Review: Gleam by Tom Fletcher

The Pyramid is the centre of Gleam, a colossal structure whose inhabitants have their blood drawn regularly and are constantly shifted through different jobs. The regime in the Pyramid is proscriptive to the point of tyrannical but the alternative is so much worse. Out in the Discard, the feral jungle of abandoned buildings and resurgent nature that claims the rest of the planet, awful things wait.

Or at least, that’s what the inhabitants of the Pyramid are told. Alan knows different. He grew up outside, before a Pyramid attack destroyed his village. Unable to contain his rage at the way his life is dominated, Alan rebels and is exiled. Now, he has a choice; find an intensely narcotic mushroom for the one contact he has left or never see his son again…

Tom Fletcher’s book, like its lead character, lives in two worlds. Unlike Alan though, Gleam is extremely comfortable in both. The first is the sort of cheerfully nasty dystopia that I first encountered with The Tripods books by John Christopher. There was a real sense throughout those books of the world having been inhabited by a story that had finished not long before this one began. Story is baked into the locations, and that’s exactly the case here. Because Gleam is a constantly evolving factory world, everywhere the characters go is somewhere other people have already been. That gives the book an immediacy and depth straight away and it’s one that Tom exploits to tremendous effect throughout the novel. Everyone Alan and his friends meet is covered in history, just like Gleam itself is covered in resurgent life. Like their world, these people are constantly in danger of being consumed by that history too and Tom explores what happens when temporary communities become permanent ones to great effect throughout. The communal guest houses that Alan stays at are the Pyramid in kinder, smaller form; communities banding together to survive that are constantly forced to exclude those that threaten them. That idea is what drives both the main plot and the final act that sees Alan, his old bandmates and a terrifying mapmaker called Bloody Nora descend to the lowest part of Gleam. The community they find there is as reassuring as it is unrelentingly horrifying and that’s Gleam in a nutshell. Tom has created a snail-trail covered Gormenghast of a place, humanity and industry and architecture exploded to a planetary scale and left to go feral. It’s a dizzying, intoxicating place that will horrify and fascinate you in equal measure.

Much like Alan, Tom’s lead and the book’s bridge into its other world. Alan is one of the least likable main characters you’ll meet this year. He drinks too much, is addicted to narcotic mushrooms, sleeps around and is the very worst sort of reactionary; the sort that never does anything about his rage. He’s an angry young man on a tired old world and that renders him if not impotent then certainly beaten down. He’s also absolutely the last sort of person you’d expect as the lead for a book like this. Alan doesn’t have a secret destiny, he doesn’t hold the key to the destruction of the pyramid. In fact he barely grows across the course of the book, leaving it as much of a boozy inadequate as he came in with one important difference; he knows himself now. As the novel closes, Alan is shown just how little he has and how much of that he’s managed to destroy. Tom does a fantastic job of peeling every layer of his life away and doing so in a way that’s brutal and inescapable for us and Alan. We, and he, are shown just how little he matters by the end of the book and, in doing so, Tom does something almost impossible. He manages to make a deeply unlikable lead both desperately sympathetic and relatable. Alan isn’t a standard issue hero, he’s us; flawed, lazy, driven by needs and painfully aware of that now. His journey to that discovery is horrifying in places but never feels forced and the emotional impact of his relationship with his friend Eyes is especially gut wrenching. The reveal on how the two men know one another is heart breaking and if Alan has any redemption, it’s in how he treats Eyes in particular. He’s a character of Banksian ambiguity and I’ll be fascinated to see how, or if, he appears in the sequels.

That’s the final trick Tom pulls. After taking you and Alan on a nightmarish ride through Gleam’s feral architecture and mold-soaked, damp-ridden world he tells a complete story. There are hints of where the rest of the series will go certainly but nothing more. This is Alan’s story, Alan’s journey through Gleam and he’s too focused, and selfish, to see anything else. Whether we see him again isn’t clear. What is clear is that Tom’s created a deeply memorable, disturbing world that he’s just got started with. Alan may not come back, but I will. And so will you.

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