The Alexandrian

Tagline: The world of Tékumel is an exciting, interesting, detailed setting — and Flamesong is the perfect showcase of its dynamic potential and rich development.

This review is the third in a series of reviews designed to analyze the Tékumel product line in depth. The first review was a general overview of the Tékumel setting, publishing history, and other miscellaneous information; while the second review discussed Man of Gold, the first of two novels set on Tékumel. This review will discuss Flamesong, the second novel written by Professor M.A.R. Barker.

Flamesong - M.A.R. BarkerMan of Gold, Professor Barker’s first novel set on the world of Tékumel, was an effort composed of many flaws. Contrary to the typical mediocre fantasy novel – in which good writing is undermined by poor world-building skills — Man of Gold had poor writing set within one of the best worlds of fantasy to ever grace speculative fiction. Certainly there is a raw potential there, but it is sadly muted.

Flamesong, on the other hand, is where that potential has been realized. The prose here is stronger, demonstrating a nice flow, balance, and development. The plot is better conceived and structured in a more interesting and involving manner. The characters are interesting and drawn from a broad, believable palette – at times alien, at times familiar; yet always compelling.

[ Spoiler Warning: This review will contain certain spoilers. I’m not going to render the entire plot, but I will discuss events and character development from later parts of the book in some general detail. Proceed at your own risk. ]

Indeed, there are essentially only two noticeable flaws in Flamesong’s quality. They end up, coincidentally, book-ending the text:

First, early in the book there are still certain salacious impulses drawn from the worse side of pulp cliches which put in an appearance. For example, I could go my entire life without having a character “eyeing her angular nudity”. Fortunately, these are severely muted in comparison to their overwhelming presence in Man of Gold — and quickly disappear entirely, to be replaced with a far more interesting exploration of the relationship between love and lust.

Second, the end of the book derails briefly around page 380 into “treatise mode” as we receive a solid block of exposition concerning the mystic “Eyes” of Tékumel. Not only does this disrupt the pacing of the book’s end, but it is also completely unnecessary – the Eyes have already been well established previously in the book. The passage struck me as an artifact from some early draft of the work, which should have been removed as work progressed.

But it is impossible to hold these isolated flaws against Flamesong, which – in every other aspect – deserves respect as a fantasy novel of preeminent quality.

To the average reader, Flamesong is a rompful adventure, set in a fantastic, alien – yet fully developed – world. To the gamer, however, Flamesong is even more valuable.

First, like Man of Gold, its role as a ground-level view of Tékumel makes it invaluable – particularly because the cast of characters is drawn from so wide a variety (ranging from Tsolyanu to Yan Koryani to several non-humans) and the territory covered so diverse.

Second, Flamesong serves as an excellent showcase not only of some of the more exotic elements of Tékumel, but also of the adventure structures which the world invites: The plot includes use of the ancient subway systems, the dungeon-like ruins of the ancient civilization, planar travel, undead armies, royal inheritance, lost kingdoms, the Tsolyanu-Yan Koryani war, and the use of battle magic in that war.

In short: Flamesong is not only a novel of high quality which is real worth reading in its own right, it is also an invaluable resource for the Tékumel gamer – serving as the perfect showcase of a world with dynamic potential and rich development.

Check this one out at your earliest opportunity.

For those of you reading this after it has been placed in the archive and interested in reading the series in sequence, the next review will be of the novel Swords and Glory, Vol. 1: Tékumel Source Book – The World of the Petal Throne.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Professor M.A.R. Barker
Company/Publisher: DAW Books, Inc.
Cost: $3.50
Page count: 412
ISBN: 0-88677-076-9

Originally Posted: 2001/02/01

As I mentioned in my first Tékumel review, the next review never happened. The series ground to a halt here.

I’ve found that there is a “sweet spot” for reviewing a book — a narrow window of time after you finish reading the book or watching the movie in which the review can be properly executed. If I miss that window, you lose the familiarity with the work necessary to properly execute a review. Actually, I’m not sure “familiarity” is the right word. It feels more like there’s a connection that’s formed as you experience a creative work. As time passes, that connection fades away and is replaced with merely the memory of the work. (If that makes any sense.)

This “missed opportunity” is also something that happened with the Lensmen reviews I wanted to write and the Dune reviews that I ended up writing in miniature.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

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One Response to “Ex-RPGNet Reviews – Tékumel: Flamesong”

  1. Aaron says:

    Thank you for reviewing the tekumel products. This book is a blast from the past and one I have enjoyed multiple times. Definitely worthy of future attention despite their obscurity.

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