answers. In a sense, it’s a psychological drama played out between just two characters.

The author has succeeded in crafting a page-turner while maintaining the tension throughout. The atmosphere throughout the novel is creepy with a sense of something sinister lurking just around the corner. From the beginning, you feel a part of the underground world with some excellent world-building (tunnels, waterfalls, the subterranean cliffs and the darkness engulfing them all). It feels like being transported back to the caves from The Descent or The Tomb Raider.

The story revolves around just the two characters and the action unfolds in conversations between the two. Starling has done a phenomenal job in creating a story with essentially two characters and just one POV. The Luminous Dead sheds a revealing light on the extraordinary dark depths that the human mind and body will plumb in search of answers. In a way, the exploration of the cave is the background for the story. The story is ultimately about these two women and their journey. The dynamics between Em and Gyre, their motivations, their secrets and the discovery of their own self is at the heart of the story.

Having said that, the narrative too often felt repetitive; especially the interactions between the Gyre & Em and the cave climbing sequences. The romance between Gyre and Em felt forced. I felt the story could have been shorter. Also, more than a thriller, this is a character driven story. So if you are expecting a relentless thriller, it may disappoint you.

Overall, The Luminous Dead is a dark and terrifying novel that explores the dark and unexplained – including the dark recesses of the human mind. – really well. The Luminous Dead is definitely worth reading for Starling’s excellent atmospheric writing and character development. 3.5/5

Many thanks to the publishers Harper Collins, the author Caitlin Starling and Edelweiss for the ARC.
Profile Image for Ɗẳɳ  2.☊.
159 reviews293 followers
December 7, 2022
"A thrilling, atmospheric debut with the intensive drive of The Martian and Gravity and the creeping dread of Annihilation . . . " Nah, I beg to differ.

Only two characters appear in the entire story: a spelunker in an alien cavern and her guide and handler along the surface. Both young women have similar tragic backstories--losing their parents at a young age--both are exceptional liars, and both are chasing a delusional dream of reuniting with mothers that abandoned them. The only difference is that the one on the surface has the means to pursue her pipedream, while the other is conned into risking her life in pursuit of the truth about what really happened to the surface girl's family.

It's all so very one-note, with the caver incessantly railing against her handler for tricking her into an impossible mission, and calling her a monster upon learning about the many failed expeditions of the past and all the casualties to the cause. While the handler argues that she never forced anyone to take on this assignment, and, moreover, the caver lied about her qualifications when she applied for the job, so she doesn't have much of a leg to stand on. But, as much as they hate each other, they're soon forced into relying on each other and eventually grow to care for and maybe even love one another.

The entire story takes place in a generic, Earth-like cave system and is very repetitive as the caver ferries supplies from one camp to the next, climbing up and down walls, along ledges, squeezing through passageways, swimming through sumps--retreading over the same ground time and again. All the while complaining about her powered suit that prevents her from touching her own skin, but, more importantly, protects her from an alien environment and a tunneler that'd sooner see her dead than complete her mission.

In the hopes of reaching some epic mind-fuck of an explanation for the apparitions the caver was seeing, I stuck it out to the bitter end. But sadly, the payoff just wasn't worth the effort.
Profile Image for Mogsy (MMOGC).
2,034 reviews2,605 followers
March 31, 2019
2.5 of 5 stars at The BiblioSanctum https://bibliosanctum.com/2019/03/31/...

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling is a story about two women who have more in common than either of them would like to admit, but by the time they realize how much they mean to each other, it might already be too late. Gyre was only a little girl when her mother abandoned her, leaving only a vague note with an invitation to her daughter to come find her when she is ready. Now twenty-two years old, our protagonist has finally decided it is time. But first, she’ll need to make enough money to get off her backwater planet and begin her search, and to do that, she has forged her credentials and work history in order to sign on to a dangerous mining operation known to pay its cavers extremely well.

Given how much she was offered for the job, Gyre expected to be assisted by team of specialists and scientists, but instead, she finds herself alone in the deep, dark tunnels of the planet with only a single overworked individual on the surface remotely monitoring all her life support and suit controls. Introducing herself as Em, her handler is secretive and uncommunicative in her lofty position of authority, which immediately sets off Gyre’s dislike and mistrust of her. But very soon, as the mission becomes increasingly difficult and treacherous, the two of them have to learn to work together and let each other in, because only then can they save one another and put the ghosts of their pasts to rest.

I was torn between like and dislike for this book, and it kills me to have to give this one anything less than 3 stars because it had its moments. However, there were simply too many other things about it that left me feeling disenchanted and utterly frustrated, making it hard to justify a higher rating. The truth is, I probably would have enjoyed the story a lot more had it been presented in a shorter, less repetitive and more condensed form, but as it is, I felt that too many pages were devoted to pointless back-and-forth or were squandered by following our characters as they—quite literally in some cases—walked around in circles.

What’s more, I feel the publisher description has done the book a great disservice by comparing it to The Martian and Gravity, because the reality, as I found out, was much different. For one thing, the “intensive drive” that was promised was virtually non-existent. A heart-pounding thriller this was not, so don’t be expecting anything like The Descent. I just can’t emphasize enough the slowness of this book, even though, in all fairness, I have no doubt the measured pacing here was entirely intentional. The plot featured here is the kind that relies heavily on character development and relationship building, a process that understandably cannot be rushed.

