The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling Book Review

Normally, I’m not much interested in writing reviews of books I don’t like. I figure I’m just not the intended audience, and since there are so many good books of so many types in the world, I can just move on. In this case, I’m going to examine why I felt the book fell short, not because I have any animus towards the book per se, but because it is an opportunity to sharpen my tastes.

I may get a little spoiler-ish here, so consider yourself warned.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling Harper Voyager (April 2, 2019) ASIN: B07BJZT8GJ

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling Harper Voyager (April 2, 2019) ASIN: B07BJZT8GJ


The author appears to have had a reasonable amount of success with The Luminous Dead [Amazon link]. The third category here, U.S. Horror Fiction, is the broadest one, and also probably the best description I would give the book. It is a horror book, in the modern style, which is about horrible things horrible people do to each other, or sometimes horrible monsters do to people, sometimes in graphic detail.

The lonely, haunting cave that Gyre Price faces in The Luminous Dead really is pretty scary, and I think Starling did a wonderful job on this setting. Gyre’s isolation and desperation as her expedition slowly falls apart is what kept me interested in the book. The book is also mostly about the relationship between two broken women, Gyre and her handler, Em. This too, is the current style, and I think we can usefully contrast it with the older style. Which we will get to in a moment.

Describing the book as science fiction, however, seems to be a bit of a stretch to me. If you think of this book as a modern horror story in a futuristic milieu, I think you’ve got a pretty good description. However, this is what the cover blurb said:

Riveting...This claustrophobic, horror-leaning tour de force is highly recommended for fans of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation and Andy Weir's The Martian.

-- "Publishers Weekly (starred review)"

A harrowing, merciless descent into the human psyche.

-- "Sarah Gailey, Hugo Award-winning author"

I am not familiar with Jeff VanderMeer, but Andy Weir’s The Martian is the one of the few truly popular hard sci-fi novels in decades. I’m also not familiar with Sarah Gailey, but the point of bringing up the Hugo award is to market to people who want to read science fiction, as the Hugo is the pre-eminent science fiction book award. Marketers gonna market, so I suppose you can’t blame them for writing anything that will get eyeballs on a book. There is of course, wide disagreement as to what science fiction really is.

Since I’m partial to JD Cowan’s argument that science fiction is a subset of adventure fiction, meant to elicit the emotion of wonder, I will also borrow his thoughts on horror.

First, wonder:

Wonder is a trait from adventure fiction and its subgenres fantasy and horror. It is the adventure of exploring new lands, peoples, and possibilities.

The Luminous Dead actually does partially hit this, with the terrifying cave and its mysteries. However, one of the places I think the book falls flat is that nothing really gets developed or investigated here. The cave is just a setting, albeit a well-executed one. Another author might have chosen to go deep into cave ecosystems, for example, but Starling did not.

Now, let’s look at horror specifically. In the same article as the definition of wonder comes from, Cowan talks about the shift in horror as a genre during the twentieth century from the point-of-view of an influential sci-fi fan:

But here is where we get the writer's real opinion of adventure fiction. What follows is his description of The Castle of Otranto, the single most important and popular Gothic novel.

"It had form and no substance, it horrors all lay on the surface as it were . . . the seminal The Castle of Otranto succeeded only in building up baroque facades without much content. In many ways this was the forerunner to the Penny Dreadfuls and the pulp magazines--lots of form, no content."

I will translate this from arrogant fandomese for the paupers in the audience. "Form and no substance" means the horrors are spiritual, implied, and obvious to those reading, and not explicit. "Its horrors all lay on the surface" means the characters were not psychologically damaged and that the horror is an underpinning of a deeper and richer world than the ones the good people are struggling to live through. In other words, he reads Gothic fiction for the debauchery and not the spiritual danger under the surface that makes the style work so well.

And this idea is fleshed out further in a later article about horror as a genre:

What a good horror tale should do is a serve as a warning. The best of these stories focus on a character (hero or villain) breaking a taboo or rule and the consequences that spring from it. Everything is no longer as it should be because of this disturbance. The genre serves as a way to show what happens when what works and what is right is thrown away from that which doesn't, and results that spin out from that decision a character makes. It's about the importance of rules in a strong society, and how breaking them leads to destruction. All the best horror does this in at least some fashion, even if not obvious.

Horror needs heart. That is what gives it its power to shock and surprise.

The Luminous Dead almost does this too. Both Gyre and Em are where they are because they broke the rules. Gyre lied about her experience as a caver in order to get the job, and Em lies to her cavers about what exactly they are doing. However, in the end, neither of their lies end up mattering that much.

If I had to guess, the reason for this is that Starling is less interested in the idea that breaking the rules leads to consequences, and more interested in brokenness as such. Which is much like what happened with the speculative elements of the story. Many interesting things were brought up as Gyre explores the cave, but nothing gets revealed or elaborated on, because that’s not the point.

Thus, since I was looking for something the author didn’t write about, the book ended up a bit of a disappointment for me. Someone who was looking for a different book would probably be happy. You can certainly find glowing reviews of The Luminous Dead, but I will note that the three most up-voted reviews on Amazon right now are ambivalent about the book in much the same way that I am.

Adventure, wonder, horror, scifi, none of these are a major feature of the book. What we get is personal growth in the midst of relationship drama, set in a future fantastic horror milieu.

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