As a general rule, I'm not usually keen to read "game fiction." That's probably why, all other considerations aside, I don't tend to think very highly of, say, the Dragonlance novels. To me, they're so clearly vehicles for selling game products that it's difficult to accept them as works of literature in their own right, let alone noteworthy ones.
As with all such prejudices, there are always exceptions and M.A.R. Barker's 1984 novel, The Man of Gold, is a good example of one. The novel tells the story of Hársan, an orphaned, clan-less acolyte of the Temple of Thúmis, the god of knowledge, as he makes his way from his home in a rural province to the capital of Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Petal Throne. Hársan, though young and inexperienced, is remarkably intelligent and talented, particularly in the field of languages, which come to him almost effortlessly. He can even speak the language of the insectoid Pé Chói, a feat no human has ever mastered. And it is because of Hársan's facility with languages that he soon finds himself on the road to the capital at the behest of powerful figures within the empire, a journey that will eventually take him far and wide in a quest far more important than he -- or anyone else -- imagined.
I would be lying if I said that The Man of Gold is a great novel. Stylistically, I found it dry and almost academic in tone, which is no surprise, given its author's background. With the notable exception of Hársan, most of the characters are somewhat flat and their dialog stilted. Yet, despite that, I found it hard to put The Man of Gold down. The book is filled with a plenitude of difficult to pronounce names and byzantine plots, but it nevertheless moves at a brisk pace, even with all the digressions into matters of history, anthropology, linguistics, and theology. While it may be true that Professor Barker is no great novelist, he is clearly an excellent teacher; I came to understand far more about his world of Tékumel through this novel than I ever did through his game writings. For my money, The Man of Gold is probably the best primer of this remarkable campaign setting that I have ever read.
And that's the real appeal of this novel. The overall story is only so-so in my opinion and, as I noted, its characters and dialog lack a certain vitality. However, the world in which the novel takes place is brilliantly vibrant and well-presented. In many ways, it is the star of The Man of Gold and why I continued to read the novel even when its story might otherwise have failed to hold my attention. That's why I consider The Man of Gold a rare example of a gaming novel that works: it makes me want to play in the world of Tékumel. Better still, it's quite accessible even to people who've never read a single gaming product that described that alien planet and its strange races and cultures.
Whenever someone asks me the best way to learn more about Tékumel, I always recommend they seek out a copy of The Man of Gold. Reading it will give a far better sense of what the setting is like than almost anything that's ever been written about it. Moreover, it'll give a better sense of what one does in a Tékumel-based campaign. Too often gamers become overwhelmed by all the details and minutiae of Tékumel and fail to see that, at base, it's a wonderful pulp fantasy world after the fashion of Burroughs. Far from being "unusable" as a roleplaying setting, it's actually a pretty straightforward evocation of sword-and-planet literature, albeit one that's done with surprising skill (and, let's be honest, more than a few areas of authorial obsession).
Ever since I first read this novel, I've felt that it ought to be more widely read. A few years ago, there were plans to reprint it, I believe, but, so far as I know, they never came to pass -- a pity. Still, I regularly see copies in used bookstores and there are many online vendors from whom copies can be obtained. If you're at all interested in Tékumel as a fantasy setting, The Man of Gold is as good a place as any to start. It's not the most compelling novel, I've ever read (though it's far from the worst), but it's an unmatched introduction to one of the most interesting imaginary realms ever conceived.