TW: This book and review deals heavily with mental illness, hallucinations/delusions, and the claustrophobia of deep cave exploration.
It’s part of the nature of the literary world, at this point, that I will hear something About a book and how it’s good and still know very little about it. Perhaps, like with Every Heart a Doorway, the only thing I actually know going in is the vague premise and that it has ace rep. Perhaps I know even less than that – Magic for Liars took me so off guard because I knew almost nothing, and I went into Gingerbread and White is for Witching entirely blind. Rarely, I actually know something about the setup of the book, like with Ninth House or Mexican Gothic – but I like being surprised.
The Luminous Dead is a book I heard from ‘best-of’ lists and recommendations from people I hold in high esteem, but I was still nervous to go in. All I knew about it was that it was science fiction-horror, and that there was something about caves. So I am extremely glad to report that one, it is queer; two, it is one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read; and three, it’s one of the books in the latter half of this year breaking a very, very disappointing streak in which I would pick up a highly-recced book, hit major ableism or something similar a while in, and put it down quite miserably.
So, the basics. Somewhere in the far future, in a setting with terra-formed (but not too terra-formed) planets and colonies, Cassandra-V is a particularly miserable place to live. The mines twisting through the planet offer wonderful resources, but the mines themselves are incredibly deep and dangerous, necessitating months-long expeditions by solo divers to avoid attracting the local wildlife. Gyre Price is particularly keen to get away from Casssandra-V, so she lies about her credentials, and takes on an incredibly dangerous diving job that she’s sure she can pull off. Probably. Downside: Solo cavers are supposed to have a full team of techs helping run their high-tech suit; the suit that feeds them, drugs them, keeps them safe from whatever’s in the air or the water, and holds all their supplies. Gyre, instead, has a single woman on the comms with her – Em, the financier of this peculiar job. As it turns out, Em is not quite stable. Luckily, neither is Gyre.
A lot of books with this premise would have gone for the easy chills; ‘stuck with the psycho’ feelings, tired tropes about mental health, insults about narcissism or psychopathy that would have had me throwing the book (metaphorically; it was on Kindle) across the room. But what makes The Luminous Dead so bloody excellent is that for all that Em and Gyre are both crazy, it’s a sympathetic narrative to both of them. It’s a book written about insanity that doesn’t treat insanity as a spectacle for able-minded people to goggle and stare at; it’s horror that treats mental illness as the most terrifying for those inside of it. I cannot and will not make any judgements or statements about Starling, but I’m deeply impressed to find a horror writer that doesn’t seem more preoccupied with creating a ‘horror movie villain’ than tapping into the psyche of her characters. As a result, the cave, Gyre’s body, and the unravelling mental states of both Em and Gyre all reflect each other. Gyre gets more and more injured and less and less sane as the book goes on, mind and body influencing each other, and the deeper she goes into the caves, the deeper she falls into irrationality. I’m also struck by the commentary on co-dependence – it’s hard not to feel for both Em and Gyre as they’re attracted to each other, while being brutally aware that the attraction isn’t healthy. Will it last outside of a situation where they are each other’s lifelines? It’s unclear – and that lack of clarity is part of the whole book. Are you going up or down? Is this real or false? Is the person you trust lying to you or not? Are you sick or are you insane? Are you dying or are you surviving?
I’ve tried to avoid outright spoilers, but I don’t think I can recommend this book any more highly. I kept waiting for a punchline, almost; something that would show Em clearly as a Crazy Villain and Gyre as an Innocent Victim. Instead, at every turn, I was surprised for the better, and yet, never quite thrown off by something out of left turn. Highly recommend, and kind of wishing I had something higher than a 5/5 to give.