But back to my issues with the blurb: as you would recall, both Mark Watney and Ryan Stone in the respective tales of survival were quick-on-their-feet problem solvers who kept their cool and used their wits to apply their knowledge and resources available to them in order to overcome obstacles. In awe of their inventiveness and ability to find quick and clever ways to get out of tight spots, never once while watching them did I think to myself, “Wow, that was dumb.” Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Gyre, a recalcitrant, reckless and naïve protagonist who frequently and actively sabotaged her own chances of survival with her tunnel vision and less-than-intelligent decisions. That she never learned from any of her mistakes or the fact that the narrative fell back again and again into the same tiresome, infuriating patterns was simply another nail in the coffin. I mean, if you have reason to suspect your mental capabilities may be compromised, perhaps then you shouldn’t rely solely on your own impaired judgment? Sure, Em’s not perfect, but maybe trust that as mission control, she has at least some idea of what she’s talking about? But no, pretty much the entirety of this 400-page novel consisted of repeated variations of the following conversation:

Gyre: “I’m going to go ahead now and do something stupid.”
Em: “No, don’t do it, Gyre. That would be really stupid.”
Gyre: “Fuck you! Just because you’re my boss doesn’t mean you can boss me around!”
*Gyre goes ahead and does something really stupid*
Gyre: “Well shit, I guess that really WAS stupid. I might have just doomed myself with my stupidity. Dammit Em, why didn’t you stop me?”
Em: “You’re right, I really should have tried harder. I’m so sorry that I’m such a monster.”
Gyre: “Damn right you are, and I’m not about to let this happen to anyone else. To do that, I’m going to go ahead now and do something stupid.”
Em: “No, don’t do it, Gyre. That would be really stupid.”

And on and on, ad nauseum. Granted, the first couple of times this exchange happened, it gave us great insight into the characters’ personalities and dynamic. However, tighter writing and more concise storytelling could have probably conveyed the same ideas in half as many pages. The F/F relationship was also not very satisfying, and considering so much of it was developed under mental and physical strain or was fueled by desperate need and duress, I just couldn’t see it as either healthy or sustainable. Furthermore, I was never convinced of Em’s true intentions of sending people down into those caves. The explanations given were so underwhelming, initially I thought they were a smoke screen to obscure the true reasons which would later be revealed, but nope, that was it.

Still, I did mention the book had its moments. First of all, kudos to the author for pulling off what is essentially a novel featuring an extremely limited setting and only two characters. And while at no point did I personally find this “horror” novel scary or disturbing, Starling nevertheless did a fantastic job evoking an atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia, especially in the sections with the sumps. At times, the hopelessness of Gyre’s situation really got to me, not to mention how all the uncertainties had a way of messing with your head. Scenes of breathless action were few and far between, but whenever they cropped up, they were also well written and suspenseful. Plus, the tunnelers were pretty cool, though we didn’t get to see nearly as much of them as I would have liked.

However, at the end of the day, the positives were still outweighed by the negatives, which greatly impacted my experience with this book. Namely, slow pacing and aggravating characters were my main issues, compounded with the possibility that my expectations had been set too high by the synopsis. That said, I don’t want to discourage anyone from checking out this novel if the story’s description calls to you, or if you this is something you might enjoy. Good luck, and happy caving.
Profile Image for Robin.
310 reviews1,459 followers
November 19, 2022
↠4.5 stars

Gyre is part of a one-person expedition mapping a cave system on the mining colony of a distant planet, but after basically lying her way into the job for the substantial paycheck, she soon finds herself in way over her head. The cave is filled with the bodies of past explorers that met an unfortunate end, and the surface team tasked with monitoring her surrounding environment is not a team at all, but a grieving young woman determined to unbury a graveyard. Lured into a false sense of security by the promised payout that will allow her to track down the mother that abandoned her, Gyre continues her descent, but the cave system is not what she expected, and her handler will stop at nothing to push forward. Confused and alone in the dark, Gyre makes one unsettling discovery after the other. Supplies have gone missing, tunnels completely shifted, and as she encroaches deeper into the darkness Gyre begins to suspect that she may not be entirely alone.

The Luminous Dead is the perfect combination of spooky and gay, wound up in a psychological thriller investigating the traumas of two young women and the ties that bind them. Told entirely from the perspective of caver Gyre as she navigates the expansive cave system of her home planet Cassandra-V, Starling's confined narrative contests with the limitless scope of the underground. The vast network of caves becomes a nightmare, where the emotions and mental state of Gyre and her inconsistent handler Em begin to fray. I’m a big fan of the use of the surrounding environment as an extension of the emotions of these characters, where unique traumas can be realized and overcome. The Luminous Dead took this to an extreme degree. The plot manages to draw out the horror contained within, with the thirty-some dead cavers, cave collapses, and missing gear, alongside Gyre’s slow loss of sanity. This isolation is fully brought home with there being only two characters in the story, while finicky Em enters and exits on her own agenda, leaving Gyre to fend for herself and parse her handler's inconsistencies. There were so many little moments throughout where I felt aligned with Gyre in not knowing what to believe or trusting anything that was being seen. The general fear of being watched, having her suit tampered with, or being controlled was terrifying to observe. Situating the novel around the exploration of a system of caves was enough to maintain suspense, but the psychological torment of Gyre was even more dreadful. Her hallucinations and the prevailing slow build toward her total loss of self became incredibly anxiety-inducing to witness. Until its unexpected ending, I really had no idea if she would leave the cave alive. Secluded and horrifying, The Luminous Dead is the internal journey of two women united by trauma towards healing by exorcising the past. An unsettling atmospheric read that chilled me to the very core.

