Monday, August 1, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Flamesong

For the obvious reason that both M.A.R. Barker and J.R.R. Tolkien became university professors with a special interest in linguistic matters and also used that knowledge to aid in the imagining of fantasy worlds, the two men -- and their creations -- are often compared to one another. As a shorthand for the uninitiated, that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Of course, once one knows more about both men and their approaches to their imaginary worlds, it quickly becomes obvious that their similarities are mostly on the surface. This fact becomes is particularly notable in Barker's second novel of Tékumel, Flamesong, first published in 1985.

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.

10 comments:

  1. I recently read Man of Gold and enjoyed it - it was my first substantive introduction to Tékumel, though I've read and wondered about it for decades - so your review of Flamesong is timely. I'll go get myself a copy to read.

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  2. I really enjoyed Flamesong, & what I admired about Trinesh is MAR Barker's quickness in putting forward alternate codes of morality. It isn't hard to imagine a pulp reader embracing Thumis as a "good god," but Trinesh is a worshiper of the Chaos pantheon! That is like springing one of the Nazgul into a leading role in the LotR's sequel, or it could be, in less deft hands.

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  3. I enjoyed both Flamesong and Man of Gold quite a bit, the latter a bit more than the former, ironically for the reasons you mention as problematic. (I loved the digressions into history and other matters.)

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  4. I enjoyed all the Tekumel novels, though non-fans of Tekumel as a world may not find them terribly compeling as you suggest. The last three are more meandering the last two are more meandering than the first two, as I recall; I think the Professor benefited from the editorial hand of a major publisher.

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  5. Finding Flamesong on a used bookstore shelf in 1992 is what kicked off my fascination with Tekumel. I'm with Anthony on enjoying the digressions in this and MoG as they were my window into that setting.

    Both books read better than the three sequels, the editing feels crisper and the pacing better. Yet re-reading them this year I noticed how clunky the "third act" is in each of them they feel a little meandering toward the end.

    I love the fact that some characters and even some parts of the book evolved out of actual play. The back-stories add something to my appreciation of it, though I really don't care for gaming fiction in general.

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  6. Until grodog mentioned it last week I hadn't realized that there were any other novels besides Man of Gold and Flamesong. I will now have to track down the 3 he published in the 21st century. I am more of a nostalgia fan of Petal Throne than a follower of Barker's work. The map, the box set, the articles in early Dragon magazines always intrigued me, though I have never campaigned in the setting.

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  7. I enjoyed both Man of Gold and Flamesong. We don't really get much fantasy on the exotic bejewelled ancient uncanny side of things, much less science fiction or gaming stuff over there. So it was really nice to have that atmosphere.

    However, my first reading of Flamesong and my second reading of Man of Gold benefitted from my having obtained by then a copy of one of the Tekumel gaming books. (Although I think Flamesong explains certain background matters better than Man of Gold.)

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  8. The latter Tekumel novels don't seem to have the charm of the first two. To me they read more like RPG session logs. Man of Gold and Flamesong are definitely worth seeking out by any Sword and Planet fan. I would only recommend the others to hard core Tékumelani.

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  9. Trey - actually, as far as I could tell from an examination of the source materials, DAW didn't do very much editing to either Man of Gold or Flamesong. You really have some of Prof. Barker's players at the time for the editing of Flamesong.

    Captain Jack - they aren't session logs, at all. One of the things that Prof. Barker has done consistently over time is to separate the action in his game from the action in his novels. Which is why one of my player-characters was taken over by Prof. Barker... (ah, well)

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  10. An obvious difference: Tolkien loved his people, Barker doesn't seem too keen on European civilisation or religion.

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