The gargantuan Factory of Gleam is an ancient, hulking edifice of stone, metal and glass ruled over by chaste alchemists and astronomer priests.
As millennia have passed, the population has decreased, and now only the central district is fully inhabited and operational; the outskirts have been left for the wilderness to reclaim. This decaying, lawless zone is the Discard; the home of Wild Alan.
Clever, arrogant, and perpetually angry, Wild Alan is both loved and loathed by the Discard’s misfits. He’s convinced that the Gleam authorities were behind the disaster that killed his parents and his ambition is to prove it. But he’s about to uncover more than he bargained for.
Tom Fletcher’s first foray into fantasy, Gleam, is a departure from his previous works of horror fiction; and that heritage has obviously had some kind of impact on the novel, the start of a trilogy from Jo Fletcher Books.
This is a book with an intensely visual, somewhat cinematic approach to writing; the prologue sees a focussing in on the Black Pyramid at the centre of the Gleam, through a degree of detail and in a writing style reminiscent of Miéville in Perdido Street Station. This sets the tone for the rest of the book; Fletcher takes an approach to style that is reminiscent of Lovecraft’s overwritten, purple prose but under much better control and to far greater effect. Gleam is full of intensely visual, detailed, vivid description, throughout the novel; while having a number of concerns beyond the purely aesthetic, it’s clearly a very strong prominent element and essential for the feel created by the novel.
That feel is one of estrangement; Gleam really goes for the jugular with its fictionalisation of current events (whether intended or not, Fletcher’s novel is an attack on Western responses to terrorism and to exploitative global labour relations), but through the use of the mundane seen through a filter of the strange – caravans of riding-snails, mushroom-based commercial empires, the rituals of the Black Pyramid – he makes these things less obviously analogous. That extends into the world itself; Gleam is a novel that very much conforms to what is referred to as “grimdark”, in a number of ways, chiefly its willingness to show the awfulness of the underbelly of the world and its violence. However, it avoids the misogyny that is commonly the lot of grimdark fantasy; no rape, women who have agency, independence, and martial prowess, and more than one female character amongst the central cast of five, all features to appreciate. With the vividity of his aesthetics and his grimdark sensibilities, a lot of anger comes through Gleam, especially in some of his characters.
Those characters are an interesting cast. Gleam tends towards the postapocalyptic grimdark fantasy end of the spectrum; each and every character is out for their own ends, many of which are quite dark, such as Eyes’ desire for revenge against the Pyramidders who tortured him. The different characters are all wonderfully painted, from the fey and deadly Bloody Nora (a cartographer; the clan of the Mapmakers is a hilarious, darkly brilliant piece of writing) to the obsessive Wild Alan and including the shaman-like tattoo artist Spider and mercenary Churr. But the smaller parts, such as Alan’s wife and son, or Daunt the Mushroom Queen, are also written to be far more than simple characters; while falling back at times on stereotypes and the expected – conservative wife more worried about not upsetting the status quo than her husband; libertine drug dealer with a streak of dark sadism; corrupt cop – they remain interesting characters in their own right.
Gleam weaves them into a plot that should be, but isn’t, the standard fodder of epic fantasy; Alan needs to find a MacGuffin, and this involves peril. He collects a group of friends and allies around him for the task, undertakes a long trek overcoming numerous dangers and risking friends along the way, successfully collects his MacGuffin and returns. Fletcher subverts a number of expectations of that classic plot model, though; albeit that subversion is the kind of subversion “grimdark” delights in – inevitably, there is unhappy sex, the deaths of various party members, and a few betrayals. Gleam also functions as a typical bildungsroman, albeit for the middle-aged Alan rather than a young adult; the plot of the novel revolves around Alan maturing as a person, coming to terms with the world – something we’ve seen all too often in fantasy, and Fletcher brings little new to it.
Gleam, then, is a dark, aesthetically beautiful fantasy that, while not altogether original in its plot, Tom Fletcher can be proud of; a Weird, angry, grimdark bildungsroman. Thanks Tom!
DoI: Review based on ARC solicited from Jo Fletcher Books. Gleam is released today.