Trigger warnings: death, parental death, parental abandonment, forced drug use, body horror, vomiting, suicidal thoughts
Profile Image for LTJ.
108 reviews43 followers
March 6, 2022
“The Luminous Dead” by Caitlin Starling started out interesting as it created an atmosphere around the main protagonist and her “controller” when it comes to cave diving/exploring. At first, I was pretty interested to see where it would go but my goodness, by the time anything remotely interesting happens, it took a ridiculously long period of time to get there. I’m talking at least 3 to 4 hours of reading annoying banter between these two characters.

It took reading to around the 61 percent mark for anything decent to happen and even then, it was lame. This novel is full of fluff and events that are flat-out boring. I thought this was supposed to be a horror novel? There is absolutely nothing scary, creepy, or horrific in “The Luminous Dead” at all as I’m not even sure how this was even classified as a part of the horror genre in the first place. The overall writing and dialogue between Gyre and Em are very repetitive and stagnant throughout this novel.

I give “The Luminous Dead” a 1/5 as it’s a terrible slogfest. Even the ending was lame with no major reveals, plot twists, or anything good worth remembering. I could not wait for this to be over because it was that bad. It’s basically just a story between two characters with endless dialogue that goes back and forth until it ends with an unsatisfying ending.
April 10, 2019
Well... Half the time Gyre is mad at Em, or blaming Em, or wondering at how she doesn't feel like blaming Em. What's with all the blame?

Em... Her being blamed during half the book for a number of disastrous expeditions, makes little sense. Yes, she has some (un)specific goals but don't all mining companies in the book? How come that looking for Em's goals is any worse that plain old ore mining? Felt like the author needed some psychological suspense vehicle and this is what got used as such. Well, it wasn't suspenseful, just read immature.

Gyre, she's the worst employee of the decade. She bickers with her employer. Keeps entertaining thoughts of siccing some authority at Em for some half-baked notion of Em endangering her employees on purpose (though, it's clear that if people keep dying on the surface expeditions, they will do so at higher rates on more difficult expeditions). Gyre even gets angry at Em for being professional during one of their crises:
“I’m terrified!” Em shot back, and there it was; the stress turned into anger, turned into something honest. “But as far as I see it, I have two options: one, break down and stop being able to help you, or two, be a fucking professional.”
God, that was refreshing. (c)

Em is close to being the employer from horror film.

The girls... their discussions get the all-time low like this:
“Stop being so nice,” Gyre added. ...
“I thought you wanted me to be afraid. Or to be talking to you.” (c)

And Gyre... I can't stand her:
The tears were already there, waiting. “I don’t want to do anything for you right now,” she whispered, but she sank to her knees all the same. The last thing she wanted was to serve at Em’s will, but at the same time, it was such an easy win. Follow the command, feed her growling, taut stomach. If she followed every command Em laid out, wouldn’t it take her out of here? (c) At this point I'm like: Yes, Gyre, maybe you do need to follow your guide and employer advice.

Add to that all maudlin, at-length, guilt-trip discussions of both girls' family issues...

And some totally maudlin interactions:
“I almost lost you,” Em murmured.
“You still might.”
Em’s expression was stricken... (c) Come ooon. You were just whining on about how 27 other people dies on this gal's missions. Just make up your mind if Em's a kitty or a tiger already, will you? BTW where are the other 25 bodies?

And, of course, these gals feel the need to get all mushy:
“If I’d lost you,” Em whispered, “I don’t know that I could have gone on.” (c)

The good points of this book are that original world, the whole concept of cave expeditioning, Tunnellers who swim through rocks... Etc. Excellent read but one that could have made even more stellar.

The suit was her new skin, filled with sensors and support functions, dampening her heat and strengthening her already powerful muscles with an articulated exoskeleton designed to keep climbing as natural as possible. She wouldn’t even remove her helmet to eat or sleep. Her large intestine had been rerouted to collect waste for easy removal and a feeding tube had been implanted through her abdominal wall ten days ago. A port on the outside of her suit would connect to nutrition canisters. All liquid waste would be recycled by the suit. (c) Sounds painful.
“Walking is the most expeditious way to work off the epinephrine injection, caver.” (с)
If you had the skill for it, then why wouldn’t you trade a little bit of bodily autonomy for enough money to feed your family or to start a new life? (c)
“In case you’re trapped, and cut off from me, there are . . . kill switches built into the suit. In case there’s no way out.” (c)
Luck had seen her born on this godforsaken rock, chance had led to her mother running away, pure providence had kept her from snapping her legs as a kid.
Luck might let her finish this, for good. (c)
Profile Image for Amy Imogene Reads.
932 reviews804 followers
October 5, 2020
4.5 stars

What an unexpected find! Technically a science fiction novel, The Luminous Dead reads like a mystery/thriller diverse survivalist tale with doses of speculative elements and psychological intrigue. Also, lots of caves. Caves on caves.

