Maggie reviews The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

the cover of The Luminous Dead

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I have been really into horror lately, and finding a lesbian sci-fi horror was a real boon for me, and The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling was a real page-turner. With a spine-tingling atmosphere, a killer setting, and a cast of two, The Luminous Dead draws you into the story as steadily as the characters descend into the cave, and the final rush of action had me up until 3am to finish it.

On a distant planet, Gyre knows the only way to get the money she needs to get off planet and find her mother is underground, where the only valuable resources around are. Caving is lucrative, if you cash out before what lurks underground catches up with you. For Gyre, the risks are worth the reward, and she’s sure her skills are up to the task, even if her resume has been faked, until the particularly plum assignment she’s snagged starts seeming like a setup. For one thing, there’s not a whole team on the other end of the communication array of her hermetically-sealed suit, there’s just one woman, Em, who is both the coordinator and the financier of the operation. For another, this expedition seems off. The deeper Gyre descends into the cave, the more it becomes apparent that this isn’t a normal cave expedition, but a mission personal to Em, and that Em has not been upfront to Gyre as to her real purpose. Beset by physical dangers and the slow unraveling of her own perceptions, Gyre has to balance the risks of fulfilling Em’s personal obsession with the rewards Em has promised that will fulfill Gyre’s, and the cave may not let either of them succeed.

What I loved most about The Luminous Dead was the masterful use of atmosphere. A cave is already an oppressive and dangerous environment, but on this planet, anyone not in a sealed suit is almost guaranteed to never resurface, and what takes them is the subject of rumors and horror stories but few facts. Any action or any bodily exposure outside the suit could attract danger, on top of normal equipment failure and cave dangers. It’s incredibly claustrophobic and it sets the mood instantly. Gyre is entirely dependent on Em and the suit for air, water, food, even vision, and operating in an environment where the smallest misstep could mean death. Even if this book wasn’t queer, it would have been enthralling for the environmental storytelling alone. Starling did a great job of ratcheting up the tension, both physical and mental, as Gyre starts to react to her worsening environment, and a map at the start of the book had me tracing every step of her journey anxiously.

But then add into this the relationship between Gyre and Em and this book turns explosively engaging. It starts out as strictly employer/employee and with Em as a strict taskmaster with her eyes on the prize, but with only Em on the other end of the line instead of a whole team, things start getting personal quickly. Both of them are keeping secrets from the other but start out in a mutually beneficial arrangement, because they both want and need this expedition to go smoothly. But as personal motivations and secrets start to come to light and unanticipated physical dangers start to appear, the tension between them starts to grow. At the same time, Em starts to care about Gyre outside of the objective of succeeding in her mission, and Gyre starts understanding the nature of what is driving Em. As Gyre struggles with the dangers of the cave and the pressures of her own mind under intense danger and isolation, Em struggles remotely to keep her caver alive and accept the realities and limitations of what is possible in this expedition. It’s a whole pressure-cooker of a relationship, conducted over comm lines while one of the parties is in mortal danger and entirely dependent on help from the other, and it’s riveting.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a thriller to spice up your dark winter nights, look no further than The Luminous Dead. It’s one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a while, and I couldn’t put it down, almost literally.  

Sam reviews The Thousand Eyes by A. K. Larkwood

the cover of The Thousand Eyes

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

When I reviewed The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood, this is what I wrote:

The novel ends with the promise of more adventures to come, and I would certainly love to see more of these characters and this world. But if it turns out this was a stand-alone work, I’d be okay with that.

Well, you’ll never guess what happened.

The Thousand Eyes is the second book in the Serpent Gates series by A. K. Larkwood, following her debut novel The Unspoken Name. But, in a move that seems intended to contradict everything I wrote in my previous review, The Thousand Eyes is a startlingly different book from its predecessor. Larkwood’s writing is still snappy and her character voices enjoyable, but the plot has turned from something predictable and satisfying into a narrative primarily defined by twists and anxiety.

The novel picks up two years after the end of the first book, with Csorwe, Shuthmili, and Tal making a life for themselves guarding archeological expeditions in the Echo Maze. Instead of exploring new territory in Larkwood’s imaginative collage of colliding fantasy worlds, however, The Thousand Eyes seems intent on retreading familiar ground—Iriskivaal, Echentyr, and of course the previous book’s villain, Belthandros Sethennai. But before I could even cultivate any proper disappointment at this, Csorwe is suddenly possessed by a fragment of the dead snake goddess. Shuthmili can’t save her, so she swears fealty in a desperate hope that time will give her an answer. And then the book jumps fifteen years into the future.

Yes, fifteen years. The worlds we knew are being trampled underfoot by an empire reborn, and our characters are either dead or have been hardened and harrowed by a decade and a half of violence and despair. Chapters from Shuthmili dwindle in number; by the halfway point, it feels more like Tal’s story than anyone else’s. Even as the novel kept me nervously turning pages, I found myself nurturing a sick hope that perhaps some plot contrivance could undo all this, could rewind the clock and return the story back to where it was at the beginning. Which is certainly an emotional investment to have in a novel, but I can’t imagine it’s what the author intended me to feel.

The reason I said in my review of The Unspoken Name that I would be alright with it remaining a stand-alone novel is that the book’s ending perfectly enables readers to imagine the many thrilling and romantic adventures that Csorwe and Shuthmili could have together. The potential is there, and sometimes that’s enough. But in one fell swoop, The Thousand Eyes takes all the promise from the end of The Unspoken Name and erases it.

One of The Unspoken Name’s primary themes was choice—Shuthmili chose to live with the woman she loved, even if it meant dying young to mageblight, rather than live long tethered to her rigid society with no individual will. Csorwe gave up the approval of her adopted father and all the power and privilege he could offer, and even faced the terror of her religious upbringing, all to be with Shuthmili. These are incredibly relatable lesbian experiences illuminated in the colorful pageantry of fantasy adventure! But now, nothing’s come of it. The choices that Csorwe, Shuthmili, and even Tal made pale in consequence to this much larger, darker portion of their lives. All the adventures that could have occurred, now we know for certain were never meant to be.

What hurts most is that The Thousand Eyes is still a well written book, one that the author clearly believes in. Her heart is in this story—but sadly, mine isn’t. If there is ever a third novel in the Serpent Gates series, it seems likely it will put the lesbians aside as protagonists in favor of Tsereg, the new non-binary teenage embodiment of the Unspoken. The abrupt change in main characters may be some readers’ cup of tea, certainly, but it isn’t mine. I think I’ll be getting off the Maze ship here, with my slightly bruised heart and my dreams of what might have been.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.