Gary Gygax, a man who knew a bit about fantasy worlds, called Tékumel “the most beautifully done fantasy world ever created”. He even went on to say that its creator, M.A.R. Barker is, with the exception of Tolkien, “completely without peer”. D&D’s co-creator, Dave Arneson, also cites Tékumel as his favourite world. (Probably the last thing those two ever agreed on.)
Barker was a professor, a linguist, and a gamer. Admiring the early years of D&D, Barker decided to create his own world and rules, something built from the ground up. As a linguist, Barker built his world from first and fundamental principles: he fully designed the language, then built a society and a culture around that language, and, for the hell of it, a lavish, millennia-spanning universe.
And what a universe it is. There are a ton of resources describing the ‘world of the Petal Throne’ online - set aside a few hours and have a browse. Barker, a historian as well as a linguist, created a complex society, where political, familial and religious factions all schemed for dominance. There’s a central empire, Tsolyanu; upstart, rebel kingdoms; sinister ‘alien’ powers; underworld kingdoms. Plus, of course, dungeons and monsters and gods.
Tékumel also incorporates science fictional elements - fans of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire, for example, will love the way that lost scientific artifacts pepper the landscape. The attention to detail is absolutely spectacular - Barker invented the accents, fashion, food, travel, every possible nuance. Jack Vance readers will also enjoy the Dying Earth touches: this is an old, decadent world, with strange and esoteric magic.
Tékumel as a game world is - genuinely - without peer, and has been reprinted and reproduced a half dozen times. However, unlike Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Barker's creation never hit the big time. The problem is - and Gygax noted this in 1975 - unlike Tolkien, Barker never had the books to bring the world to life. The game was amazing, the players full of praise, but, for the rest of the world - Tékumel only existed as an obscure box set.
Fast forward to 1984...
The Man of Gold is the first of Barker’s five novels. Harsan is a scholar (a linguist, no less!), who is given a MacGuffiny quest that leads him to go places and see things. There’s no real plot to speak of. At best, The Man of Gold reads like a disjointed sword & sorcery serial, with a long string of barely-connected events. There’s even a bit of the Mary Sue about it, as our professor hero discovers that linguistics is super-important, super-meaningful, and gets the ladeez hot and bothered. Hmm.
That said, The Man of Gold does exactly what it sets out to do. At the end of the book, no reader will give a toss about Harsan or whatever he was supposed to be doing. But they will be fully impressed by - if not immersed in - the world of Tékumel and its possibilities. The point of this book isn’t to sell more books, but the world itself. And The Man of Gold makes you want to find dice, pencils and friends.
Flamesong, Barker’s second book, is slightly more balanced. The plot is, again, a pretty egregious series of railroaded events, but there’s more consistency to the story. An ambitious lieutenant of the Tsolyanu empire captures an enemy noble. Just as he’s about to enjoy his moment of triumph, he, his prisoner, and their rag-tag group of remaining soldiers and servants, all get sucked into a magical place-hopping, plot-forwarding tube. Dungeon-crawling ensues. Will they bond as a team? Or will they be eaten by monsters? (ONLY TIME WILL TELL)
Flamesong again travels all over the world, and introduces more of the cultures, kingdoms and rituals of Barker’s universe. But it is also considerably more action-packed, and begins to build towards a bigger, more significant story.
Neither of these books are exactly great. And, if they proved anything, it is that novels qua novels were not the key to success - Tolkien also had the advantage of being at the right time, and in the right cultural environment. Also? Tolkien's books were a shitload better. But Barker's novels are a lot of fun and, again, they do exactly what they’re supposed to do: introduce the reader to Tékumel, and invite them to enter it on their own. Tolkien built a world to tell a story, and got a great story out of it. Barker told a story to introduce the world - and, unquestionably, the world is jaw-dropping.
Where can I find these lovely things?
“The Petal Throne” - a short story by Barker; not the first he wrote, but the earliest one that remains - shows off the decadence of the world
The 1975 Empire of the Petal Throne - the first ‘codified’ RPG for it. A slim document, but a lot of fun. Seemingly more pages on vowel inflection than monsters! (That slight hyperbole, but not much - Barker was clearly more interested in creating a cohesive society and culture than he was about stompy-dragon-beasts.)
Lots and lots of other Tékumel sourcebooks - this game world has been built out over 40 years...
The books are fun, not great. The world-building is magnificent.
Barker's work is definitely for fans of people that love big, gorgeous, intricate worlds: Lawrence and Vance mentioned already, but also readers of Steph Swainston, Rebecca Levene, Malazan, Feist (who was very much 'inspired' by Barker for his Midkemia) and many, many others. If you like political scheming and cultural nuance - like a Daniel Abraham - this will fit beautifully as well. Plus, the sword & sorcery ain't bad either, so if you enjoy Howard, Moorcock or Brackett, and want to see more thwarting-of-villainy in alien worlds, also worth checking out.
M.A.R. Barker on Pornokitsch
A full review of The Man of Gold.
More on Flamesong.