Concept: ★★★★★
Spook Factor: ★★★★
Pacing: ★★★
Characters: ★★★ 1/2
Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2

More people need to be talking about The Luminous Dead.

For those who like to blend their mystery/thriller with the speculative, it's an almost pitch-perfect entry into the niche.

The Luminous Dead follows the underground cave mission of Gyre, the protagonist, as she works under contract for a company exploring one of the many caves on the planet. Gyre's suit comes with a 24/7 communication link to a handler above ground. Her handler, Em, appears to have hidden motivations regarding the mission and things don't always go as planned.

Cue the suspense. This entire novel takes place with Gyre in the cave. We've got Em on the comm link, but it's mainly just this solo woman in the dark trying to survive and get to the last/deepest cave point to complete the mission. It's gripping. It's terrifying. Things happen to Gyre that I'll never forget. Gyre's mission is to travel between six Camps that Em and previous caving teams have managed to establish in the caves and get to the final marker. No one has made it to the final marker, but Gyre has nothing to lose and no way out but through.

If you have claustrophobia, this novel is not for you.

Considering the limited setting, limited dialogue, and repetitive scenery, the pacing is great. I never felt disengaged, and even found myself fighting not to glance ahead to relieve some of the narrative tension. Gyre's trip down into the belly of the beast is gripping and filled with many moments of psychological problems and survivalist dilemmas.

One semi-gross note: There are several bodily-function mentions in this, as the high-tech suit Gyre is wearing has adapted sections of Gyre's body to leave no trace in the caves. If you don't like discussions of body parts, fair warning.

What I didn't like: Between both Em and Gyre, there is too much of a focus on their mistrust for each other. Gyre flip-flops many times on trusting Em, not trusting Em, etc. This concept would have been completely fine, but the motivations and proof for this flip-flopping went back and forth. It wasn’t for me—I was here for the caves.

Recommended reading for anyone who enjoys cave exploration, speculative/horror elements, survival tales, LGBT+, and pulse-pounding intimate science fiction.

Original notes: Joke’s on me for reading this by myself at night. Loved it anyway. Review to come!
Profile Image for Cece (ProblemsOfaBookNerd).
332 reviews7,309 followers
October 9, 2019
This was BONE CHILLING and absolutely impossible to put down. I made the wrong choice when I decided to finish reading this alone in my room at 3 am. Besides being ridiculously creepy and engaging from page one, this also has a super complex queer girl main character and the potential for an equally complex f/f relationship full of anger and distrust. Basically this is the fucked up queer horror story of my dreams, The One I have been searching for, and I cannot wait to read whatever Caitlin Starling writes next.

*I preordered this copy of The Luminous Dead*
Profile Image for Misty Marie Harms.
559 reviews335 followers
February 2, 2022
I thought it was a horror book, but I am not mad at it. This is more about one kick-ass woman and her battle to survive one messed up cave system. Having only her wits and her boss on the surface, who is not exactly telling truths, to survive. Not to mention, the boss seems to be obsessive and willing to sacrifice anyone to get what she wants. There were some heart stopping moments, so I gave it a 4-star rating. Recommend!
Profile Image for Gabby.
1,236 reviews26.7k followers
December 10, 2019
DNF @ 230 pages
I have been trying to read this book for like 2 months and I can't do it anymore. I read like 150 pages of the physical copy and I couldn't get into it, so then I listened to the audiobook instead and I still can't get past the 230 page mark because I just don't care. It's just so boring and it sucks because this book has a cool premise and I like the female/female banter-y relationship that is starting but I just don't care enough to finish this, the middle of this is dragging so badly and I don't care enough about the characters or the cave to finish it. /:
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
2,093 reviews2,957 followers
June 14, 2022
3.5 Stars
Video Review: https://youtu.be/aKNqQ92fgiQ

The best word to describe this novel is claustrobic. Blending together science fiction with elements of light horror, this story offers an atmospheric, yet gripping, reading experience.

Most of this story involves the ongoing conversation between the caver and her mysterious handler. There is not much action in one. Instead, this is more of a quiet, slow burning novel that focuses on the delicate relationship between these two characters.

The novel starts out with a strong sense of suspense. At one point, I actually had to put the book down because I was becoming too anxious by the situation that was unfolding on page. Unfortunately, this feeling of tension did not last. Part way through the story, the narrative started to feel repetitive and I was ready for the ending. This novel would have been so much more suspenseful if it had been shorter. If the book was less than 300 pages, I likely would have rated it closer to five stars.

Since the entire story takes place within the cavern, there is very little world building. The reader only gets small pieces of information about the outside world and the corresponding technology. Some science fiction readers might be disappointed by this narrative choice, but I felt that it worked well for the story.

