Hot on the heels of three deeply discomfiting horror novels, Gleam marks the starts of a fantasy saga that’s never better than when it harks back to Tom Fletcher’s first fictions. It’s burdened by a bland protagonist and a lacking opening act, but besides that, The Factory Trilogy is off to a tantalising start.
In large part that’s due to the darkly wonderful world it introduces us to. Gleam is a devastated landscape equal parts Ambergris and Fallout 3, arranged around a truly hellish edifice.
From the centre rises the one structure that is not tarnished with extraneous growth, or overwhelmed with moss, or just rounded and worn by erosion. It’s a vast, black, six-sided pyramid, separated from the rest of the chaos by a ring of ashen wasteland.
The wasteland is the top of a hill, which slopes down into a darkness from which all the rest of the chaos emerges. This is the only visible ground in the whole place, and it’s grey and dusty and somehow creepy. The pyramid itself, though, looks clean and new, and its edges are all sharp.
Alan has lived in this “knot of lies and rituals that referenced only each other and combined to mean less than nothing” for twelve tedious years—long enough to meet and marry his wife, Marion, and father a boy by the name of Billy with her—but he doesn’t belong here any more now than he did on the devastating day he was made welcome within its walls. “He’d never been a Pyramidder and he never would be. He still dreamed about Modest Mills; being able to run around outside. And not in some courtyard or garden, but the real outside—the Discard.”
His dreams of freedom come true too soon, in truth. In short order Alan offends an Assistant Alchemical Coordinator, who sends heavies to his house to remind our protagonist of his place in the Pyramid. In the aftermath, Marion asks Alan to leave—not because she no longer loves him, but for the sake of their son’s safety.
She doesn’t have to ask him twice. He packs a bag and skedaddles, to find that though life in the Discard is difficult, it’s not as awful as the Pyramidders insist:
Imagine: you are kept warm and safe, you are fed and watered, you have gardens and fountains in which to wile away your spare time, and you know that when you are old you will be looked after. You are blessed. You are lucky. To leave the Pyramid for the Discard is to throw all that security away for a life of desperation and uncertainty: a life of raw snails, undercooked toad-meat and venomous snakes; a life spent hiding from bandits and cannibals—and worse things, inhuman things. They have creatures from the swamp kept alive in great glass chambers up there, exhibited for all the Pyramidders to see, to show them what they’d be up against. […] People with ten legs. Men and women with twisted horns and dead eyes. Heads on a torso like garlic on a rope.
There’s none of that, initially, leaving Alan to make his meagre ends meet in peace. He’s a singer, you see. Quite a good one, too. Alas, the bugs he earns aren’t enough to cover the cost of seeing his son from time to time. Instead, his contact demands “some rare and powerful mushrooms,” so Alan gathers a band—of opportunists, old friends and fellow musicians—and sets off for Dok, the only place in the wasteland where Green’s Benediction is known to grow.
And so his “half-cocked quest to […] collect a bag of bloody mushrooms” begins: not badly, but not brilliantly either. Fletcher is in such a rush to explore his premise that the set-up, I’m sorry to say, suffers. Readers are only treated to a fleeting glimpse of the Pyramid and its politics, meanwhile Marion and Billy feel like plot devices rather than actual characters.
It’s a blessing, then, that Alan himself is developed eventually, however, as his business partner points out, he’s also “quite a simple character” to start—a lad who misses his liberty, for all that he acts the family man—to wit, sympathising with him is difficult. Gleam gets a great deal better as it goes, though—such that we start to see why Fletcher was so gung-ho about getting on with it—and our protagonist, thankfully, follows suit. The further from the Pyramid we find Alan, the more engaging he gets.
Granted, Gleam is a bit of a mixed bag as regards its characters, but the story is sound, and the setting—excepting its centrepiece—is simply superlative:
The buildings of the Discard were black silhouettes against the stars: a skyline of mills and chimneys, ruins and scaffolding, domes and turrets. Columns of smoke rose from it, clear in the bright moons, and the flames of torches and campfires could be seen nestled amongst the architecture.
Furthermore, Fletcher’s wasteland—all dirt and death and desperation—is eminently credible; as is the terrible descent to Dok, which occurs so close to the conclusion that I refuse to ruin it. Suffice to say fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s fucked-up fungi will have a very fine time, even as Alan’s impromptu party falls apart.
Underpinning it all is “a sense of something older—an ancient presence, something integral to Gleam, to everything.” Your mileage may vary in accordance with your feelings for dark fantasy, but I for one look forward to finding out more about said something as and when The Factory Trilogy continues.
Gleam is available now in the UK from Jo Fletcher.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.