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  • Writer's pictureThe Fiction Fox

Post Mortem: The Luminous Dead by Caitlyn Starling

Post Mortem: A thorough investigation of a book after its passing. May be used to help determine cause and manner of death, and prevent repeat events in the future.

SUBJECT: The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling, Published by Titan Books

PRIMARY CAUSE OF DEATH: Prematurity (a.k.a. 2 edits away from a masterpiece) Complicating Factors: Reviewers error

Be advised: my Post-Mortems often include some plot-spoilers for the novel in question

HISTORY: The Luminous Dead is set in a dystopian future on a remote planet used as a mining base. We follow Gyre, a young woman down on her luck in life, who signs up for an exploration mission into the treacherous underground caves. She knows the mission is somewhere between extremely risky and suicidal, and quickly finds out it leans towards the latter when she discovers the details of her contract. A weeks-long solo journey of climbing through pitch dark and unmapped caves, strapped inside a biomechanical suit, with her only contact with the outside being her handler Em, who may not be completely honest with her… As Gyre descends further into the dark and claustrophobic depths of the cave (as well as her own sanity), she finds out there is far more at stake than she originally anticipated.


This post mortem is one that hurts me to write, as this book had so much potential for greatness. The set up was perfect, the ideas were all there, and the psychological terror of this whole situation seemed precisely catered to terrify me in particular. The claustrophobic and isolated setting, the paranoia inducing power dynamic of the handler and the climber, the idea of being fused into this biopunk body-suit to keep you alive, and the overarching terror of monsters in the dark (both psychological as well as actual ones)… There were many moments where I was on the edge of my seat, because I could feel the novel was on track towards greatness, only to derail last moment into a direction I just didn’t want it to go in. I will give a few examples in a second, but the overarching problem I had with this novel the fact that it felt in need of one more round of editing, mainly to fix two major problems. 1. Repetition 2. Prioritization

Although it may have been purposeful to signify Gyre’s thoughts going in circles in the isolation of the caves, both the internal monologue and the dialogue with Em felt extremely repetitive. I remember 2 distinct moments where I thought I might have misplaced my bookmark and started at a section I had already read, only to find out that: no, they were in fact just having the same argument over and over again over the course of 500 pages… Honestly: just the removal of all this repetition could have reduced this book to at least half its length, and would have made for a more enjoyable read. Whenever the novel focussed on Gyre’s experiences within the cave, whether they were completely real or partially in her own mind, it became infinitely more interesting instantly. This ties into the prioritization aspect: I would have happily read a 500 page thriller on that. Instead the novel takes time away from this to prioritize the quasi-banter of these two women who frankly don’t have too much to say to each other.


A long and slightly repetitive novel in itself would be a redeemable offense however, if it weren’t for these complicating factors that put the nail firmly in the coffin for this book.

- Gyre A good protagonist can make or break a story, especially with an isolated setting and a limited cast. For a perfect example of how to do it right you need look no further than Mark in Andy Weir’s The Martian, who carries the book on his shoulders with the force of his personality. I felt like Caitlyn Starling was trying to do the same with Gyre, but unfortunately missed the mark for me. This might be personal, but I hated Gyre’s personality. She is supposed to be headstrong and independent, yet in reality she comes across as irrational, reckless and immature. I was willing to cut her some slack for being trapped in a cave alone, but as this seemed to be her core personality and she learned nothing from her previous mistakes, I soon got really tired of it. Speaking of recklessness; this woman is near suicidal for impulsive risks she takes in dire situations. Throughout the course of this story, she is dead 10x over considering every stupid thing she does, and at times it became hard to suspend my disbelieve of her getting out safely every time.

- Bad chemistry Gyre isn’t the only offender; her unlikable character traits are aggravated by her interactions with her handler Em. Em is especially cold and unlikable as well, the only difference being that she’s meant to be so at the start. She is also meant to be the rational and intelligent one however, which I beg to differ with some of the dumb decisions she makes. The power dynamic between Em and Gyre is a wonderful source of suspense and one of the smarter ideas this novel implements. Yet again, the execution ruins it for me. Em and Gyre bicker like children all the time. They act more like teenagers than professionals, pushing each other’s buttons and testing the limits. In a situation where literal lives depend on effective communication, these two are textbook examples of the dumbest way to go. Their banter is supposed to be witty and engaging but quickly becomes repetitive and painful to read.

- That romance though… The most egregious crime this novel commits is taking these two characters that have no chemistry at all, and have only bickered like children throughout 450+ pages, and force them into a relationship… It felt like an afterthought, and completely unearned in the context of the story. Forced representation is a huge peeve of mine, as it undermines the exact equality and inclusiveness it’s trying to promote by piggy-backing off a real issue. Equality goes both ways, and I don’t think we should praise a book simply for including an F-F romance, even if it isn’t any good. This was an immature crush, based on bickering and a very unhealthy power dynamic which I truly think more feminist women had called out had Em been a guy in this situation… The fact that she’s a woman does not make this any less harmful.

Preventable Death: Very much so. This is the type of book where I wish I could edit some small things to make this my perfect book. The potential was all there. The publisher mentions vibes of Annihilation, Gravity and The Martian which I feel were all there, and the combination of which should have made for a new favourite of mine. If only it had been edited down not to drag, to have actual good characters, and not to be so darn repetitive…

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