Given how much of 2020 has progressed so far, I could forgive myself for reading “comfortable” books; the kind that would help me deal with and take me away from this constant feeling of existential dread and anxiety. But if you scroll down my Goodreads list, you will see I’ve read very few books you could describe as “comfortable” (with the greatest respect to authors who cater for that market: it’s much needed). At the end of the day, all the books I’ve read this year so far have captured the essence of humanity: it’s hopes and dreams, its triumphs and failures, its birth and its death. One such book has stood out this year, and is a perfect example of what it takes to be human and to survive against hopeless odds, is The Luminous Dead, the debut novel from American author Caitlin Starling.
Set on another planet, in a far-flung dystopian future, The Luminous Dead is a book about Gyre Price, a potholer who was raised on a mining colony. She lies about her experience and credentials and basically bluffs her way into a high-stakes job offering the kind of money to help her get off-planet and find her mother, who abandoned her years earlier. Gyre has issues, but then again so does her handler, Em, who literally pulls Gyre’s strings from above-ground. Gyre and Em need to trust each other, but it’s plain from the off that they don’t. And this mistrust could get Gyre killed. Or worse: she could become a ghost, destined to haunt the caves until the next expedition comes around.
This isn’t Em’s first attempt to find the rich mineral deposits in these caves. Without giving too much away, Gyre’s handler has other deeply personal reasons in urging her charge downwards and into danger. Constant gear malfunctions, missing supplies, and the supremely creepy presense of Tunnellers, subterranean creatures who dwell in the shadows and can literally pop up anywhere, add to the notion that Gyre might not make it out in one piece, if at all.
The Luminous Dead sticks with Gyre’s POV throughout, without making it a first person narrative. This is a difficult form of storytelling to pull off, the challenge being that the author needs to keep the reader engaged with both the action around the main character and her innermost thoughts. And this won’t be for everyone. Readers expecting a balls-to-the-wall action adventure along the lines of Alien and Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror movie set in a cave, The Descent, will come away feeling short-changed. So it’s important to note that while there are plenty of death-defying sequences within the book, this is equally a two-hander piece of speculative fiction that keeps the story moving forward because we are so invested in Gyre and Em. These are young women, at times working with and against one another, but with a similar endgame in mind. It’s a human thing in times of crises to fall into distrust and disbelief, but when it comes to the crunch, inevitably we have to trust someone, even if that someone is ourself.
The Luminous Dead is rich in atmosphere, and is in equal parts a science fiction thriller, a horror story, a psychological drama, and — yes — a delightfully queer love story. As debuts go, Caitlin Starling has put herself on the map, with her novel nominated for a Locus Award, a Bram Stoker Award, and winner of the Ladies of Horror Fiction Award for Best Debut Novel. She recently released Yellow Jessamine, a dark fantasy novella that I will no doubt read and review in the very near future.