Book Review: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper Voyager (April 2, 2019)
Length: 432 pages
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 think this is something you might enjoy. Good luck, and happy caving.