Alan lives in the centre of the Pyramid, a great black structure in the factory landscape of Gleam, its point distorted by telescopes and observational instruments. Every week its Arbitrators bleed him, and all other working adults, two pints of his precious blood. But Alan is different from the other Pyramid factory workers. He remembers living outside the structure, in a town destroyed by the Pyramidders, its inhabitants slaughtered, the town returned to the ruinous state of everywhere else in the Discard, and only the child Alan saved to be nurtured, of a sort, in the Pyramid. Alan is known as Wild Alan. He cannot stop remembering life outside the Pyramid. He cannot help himself spreading the word. As a result, his wife Marion and child Billy are placed in danger. There is nothing for it. Marion throws him out into the Discard.
The Discard is a place of wonder, disgust, ugliness, music, violence and freedom. Its edges are infiltrated by the swamp, its depths oozing with slime, traversed by enormous snails, some captured and used by traders, but others eaten. Currency is shiny bugs, the most expensive commodity the rarest mushrooms. Trade in mushrooms is governed by a few monstrous beings, their henchmen even more monstrous – giants that howl and giggle like babies. A few years after leaving the Pyramid, having lived from hand to mouth by entertaining bars with Snapper his guitar, Alan is given a choice that is no choice – in order to save his son he must supply the Arbitrators with the finest and most scarce mushrooms. To do this, Alan must venture into the depths of Discard, pursued by his rivals, escorted by the strangest of travelling companions, into a slimy world that contains Gleam’s deepest secrets and mysteries.
Gleam is an astonishing novel. Its worldbuilding is not only spectacular, I can think of almost none to rival it. The Pyramid and Discard remain ever so slightly elusive, as more and more is revealed through the journey and experiences of Wild Alan and his companions, but as it is revealed this reader at least was gobsmacked by the levels of depth, colour, stench and strangeness. With Alan is Nora, Bloody Nora as she is fittingly known. Nora is a Mapmaker, one of the deadly beings whose mission is to chart the secrets of Gleam, to hunt out its original parts, to trace the evolution of what was once an enormous inexplicable factory. She is also, like all of her kind, the perfect killer. But, as we discover, she is also kind, a trait that Alan has to dig deep to discover in himself.
The richness of this world, its creatures, its enormous structures, with endless staircases into the slime, its bars and houses of refuge and its mysterious vast expanses of unknown swamp, crisscrossed by ageless structures, littered with objects with no known function, traversed by traders and killers, is staggering. It’s hard not to think that Gleam is our world as it may be, so long into our Godforsaken future. But we don’t know that. Tom Fletcher paints an extraordinary world but he leaves it elusive. Great discoveries are made, horrible suffering is endured. Escape – and life – through drugs, drink, music and sex is sought and found. We are offered hope but it can just as quickly be snatched away. And who to trust in this slimy, swampy ooze with its revolting meals of snail meat?
Alan is a fascinating hero. He is, I think, a true hero. He is stuffed with faults and he knows it. But when Alan might think of himself as selfish and single-minded, we might think of him as being dedicated – he wants to save his son. He doesn’t want to bring the Pyramid toppling down. He wants Billy to be safe and he doesn’t care what he does to do that. But throughout we discover nobility in him. We also learn more about his travelling companions, each of whom has a history to tell which throws light on the corrupt darkness of the Pyramid. The relationships between this small group of people grow intense.
Gleam presents a journey or quest. It introduces us to a group of travellers that we grow close to. It takes us through a world built upon an unknowable past. It is extraordinarily rich. Gleam is the first in a trilogy. It stands well on its own but its ending is as surprising and shocking as the rest of this fine, wonderfully written novel and it makes the time until book two seem long indeed. A book of the year for sure.