Mostly spoiler free, I'll give you warning when I go into spoiler territory!
My favorite horror movie in the entire world is The Descent. I mean, 1) a cast full of women, 2) a cast full of women who all look like they could crush my skull with their thighs, and 3) caves are a PERFECT setting for horror. Even without monsters you've got constant tension. Claustrophobia, potential of cave-ins, isolation, the alien beauty of the weird shit that lives there and of rock formations you don't see anywhere else.
When I heard I about The Luminous Dead, I knew this book was going to be my jam. I mean, not only did it have those things, but the characters were queer instead of just more or less coded that way. And I love science fiction horror.
As a side note, I experienced this book in two formats. Once as an audio book and once as a hard copy. Both were very different and enjoyable experiences. Reading with my eyes is generally my preferred medium, but the audio book heightened the tension of the main character being isolated but for one voice in her ear. And the fact that I was flying through the air in a small metal tube certainly didn't hurt in creating atmosphere.
Now to the reviewing! Gyre is a caver on a planet called Cassandra-V that has a bit in common with the Appalachian region of the US. Lots of poverty. Folks forced into dangerous work by exploitative capitalists. A fuck ton of elitist bigotry projected on them by so-called progressive, educated people. Gyre is a good caver, but inexperienced and fakes her credentials (including getting pretty gruesome surgery so she would have the right scars to go with her fake resume) so she can get a job that will pay her enough money to get off planet and find the mother who abandoned her.
On the other side, is Em. Who is also a liar. Em is obsessed with finding something in the cave and she has no problem taking control of Gyre's caving suit or injecting her with stimulants and drugs to get Gyre to do what she wants. She knows about Gyre's lies and uses it to force her to keep going when she considers quitting for her own safety. Em also is acting as Gyre's one and only tie to the outside world. Contrary to all expected operating procedure, she has no team supporting her to provide expertise or even just a break so she can sleep.
Em is privileged, rich, beautiful, possesses knowledge about the cave that she's not sharing, and safely above ground. They are two sides of the coin that is Cassandra-V. Em has the power and money to get the people on Cassandra-V to take whatever horrible risk she wants and the blackmail them into complying once they figure out what she's up to. Gyre is desperate, stubborn, and willing to take a lot of risks to escape.
Through the story, the two women reveal secrets, bond, and process a whole lot of mommy issues together while trying to keep Gyre alive and fulfill Em's mission. As Gyre goes deeper into the cave she starts to see things. People who couldn't be there, people who should be dead. Starling does a very good job of keeping the reader off balance about whether the things she sees are real, the result of exposure to spores, or the madness of isolation. As I read, I sometimes thought I knew for sure which one is was, but then some other clue would appear and I was back to being completely unsure.
It's a rich, fascinating, and legitimately frightening book on many different levels and I loved it.
***Vaguely spoiler-y things below***
As the book progresses, Gyre comes to learn that Em has done horrible things. Her obsession with the cave and with finding her mother, who was once a caver and lost her husband and several friends inside the cave Gyre is exploring, has killed people. But even knowing this, the two slowly and haltingly get closer and closer. It's kind of like the world's most fucked up therapy session that leads to isolation trauma bonding. Is their relationship a good a thing? A bad thing? A thing that would shatter as soon as Gyre had a single other person to talk to? Was there healing in the relationship or just new layers of trauma and attachment issues? I'm still asking myself those questions well after having finished the book. So, major kudos to Starling for creating and building one of the complicated relationships between two people I think I've ever read.