Way, way, way back when I was first scoping out tabletop role-playing games at a local shop, I remember flipping through some Tekumel book or another. Along with Skyrealms of Jorune and a few others, it really stuck in the back of my brain. As I went on to create my Conquest of the Sphere setting, elements of those games (mixed with countless other things) informed me. For all that, I’ve never played any edition of Tekumel as a role-playing game or miniature combat game. So I had a vague sense of the setting, but little more. I did know it had (has) a devout and active fanbase. I acquired some of the role-playing books along they way, and will have to read them one of these days. Thanks to Facebook groups and my renewed activity in the RPG hobby, I figured it was time to dive into Tekumel, one of the first. I’ve owned this book for years, so I finally dug it out of the stacks to give it a read.
M.A.R. Barker’s world-building is deep, and he doesn’t hand-hold you as he throws you into the story. The only thing he does to make the world more approachable is provide the reader with Harsan, a somewhat naive young priest, as a viewpoint character. But even Harsan has a complicated life story, having been orphaned and raised by non-humans, before being passed off to the priesthood. The world-building is easily up there with works like Dune and The Lord of the Rings, and there’s enough character and plot to make it better than something like Janet E. Morris’s Silistra or John Norman’s Gor. Barker’s writing isn’t perhaps the most compelling, but it’s enough to make you keep reading. If there’s a perfect balance of world-building and plot/character, Barker does not maintain that balance, but he’s not so far off as to be unreadable.
The story is interesting, with a cross country journey, multiple factions, secrets within secrets, and high stakes. There’s so much going on, it might be a good idea to create a cheat-sheet with names of people, places, factions, etc. for your reference. There were more than a few times when I was momentarily confused because I’d forgotten who X character was working for, or which faction wanted what.
This is Fantasy, but Fantasy created through crazy Science Fiction concepts, if that makes sense. The humans in this are supposed to be us, but in the ultra, super-far future. Many of the weird creatures that live and war on Tekumel came there, like the humans, from space. Tekumel has somehow been sequestered into a sort of pocket dimension for many, many thousands of years, left to develop in strange and new ways. But again, it is Fantasy. There is magic, the undead (some of the more interesting, gross, and scary undead I’ve seen in a while), and there are gods after a fashion. Like everything else in this, it gets complicated.
Barker wrote several more books, and I’m curious about them. The setting is fascinating and strange, and it really feels like you’re stepping into another world. But it’s not an easy read, and feels a bit daunting. I found it more readable than Tolkien, but not as much as Frank Herbert. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting the world of Tekumel again. I don’t, however, know that I can recommend it to the casual reader. If you want something challenging and way outside the standard knights on horses type of Epic Fantasy, check it out.