As a piece of survival fiction, this is often compared to books like the Martian, but it has a more serious in tone. I would recommend this one to readers who enjoy character focused survival stories with some good moments of suspense.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,978 followers
October 23, 2019
A very surprising read. Half horror and half SF with high-tech suits on an alien world, this novel is rife with obsession, spelunking, and a ton of the little inconsistencies that would drive any normal cave diver insane.

And then there's all the dead down below.

Nearly thirty, all spelunkers like Gyre, sent down to be eaten by this horrid, horrid cave. And it's a rigged game. The lies, the obsession of the woman underwriting each one of these expeditions is the half the novel. The other half is the horror adventure.

I don't know what I expected. Perhaps a bunch of undead at the bottom of the pit? But no, this is entirely a survival novel with tons of scares, mistrust, insane amounts of bravery, accidents, and misgivings. Interestingly, it's also a kind of a f***ed-up love story. Abusive, sure, but also rich and honest and desperate.

Put it all together and the novel is highly entertaining and sometimes quite scary. I'm happy. :)

Profile Image for Beverly.
808 reviews290 followers
August 11, 2020
Cave versus tough as nails woman

This story only had three characters, Gyre, an intrepid and daring caver, her boss and handler, cold reserved Em, and a monstrous cave, peopled with the dead. If you enjoy a story about human versus nature or what it takes to survive in the worst of circumstances, you will enjoy The Luminous Dead.

Gyre is a wondrous creation; she is an orphan who seeks the mother who abandoned her for a better life. In order to get the money to travel off planet, she accepts a dangerous job. Caving has always been her passion and she especially loves tight places. She is confident that she has the skills and tenacity to do whatever is required to seek minerals in a treacherous, underground cavern. Her employer, Em, has left out a lot of the story though and Gyre must battle against the rigors of the drop and also against her boss's falsehoods.
Profile Image for jade.
489 reviews291 followers
July 12, 2020
“humans are selfish. it’s what we do. you loaded the gun, but we all pulled the trigger.”

i put out a call for some good horror recommendations, knowing the goodreads rec system is not to be trusted, and boy did you all deliver. had some old-fashioned nail biting moments with this one!

the setting? an elaborate cave system full of steep climbs, impossibly narrow squeeze-throughs, and deadly floods. oh, and alien flora and fauna to top it all off.

the characters? gyre, a cocky young caver whose speciality is raw physical strength, and whose biggest motivator is the fat paycheck on the horizon. and then there’s em, gyre’s stern and aloof handler, who’s monitoring her vitals 24/7 and helping her find her way through the caves with advanced tech. but for what purpose…?

the catch? nothing is as it seems. as gyre descends further and further beneath the surface, both she and em discover just how far they can push each other -- with devastating consequences.

reading this was a helluva ride. it’s been a while since a horror story enraptured me to the point of staying up all night to finish it. i was fascinated, i was disgusted, and i got spooked by The Clothes Chair in my bedroom when i finally turned in.

but even though its creepy elements are fantastic, what really lies at the heart of this book is the relationship between gyre and em. it’s a psychological descent into darkness more than anything else, and you get to know both of them intimately while they encounter incredibly taxing, life-threatening situations.

neither gyre nor em are goody-two-shoes. both of them are complex, strong-headed characters, each with their own skeletons in the closet. i know the term morally grey is often thrown around without care, but it seems very accurate here. their relationship, even as it develops, is all shades of fucked up.

who is really guiding who? what secrets do these two queer women have to hide? and to what lengths are they willing to go to achieve their goals?

you guys know just how much i love digging into the inner workings of a character, and plenty of that applies to this novel. descending into the cave is a lovely metaphorical representation of this.

it does take a while for gyre’s and em’s antagonistic banter to reach new depths, if you will, which can lead to a back-and-forth that grows a little stale about halfway through the book. the repetitiveness here makes the story drag a bit, but luckily the scary parts provide enough entertainment throughout.

speaking of those scary parts: going into this, i 100% expected the claustrophobia to be ramped up to a hundred. i mean, cramped caves, so deep underground? sounds perfect!

but instead starling chooses to underline the horror of isolation and loneliness even more; being left behind in a place where no one can hear you scream or reach you in case of an emergency. and that was a smart choice. i can see the comparisons with books like the martian and gravity (according to the blurb) more clearly in that regard.

one final criticism piggybacks off of that as well: i completely forgot this was sci-fi at times. like, this cave system is on an alien planet. and yet the worldbuilding is so sparse that the planet and its accompanying (human?) society just feels like earth 2.0.

the actual science aspect is also rather low. there’s some sample taking and mentions of various fungi, but no in-depth discussions about the science of spelunking and terrain beyond the physical actions of anchoring lines and computer-generated mapping. so this only adds to the feeling of earth 2.0, just with more advanced tech.

all that said, i had an absolute blast reading this. even the non-scary bits keep up a constant tension where you just wanna keep turning those pages, and the scary bits range from subtle, corner-of-your-eye spooks to old fashioned body horror and full-on existential dread.

if you like psychological horror/thrillers with a side-serving of two fucked-up people trying to get under each other’s skin, this one is for you.

