Monday, August 1, 2011
Flamesong is a sequel of sorts to 1984's The Man of Gold. I say "of sorts," because it tells the story of new characters rather than continuing those presented in the previous book. However, Flamesong is set against the same backdrop as its predecessor, the war between Tsolyánu and Yán Kór, and occurs after the events of The Man of Gold. This time, though, the tale Barker spins is more military-minded, at least initially, as its focus character is Trínesh hiKetkólel, a Heréksa -- a commander of 100 men -- in the Legion of the Storm of Fire, the Tsolyáni Twenty-First Medium Infantry, which is devoted to the fire god Vimúhla.
Trínesh is eager to prove himself, both to his superiors in the Legion and to Prince Mirúsiya, one of the Crown Princes who will one day attempt to lay claim to the Petal Throne of Tsolyánu. Consequently, he is quick to plunge himself and some of his men into a mysterious underground chamber discovered while scouting against the Yán Koryáni. Despite the belief of some of his men that the chamber led to the fiery domain of Vimúhla, Trínesh knows better. It is, he believes, a place constructed eons ago during the time of the Ancients, who once ruled Tékumel before the Great Darkness that plunged the world into chaos.
In the chamber, Trínesh comes upon a large sphere that contains two Yán Koryáni women, whose true identities they hide from the Tsolyáni as protection, for, as it turns out, they are very important indeed, so important that they could turn the tide of the war in favor of Yán Kór. The sphere in which they are found is in fact a transport device, one of the fast-moving tubeway cars that enable subterranean movement beneath Tékumel, often to locations otherwise inaccessible from the surface. Trínesh and several of his companions are tricked into the vehicle, which is then sent rocketing away, trapping them all inside. The Yán Koryáni women believe that the car is taking them home to Yán Kór and to safety, but, as they soon discover, it is not. On Tékumel, the devices of the Ancients are often not well understood and function according to methods unknown to most inhabitants of the world. Thus, even those who think they know how to operate one of these devices will find them not entirely reliable.
What follows then is a series of misadventures, as Trínesh, theYán Koryáni women, and others move from place to place across the world of Tékumel, attempting to get back to somewhere that one or more of them considers safety. Along the way, the characters come not only to understand one another but also the goals they hope to achieve, the revelation of which, in the case of the women, adds an urgency to what might otherwise be a meandering travelog of the wonders and terrors of Tékumel. As it is, Flamesong feels a lot structured than The Man of Gold, but it's also a lot more traditional in its pulp fantasy than was its predecessor. Trínesh and his companions go from trouble to trouble, at each turn barely escaping from a variety of dangers, which I think makes it a lot more accessible than The Man of Gold.
Flamesong still suffers somewhat from the flaws of Barker's first novel. The characters are often a bit stiff, particularly Trínesh, though, to be fair, he is described as being a fairly stolid and upright Tsolyáni in the book. Likewise, there are sometimes digressions into history and culture that, while interesting from the perspective of someone interested in Barker's world, don't necessarily add a lot to the story itself. For that reason, casual readers or at least those not deeply immersed in Tékumel beforehand might find Flamesong plodding at times, even if it moves at a far brisker pace than did The Man of Gold. All in all, I enjoyed reading Flamesong a great deal. If anything, it's another excellent primer on just what one might do in a roleplaying campaign set on Tékumel -- something that's sorely needed in my opinion.