In his first crack at a fantasy novel, Tom Fletcher delivers a wonderful blend of magic, myth and adventure. Gleam is the first instalment of Fletcher’s ‘The Factory’ trilogy. Fletcher’s vision of a dark and foul dystopian underworld pours out from every page and captivates the reader. Several elements of Fletcher’s writing, such as setting and character, make Gleam a very enjoyable read.
The novel is set in the fictional land of Gleam, a vast and dense wasteland of concrete structures and buildings. Despite the title, this land is far from gleaming. In amongst the chaos of dirty, disgusting architecture stands an enormous black pyramid in which the more privileged and elite of society live. The cost of living in the safety of the Pyramid is a weekly contribution of blood. The main protagonist, Alan, has been exiled from the Pyramid and thrown into the dangerous and murky land of Discard. The rest of the narrative follows Alan as he tries to make his way back into the Pyramid with a group of his long-standing friends.
From the beginning of the novel, Fletcher creates a very atmospheric setting, underlining the enormity of the land of Gleam itself, as well as its maze-like and foul properties. This overarching and absorbing environment is something which is frequently emphasised throughout the novel and adds to the overall sense of the journey that Alan and his companions are undertaking. The lives of those in the Discard are truly bleak and revolting, and Fletcher never allows the reader to forget those elements. His choice of words when describing the surroundings and the way in which the population has to survive evokes utter disgust. The world of the Discard people is filled with alcohol, drugs, mushroom teas and a diet of snails and slugs, whilst the physical landscape is: “…a confusion of stone buildings all pressed up against each other, so squashed and interconnected as to be all one structure…”
To add to the setting, the mythos and history of Gleam is immersed in mystery and wonder. Fletcher allows the reader to explore and discover more about Gleam along with Alan, through the various characters he meets, and the multi-faceted backgrounds they reveal. These characters also have their own agendas and histories within the Pyramid.
Alan is an interesting character to learn about as the book develops. Fletcher does away with a conventional “hero” approach to his main protagonist, rather presenting a character who is far from macho and who exhibits no bravado. Instead, Alan appears as a cowardly, unreliable and unfaithful character to all those around him. This type of protagonist, although quite unlikeable, is a little refreshing. Had Fletcher taken the safer, more common route of presenting a heroic protagonist, it would still have worked in the context of the novel. However, his choice of characterisation makes for more enjoyable reading in situations where Alan acts selfishly- giving depth to his character and making his interactions with others more intense. For example, in moments of battle against their many enemies, Alan would rather hide or run than stand and fight. Having said this, Alan develops well and is forced to co-operate with his companions more. “‘Okay,’ Allan said, ‘let’s run. Pighead’s dead…There’s one thing in this world I care about, and it’s not you…’”
Overall, Gleam is an impressive piece of fantasy fiction in which Tom Fletcher does well to introduce and set up the world of Gleam and its characters. With most of the time spent journeying through Gleam and an ending which leaves much more to be developed and explored, Fletcher sets up his trilogy perfectly. There is something unique about Fletcher’s tone which appears to be cross between traditional fantasy and something of a more steampunk vibe. We await the future volumes in the trilogy with considerable anticipation.
Hamzah M. Hussain