4.0 stars.
Profile Image for Dave.
3,015 reviews333 followers
March 27, 2020
Warning! Do not attempt to read this book if you are claustrophobic. Do not attempt to read it if your skin crawls in terror from being trapped in small places. Both in its setting and thematically, the Luminous Dead is a narrowly-focused tightly-drawn Story. From Jules Verne to Burroughs to numerous modern writers, there has been an endless fascination with tunneling into the center of the earth, a focus on what lies within the labyrinth of underground spaces. Luminous Dead, with its beautiful cover art and image-provoking title, continues that tradition.

The story takes place on a backwater mining planet, or rather takes place in the planet because the surface of the planet is only important for character development. Almost No action takes place up there. It is important to know however that it is a dry dusty planet of desperation whose few inhabitants will do almost anything to escape to the garden worlds out there. Gyre’s mother escaped long ago, abandoning her to the rocky outcropping and deep crevasses that Gyre spent her childhood exploring. Now it’s Gyre’s turn and, in desperation, she signed a contract as a caver, falsifying her experience because it’s going to take the big money an experienced caver earns to get off world.

Now, here she is in a full suit like a space explorer with a feeding tube to connect her to nutrition canisters and a tube surgically attached to her intestines to quickly carry away waste. It’s dangerous down there and survival means keeping her suit on and surrendering total control of her bodily functions to mission control. Is she now a puppet at the whim of her controller? How much of her humanity has she given up? Is she any more than a piece of equipment to be manipulated into exploring the depths and whose survival is only as important as the completion of her mission?

It will take all of Gyre’s skills in climbing, swimming, and more to make it from one base camp to the next. But, little did Gyre know when she signed her contract how minimal her support team would be, how many cavers had gone before her into these tunnels and not returned, and how the crippling environment below would play havoc with not just her senses but her very sanity. Is she hallucinating or is there someone else down here following her, staking her? And what happens when a native creature who tunnels through bedrock gets close?

There are very few characters in this full length novel and very little change in scenery. Yet, it’s a fascinating spellbinding story of survival, of trust, of paranoia, of the human spirit.
Profile Image for Jemppu.
500 reviews91 followers
July 19, 2020
Went in expecting a gripping, inventive survival story akin to The Martian. Was treated to eight hours of emotionally confused fumbling à la Gravity (at best).

The cave dwelling aspect got me excited for intensely thrilling setting, but the purely melodramatic approach wiped all the credibility from the premise. The consistently fatalistic narration numbed your mind to the monotonous over-dramaticism, rendering null any chance for affecting emotional response or sense of suspense.

Instead of a rational, resourceful individual trying to problem-solve their way out of an unforeseen disaster, overcoming themselves, gaining confidence and rejoicing in defeating obstacles laid before them, here is a despairing ham crying through a situation they've put themselves into. Who's completely incapable to function on their own, panicking over every encountered difficulty, constantly evoking lonely death and giving up. Bitter for the fact that there's no-one there to save them, bitter when there is someone to help them - distracted to blame everyone for their self-chosen predicament, from their operator to their mom. Over, and over, and over again.

Overdramatic, repetitive and thoroughly tedious; this book earns absolutely no sympathy from me.

“Fuck!” she shouted. It did nothing. Tears tracked down her cheeks, but they also did nothing. Nothing, nothing. She was going to die.
Profile Image for Laurie  (barksbooks).
1,726 reviews673 followers
March 27, 2020
I will admit straight off that I’m not a huge fan of action and sci-fi stories. I know, I am terrible. There's no need to tell me. I don’t know why I am the way that I am but that’s how I am. So I went into this after hearing over and over again that it was one of the best books of 2019, and hoping with every hope in my being that the creep factor would be enough to keep me going. If it wasn’t enough and I had to DNF this book I would have to be the lone voice of negativity and I don’t like being that person and truly it would’ve been my own fault. Fortunately for me, the horror vibe was creepy enough to keep me going through all of the action/adventure/sci-fi bits when I otherwise might've noped out but what truly surprised me was how much I wanted to keep reading to find out how everything ended for the two characters in the story. The complicated relationship that develops ever so slowly between caver Gyre and her guide Em was more than enough for me. I’m a sucker for flawed and complex relationships and this is a great one. There’s a lot of pain and hurt and backstory and damage here and I loved getting down into it and watching it all get picked apart and brought to the surface.

This book is overwhelmingly claustrophobic and the atmosphere is painstakingly put down on the page. There may even be a monster lurking in the cave! I almost forgot about that bit of added terror. Trust me, you’ll want to read this book somewhere bright. Somewhere with a lot of air. Maybe somewhere you can hear the birds sing a lovely song to you. It is that intense. There is also some squirm worthy and delightful, depending on your level of weirdness, body horror that happens here. Gyre, the caver, has been fitted and physically modified into her suit as were some other folks we meet along the way but I won’t say anything more about that, nor will I tell you about the plot because I don’t want to spoil and maybe I’m a little lazy. But I will tell you that some of that stuff really made me cringe a bit in horror and I love it when a book hits me that way.

