Monday, November 15, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Lords of Tsámra

With a few exceptions, I am not a fan of "game fiction," which is to say, stories or novels that take place within a roleplaying game setting. There are a couple of reasons why this is so. The first is that most game fiction is written not by writers of literature – even pulp literature – but by game designers trying their hand at a new medium and, as such, isn't very well composed. The second, and in my mind more important reason, is that most game fiction just isn't very interesting. I'm actually quite forgiving of hackneyed writing and wooden characters, if the overall story being told is imaginative and introduces me to some aspect of its setting that I might otherwise not have encountered. Unfortunately, that's pretty rare, hence my skepticism toward books of this kind.

But, as I said, there are a few exceptions and among those that quickly come to mind are the novels of M.A.R. Barker, creator of the world of Tékumel. Starting with 1984's The Man of Gold, Barker penned five Tékumel novels. As works of literature, they're of varying quality, but all of them contain compelling plots, memorable characters, and immense insights into Tékumel and its societies and cultures. Indeed, I'd argue that the novels do a far better job of presenting Tékumel to newcomers than do almost any of the RPG materials published for the setting since the appearance of Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975.

The third novel in the series, Lords of Tsámra, offers a good example of what I mean. Originally published in 2003, Lords of Tsámra takes place sometime after the events of the previous two novels in the series, The Man of Gold and Flamesong. The protagonist of the former, Hársan hiTikéshmu, re-appears here, though his role is secondary to that of an entirely new character, Korúkka hiKutonyál. Whereas Hársan is a priest of the gentle god of knowledge, Thúmis, Korúkka serves the grasping god of secrets, Ksárul. As such, he is a very different kind of person – arrogant, sneaky, and suspicious, but also thoughtful, quick-witted, and even brave when circumstances demand it of him. His differences from the more traditionally heroic character of Hársan makes him, I think, a more fascinating character. He's also a terrific window into the society of Tsolyánu, the titular Empire of the Petal Throne, whose inhabitants cannot be easily described in stereotypes.

The plot of the novel concerns a diplomatic mission sent from Tsolyánu to the Tsoléi Isles, to effect a cessation of hostilities between the Tsoléini and the Livyáni, another empire which was simultaneously involved in a wat against a third combatant, the Mu'ugalavyáni. If this all sounds confusing, on a certain level it is, but it's to Barker's credit that the reader is initiated slowly into the complicated geopolitics of Tékumel. It's a good thing, too, because, as Lords of Tsámra unfolds, more elements are added to the mix: a plague, conspiracies involving other-planar beings, and more. There's a lot going on in the novel and its characters are constantly tossed this way and that on tumultuous waves of plot not entirely of their own making. In this respect, Lords of Tsámra often reads like an old-fashioned pulp serial, filled as it is with perilous situations and unpredictable cliffhangers.

What saves the novel from becoming impossible to follow, let alone enjoy, is that, for all the clashes of nations and machinations of hidden cabals, its focus remains largely on the characters. This is the story of great events told from the ground, as it were. Everything that happens is seen through the eyes of Korúkka and his companions, as they navigate the strange cultures first of the Tsoléini and then the Livyáni (and a subculture within them, the Dláshi). Whatever his other weaknesses as a writer, Barker excels at offering his readers a kind of National Geographic-meets-Fodor's approach to the immensely rich world of Tékumel. Nearly every page of Lords of Tsámra describes some cultural detail, geographical description, or historical tidbit. One is slowly initiated into deeper mysteries along the way – some of them very deep indeed – the end of which is a better understanding of and appreciation for the remarkable fantasy world Barker has created.

Assuming that's what one wants out of a fantasy novel, Lords of Tsámra is a very good one; it's probably my favorite of all of Barker's Tékumel tales. That's not to say that the novel doesn't include its fair share of adventure and excitement. There's plenty here to hold the attention of fans of magic and swordplay, imminent danger and narrow escapes. That's not the focus of the novel, however, nor is it where Barker's skills shine. M.A.R. Barker is often compared to J.R.R. Tolkien in that he was a three-initialed linguist who created a rich fantasy setting. Another point of similarity is that, as a novelist, his strengths lie in describing his imaginary world and the varied people who inhabit it rather than on feats of derring-do. Pick up the novel with that in mind and I don't think you'll be disappointed. 

16 comments:

  1. You wrote "is very well composed", is there a negation missing there?

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  2. I do agree most gaming novels are terrible as books, but can give a excellent lane into the feel for the world.

    When it comes to this specific novel, I'd love to pick it up, but the cost is *very* prohibitive! I sure hope it will be re-released, soon.

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    1. I believe there are plans to do so, once Flamesong's issues with Amazon are resolved.

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    2. What issues are Flamesong having with Amazon?

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    3. That’s good news. I hope they make the type more like the reprint of Flamesong than like The Man of Gold: the latter is rather faint.

      I didn’t have any issues getting the Flamesong reprint, so hopefully those issues are resolved.

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    4. There were some printing errors in the earliest Amazon copies. I'm not sure if the underlying issue has been taken care of.

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    5. What sort of printing errors? I wonder if I should check my copy more carefully.

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    6. I believe that a chapter or two was missing, but I am unsure, honestly.

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  3. Speaking of game fiction, is the House of Worms still ongoing?

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    1. Very much so. I simply haven't posted an update in a long time and have started to question the value of doing so.

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    2. I think there are some of us who would love to see them, but your stats might tell you how many we are. At least two, apparently.

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    3. The session reports are definitely among the least read posts I write, by a noticeable amount. I suspect that's just the limited appeal of Tékumel in a nutshell.

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    4. I've enjoyed reading them. But I read pretty much everything anyway, so that's not much of an argument.

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    5. That’s too bad. I’ve enjoyed reading them and was curious what had been transpiring on the Achgé peninsula all those many months.

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  4. Ian Watson's W40K (Inquisitor etc.) novels or the nWoD Vampire fiction by Greg Stolze are also among the rare examples of readable gaming literature.

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