I finished reading M.A.R. Barker’s The Man of Gold during lunch today.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is weird because I’ve had a paperback copy sitting, unread, on my shelf since 1984. At the time, it was one of many abortive attempts on my part to get into the setting of Tékumel, along with the Gamscience Swords & Glory RPG. At the time, the novel, like the S&G books, were totally impenetrable to me. I’d start, but soon would simply get lost.
Thankfully, the most excellent Tékumel Foundation recently released a Kindle edition of the book, which I promptly purchased and started reading whenever I had a spare moment.
This time around, I was enthralled. Maybe I have more patience now than I did back in ’84. My overall sentiments are similar to what James Maliszewski writes in his review of the book from 2010, though I am more impressed with Barker’s writing, I think.
The book follows Hårsan, a humble priest of the god Thúmis, as he becomes embroiled in the machinations of various powerful people as they search for a legendary artifact of the ancients which could transform the political map of Tékumel. We see our initially naive protagonist tour a good swath of Barker’s world, face its perils, and both find and lose love, all in the process of the frantic hunt for the titular artifact of the book.
A good portion of the novel is an extended dungeon-crawl through the many-layered Tékumelani (if I am using that correctly) underworld. Granted, I didn’t even realize it was a dungeon-crawl until a few chapters in. Maybe I’m slow on the uptake, but I felt like Barker very deftly weaves together what turns into a party of diverse backgrounds and talents searching their way through the buried remains of multiple civilizations. It is claustrophobic, stridently-paced, and eerie. Honestly, it’s probably one of the best depictions of a dungeon-crawl I’ve ever read; it never feels contrived, the fear of survival is constant.
The real star of the book, of course, is the setting. Barker pulls no punches throwing heaps of Tékumel’s alien languages at the reader, and never refrains from providing elaborate detail about his world’s objects, cultures, and philosophies.
Maliszewski puts it perfectly:
However, the world in which the novel takes place is brilliantly vibrant and well-presented. In many ways, it is the star of The Man of Gold and why I continued to read the novel even when its story might otherwise have failed to hold my attention. That’s why I consider The Man of Gold a rare example of a gaming novel that works: it makes me want to play in the world of Tékumel. Better still, it’s quite accessible even to people who’ve never read a single gaming product that described that alien planet and its strange races and cultures.
Extra double-bonus is that, since this is Tékumel, all of the characters in the book are POC. The back-story of Tékumel is that it’s a planet terraformed by humans some 60,000 years from now, and those humans were all South American and Asian. This is a whole planet of people with brown eyes and brown skin. (And a bunch of weird aliens, too.)
The Man of Gold is a great entry point for anyone interested in Tékumel, and a solid read for anyone seeking a novel set in a unique science-fantasy setting and written in a classic SF/fantasy style.
Now I have to figure out what I’m going to do until the next novel is Kindle-ready (which sounds like soon). It may finally be time to tackle those Tékumel RPGs that have been sitting on my shelf for years and years.