There are many 5 star reviews for this book and I’m going to be here giving it a four and ½ and I won’t be rounding up because of my personal preferences and because some of it was a little bit of a slog for me, if you want to know the honest truth It is not a book I’d reread again but I wasn’t disappointed with the horror bits and the emotional wringer the characters put me through. Definitely recommended and an incredible debut.
Profile Image for Michelle .
258 reviews78 followers
February 5, 2022
The Luminous Dead is a sci-fi horror that takes us deep underground with Gyre as she begins a solo caving expedition on a foreign planet.

It may be sci-fi...but I found this book much more claustrophobic and psychological horror. I felt Gyre's claustrophobia, not within in underground tunnels but within the suit that kept her alive. The detailed descriptions of being physically attached to an outside source was horror for me. There was a line in which Gyre stated that she wished she could rub her eyes or touch her fingers together, and I wanted to crawl out of my skin at the thought.

I loved her descent into madness...the question of what is or isn't real is always one of my favorite aspects of horror.

My only complaint is that since the entire book took place in caves the details of the environment was mostly unchanging and made the book feel looooongggggger than it really was. I think it may have packed more of a punch, for me, if it was a wee bit shorter.
Profile Image for Kate.
1,233 reviews2,206 followers
May 26, 2019

This was AWESOME. This book was absolutely un-put-down-able and I can't BELIEVE this is a debut! It captured me from the very first chapter, which many books (even ones I love) don't do that. This is a perfect mixture of different components to make a strange psychological horror sci-fi. While nothing absolutely horror-filling happens in this book, it was sending shivers down my spine and absolutely making me go cold even though i was reading it outside in 80 degree weather. The closest I can compare the feeling of this book to is the comic by Junji Ito's "The Enigma at Amigara Fault" (aka that bone chilling comic about the people finding holes shaped like them in a mountain). It was perfectly suspenseful, action-packed, but also kept you so incredibly dedicated to the characters and what they were going through. I read this in two sittings cause I absolutely couldn't put it down!
Profile Image for Nick Borrelli.
368 reviews354 followers
November 19, 2018
I want to begin this review by pointing out the fact that I'm a sucker for books with this kind of theme. The plot of THE LUMINOUS DEAD is one that takes place on a planet rich in mineral deposits and a "caver" is exploring one such location while also possibly being stalked deep within the bowels of said cave. Anything that involves some sort of exploration on a distant planet or an archaeological angle and I'm usually all in. So when I had the opportunity to receive an advance reader copy of the book from the publisher, I couldn't download it fast enough. I hadn't previously heard of the author Caitlin Starling before and this is apparently her first novel, so I was excited to see how this story would unfold. I had seen the comparisons to The Martian in that the story is told mainly through internal dialogue and conversation with only one other main character who serves as "mission control" of the expedition. You don't see too many books use this type of narrative device, so I was intrigued to get started. Now on to the book and my subsequent thoughts about it.

The main character in THE LUMINOUS DEAD is Gyre, a caver who signs a contract with a private mining company for what she believes is just another expedition to gather valuable ore deposits. Gyre is not totally forthcoming about her background and motive when she signs on with the company, which is to score a quick payday so that she can keep looking for her mother who abandoned her years ago. Gyre has been obsessed with finding out what happened to her mother and she sees this job as nothing more than a means to fund her continuing efforts going forward. What Gyre doesn't know yet is that her contractor and only lifeline to the outside world Em has motivations of her own that aren't simply mining for ore. Gyre and Em are connected via a communication device located inside Gyre's suit where Em can also monitor every aspect of Gyre's physical health. Their relationship starts out as a combative one as Gyre suspects that Em may be hiding something from her and not being completely honest about the job that she has been asked to do. It turns out that Gyre's suspicions are not entirely unfounded when she is able to access a video from her suit that shows a previous mining party who experience an incredible tragedy while exploring the same cave that Gyre is now embedded deep within. When Gyre lashes out at Em and threatens to quit and turn back, Em is forced to reveal that her parents were the ones in the video along with a few others. Something terrible happened to the party that Em has been struggling to discover the answer to. It turns out that she has sent dozens of other cavers on the same mission as Gyre with most of them dying in the treacherous tunnels trying vainly to reach the area where Em's parents were last documented to be alive. As Em continues to open up about what happened to her parents and their family business, her relationship with Gyre starts to change. It begins to become one of mutual understanding as they both are in similar situations: trying to find answers to missing family members. It also becomes a borderline romantic relationship of sorts. Eventually things really start to change as Gyre both sees and hears signs that she may not be alone inside the cave. Could it possibly be someone from the original doomed crew? Em's mother? Or could it be something far far worse that is now stalking Gyre as she tries to survive and find a way out of what could be her ultimate resting place?

