A Vein of Sci-Fi Horror Runs Deep in The Luminous Dead

Gyre Price is a young, desperate, reckless, and a liar—and talented enough that those qualities don’t matter. Not on this job.

On an alien world where the chances of leaving are slim to none, opportunity is found not in the stars, but beneath the stone: Gyre is one of a group of cave climbers hired by corporations to delve for minerals, water, and other mineable resources. She isn’t the least bit qualified for the job, but she’s good enough to fake it, and the money it pays will deliver her only chance at leaving the planet to search for the mother who abandoned her.

Outfitted in a state of the art suit monitors and feeds her—and shields her presence from the mysterious, monstrous Tunnelers that dwell within the plane—Gyre’s life depends on the reliability of the tech and the skill of her team of handlers, who are ostensibly steering her toward the safest paths from the surface… Except there is no team, there’s just Em. Brilliant, cold, and tactical, Em has no qualms with using drugs on Gyre without her consent, manipulating her, and keeping her in the dark (both literally and metaphorically) as she works toward her own ends.

Together, Gyre and Em delve into one of the most dangerous cave systems on the planet, for a purpose that Gyre doesn’t know and Em won’t reveal. And though she’s certainly isolated on her journey, Gyre may not be alone in the dark.

That’s just a hint of the horrors lurking within The Luminous Dead, the fantastic horror sci-fi debut from Caitlin Starling. It’s a novel as claustrophobic as the premise suggests, yet despite the fact that much of the action unfolds in conversations between just two characters, it never feels constricted. Even as Starling increases the narrative pressure with every page, she dives just as deeply into the psyches of her main characters, giving us room to root for both Gyre and Em in different ways, playing with expectations and inviting readers to shift their alliances from one woman to the other through carefully controlled character reveals. As danger closes in on all sides, we’re never quite sure who love, who to hate, or who to trust.

And oh what dangers there are: treacherous drops, vicious riptides flowing through underground pools, an alien fungus that infects everything it touches, and the Tunnelers, ravenous creatures drawn to disturbances in the rock, Gyre’s suit batteries running low, missing supply checkpoints, and more. There is much to fear down in the dark.

The novel also crawls deep into Gyre’s own mind: the further down she goes, the more she allows herself to be fueled by paranoia, grief, and anger, the less reliable a narrator she becomes. Starling balances this distorting reality with careful skill; by the climax, you, like Gyre, may no longer be sure of which way is up.

The Luminous Dead is a survival story in the vein of The Martian, with a psychological horror twist—the journey of two women climbing knowingly into the jaws of darkness, but not without a hope of seeing the light of day again.

The Luminous Dead is available April 2.

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