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The Luminous Dead: A Claustrophobic and Cinematic Novel

The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling

Caitlin Starling’s debut novel, The Luminous Dead, is a sci-fi/horror page turner; something made all the more interesting by its whopping cast of two characters.

Gyre fakes some credentials to run one last mineral deposit mapping gig – one promising enough money upon completion to get her off-world and help her find her mother. Usually these expeditions are monitored by a team of experts. All Gyre gets is Em.

Climbing and diving deeper and deeper into the bowels of Cassandra-V with Em’s voice as her only company, Gyre feels increasingly isolated…that is until she no longer believes she’s alone down there. Gyre’s life is in Em’s hands, but distrust weighs upon her as heavily as the millions of tons of rock above her head. Supplies go missing, long-dead bodies are found, and the horrors of the cave are magnified by the tenuous but necessary bond between the caver and her monitor.

I’d Watch the Heck Outta This

One of the qualities of this book that struck me over and over again as I read through The Luminous Dead was its cinematic quality. And I’ll be honest here: The press release used the word “cinematic,” and I wrote it off as pure hyperbole for the sake of hype in marketing. You know the move: It is the equivalent of the picture of the Bic Mac in an ad. You never see that kind of quality off the line!

But as I read, I discovered that Starling writes The Luminous Dead in such a way that every image of every scene comes to the mind’s eye vividly. So cinematic in this case hits the nail on the head.

And it’s not just because she is detailed in her descriptions. In fact, I think some authors spend too many letters on detail and in the process pull you away from the narrative. I don’t need to know the intricate designs of the lacy frill at the cuff of the king’s shirt, you know?!

Instead, what Starling tells you is enough. You get a strong sense of what Gyre is seeing and details vary depending on how much attention GYRE is paying, not how much Starling is. In a setting that is mostly rock and darkness, the things which arrest Gyre’s attention are the necessary focal points and never tangential or unessential.

On top of the mind’s eye’s visuals, Starling engineers an atmosphere that I think would do well onscreen. The Luminous Dead reads like a mix between The Descent and Buried: High tension, low character count, and plenty of thrills.

The Luminous Dead: The Horror Blend

The Luminous Dead is a mix of a creature-feature, psychological horror, and survival horror.

Survival horror is definitely the lion’s share of the heartbeat of the tone. Gyre is all by herself on an exceedingly dangerous mission and the mysterious vanishing of some strategically stashed resources puts her very life on a very tight clock. And that’s not to mention the dozens of bodies scattered throughout this cave whose failures at the same mission are a testament to the threat of the cave.

The isolation Gyre experiences also runs amok on her senses. And those effects are compounded by the fact that Em can selectively control what it is Gyre senses through her suit’s HUD. What is real and what is imagined when the cave’s population seems to climb above one?

Another horror angle comes by way of the monster known as a Tunneler: a monstrously large wormlike creature that bores through the crust of Cassandra-V like it’s butter. Gyre’s suit and protocols are designed to prevent attracting the lethal creature’s attention, but so much is unknown about its habits. Regardless of the cautionary measures employed by Gyre, the threat always looms…

I like that The Luminous Dead doesn’t stick too hard and fast to one or the other horror angle, nor does it move from one to the other sequentially. All are in play constantly, and they often affect the others. The feeling of being watched, for instance, leads to errors in judgment during the traverse of the cave.

In other words: You’re not just tense as a reader when Gyre is possibly seeing the impossible or the Tunneler is on the scene or a rappel goes horribly wrong. You’re tense all the time, which makes this book shine.

There are very few breaks for breath for Gyre or the reader.

The Luminous Dead’s Character Focus

While Game of Thrones has your head spinning trying to manage something like 100 characters’ storylines and how their shared narrative works, The Luminous Dead gives you two. The low character count should not read as a limit to the storytelling or drama though, and Starling’s writing refuses to let that perception persist if it is brought to the book.

All Gyre has throughout the course of the entire 400+ pages is Em; someone she strongly distrusts and even detests at times, but someone she must still rely upon and even seek companionship with after weeks of isolation.

Their relationship reads sort of like a necessary evil at times and as a godsend at others; sometimes undesirable and other times desperately needed. The vacillation between those two takes on their partnership gives the only relationship in the book a dynamic quality that it honestly needs if it’s going to carry the narrative – as it does and does exceedingly well.

The Luminous Dead: Scary Good

Another point in The Luminous Dead’s corner: It is a standalone novel. There are times when I get kinda bummed to read that a book I enjoyed is the first in a series. I’m already reading a billion series. I don’t exactly get psyched every time I discover I’ve just begun another one.

When you close The Luminous Dead, it is done. And the ride from cover to cover is a fantastic one.

What I am glad to discover is that Caitlin Starling has two more novels coming down the pipe – both of which will fit into the horror genre: The Calculus of Grief and Yellow Jessamine. Based on the quality of The Luminous Dead, I will happily tune in for both.

Starling’s first novel is one heck of a first impression; one any science fiction or horror fan will enjoy. It definitely received the Nerds on Earth Seal of Approval from me!

You can snag yourself a copy of The Luminous Dead from Amazon here! And once you do, move it straight to the top of your to-read pile. You won’t regret it.

[Disclosure: Harper Voyager gave Nerds on Earth a copy of The Luminous Dead in exchange for an honest review.]

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