My first feeling about THE LUMINOUS DEAD was that the story is of a style that I like based on similar novels that I've previously read, one being The Descent by Jeff Long. Admittedly that one didn't take place on another planet, but the feel of it was much the same initially and the cave exploration aspect was as well. There were a few things that I really liked about this book. One being the mystery behind what happened to Em's parents and also Gyre's mother. I thought that was handled deftly as well as the additional mystery of whether what was also present in the cave was a person or a monster of some kind. The suspense of these two questions kept me wanting to read further. The characters of Gyre and Em were well done with both of them having their own demons driving them to find out what happened to lost loved ones. I didn't mind the fact that there was only a two-person dialogue for the entire book either, but at times it did get a little draggy for long stretches as the dialogues were quite frequent and went off on some lengthy tangents. This is ultimately where I found myself not being as into the book as I could have otherwise. For me the book seemed to take a long time to develop and for about the first 70% of it all we really get are conversations that sometimes are relevant to the story and sometimes not. I definitely enjoy when a story builds slowly to a crescendo, but I thought that this one took a little more time than most to get going. When the climax happens, it does so with a bang and it is very satisfying, but unfortunately the journey to get there is fraught with long periods of not much happening. So I have to say that I liked THE LUMINOUS DEAD, but fell just short of loving it. That being said, others may have a vastly different opinion and you should give this one a try if you enjoy books with cave exploration and mysterious things that go bump in the dark. In the end it was a solid book that I think offers a good enough amount for readers to enjoy. But you'll have to wait until April of next year to purchase it as that is when it is slated for release in the U.S.
Profile Image for Sheena.
602 reviews264 followers
April 12, 2021
My 80th book of 2021 and sadly, it was another dud. I honestly had no interest in this book but I kept seeing such good reviews including from my good friends Jenny and Emma. I kinda knew I wouldn’t like it since sci-fi isn’t my favorite genre so I’m not exactly disappointed but I’m disappointed.

No amount of money could get me to explore a cave in a suit for god knows how long. I will say that that disturbed me and made me feel claustrophobic as heck but that’s about the only feelings this book left me with, aside from annoyance. This is a lot like the Martian but honestly that one is more interesting and I didn't even particularly love it.. Nothing really creeped me out or scared me and I didn’t worry for Gyre if she was in danger so that was kind of sad. The tunneler itself barely shows up.

It’s such a repetitive book and I thought the relationship was forced and toxic. Gyre and Em are a terrible couple who are brought together by mutual trauma and that is all. They both take terrible actions and make mistakes that they don't learn from. Gyre especially is so frustrating and dramatic. Ugh, I just really didn’t like this.

Profile Image for Tammie.
217 reviews56 followers
March 11, 2019
The Luminous Dead, a science fiction/horror book, was a solid 4 stars.
The book centers around main character Gyre, a caver, who is desperate to earn money to find her missing mother. Gyre is hired by a private mining company to map mineral deposits in a cave off planet and thus the story begins.
The Luminous Dead is a very creepy read, especially as Gyre starts her solo expedition exploring the cave. Gyre only has one line of communication and that’s through Em, her monitor. Em is a woman who has a lot of power over Gyre-she is her only source of communication, is able to control her suit and even give injections remotely. As equipment is found missing, routes suddenly changed and dead cavers bodies found throughout the cave-Gyre starts to wonder what her mission is. Both women are hiding important information but they must rely on each other to get what they each want so desperately.
The Luminous Dead is very well-written and a highly atmospheric read. Recommended to fans that enjoy science fiction/horror books. Thanks to NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Emily.
Author 10 books975 followers
November 14, 2018
like if the martian and annihilation got freaky in a cave with queer women!!!
Profile Image for Shainlock .
737 reviews
August 18, 2021
What ??? All that and then they are ... just ... really ?! They are both completely nutters and need to go build spore castles together and drink tea. Egads.
Just ......... what. That is not an ending ..,, that is a smudge.
I love good caving stories. Love them. This didn’t hit me that way, I’m sorry to say. It didn’t scare me either. I might have rolled my eyes. A lot. That’s all.

And after all of that camp two, camp three, sump, sump, camp three, sump, sump, sump, sump , climby climby, Long sump, camp four, sump, straight to five, 20 sumps, repeat this endless times until you and the MC are insane, eventually get to six after what felt like years in the life of the book and MC, and then try to get back to the top but keep having to revisit sumps and earlier camps and saying the word “sump” bc that was just our favorite word ! Oh right and add in climby climby now and then and crazy ppl. Oh and yes, talk lots about the gross functions of my suit! Not the cool features, bah, no, NO, but how she can feel things in her gut, and just ugh. She whines. Climby, climby .... putting in so many anchors and bolts that this place should be like Swiss cheese ... and one last thing. SUMP!
2.5. Rounded up.
After some reflection; I can see how this evoked some body horror and definitely some environmental horror on many levels. The main character volunteered for a dangerous (but high-paying) job, previously failed to the detriment of others. She is left in the hands of one person; a stranger, not a team as is usual, and that person she must trust with her life. She isn't told the truth and does not tell her employer the truth either.
The conditions are dismal, macabre, cramped at times, and dangerous.
This is what made me finish but unless it was meant to be-- the repetition was maddening.
The characters do bond in the story though and it seems may have developed as the story went along.
Solid three if i take away all the sump stuff.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Sade.
312 reviews220 followers
May 20, 2021

Me to Caitlin Starlin:

Also, never ever ever ever , and i can't stress this enough, EVER!! in your life underestimate the tenacity of young adult writers to put in a love story in any book.
I was like:

Anyways, this book is 432 pages of headache inducing pointlessness.
Wouldn't recommend it.

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