The days of adventure are passed for Auric Manteo. Retired to the countryside with his scars and riches, he no longer delves into forbidden ruins seeking dark wisdom and treasure. That is, until old nightmares begin plaguing his sleep, heralding an urgent summons back to that old life.
To save his only daughter, Auric must return to the place of his greatest trauma: the haunted Barrowlands. With only a few inexperienced companions and an old soldier, he must confront the dangers of the ancient and wicked Djao civilization. Auric has survived fell beasts, insidious traps, and deadly hazards before. But can he contend with the malice of a bloodthirsty living god?
First book in the Iconoclasts trilogy, Aching God is the debut novel of RPG adventure designer Mike Shel. He is working on book 2, Sin Eater. The first two chapters of Sin Eater are included at the end of Aching God.
Aching God by Mike Shel is a standout novel with some of the best setting and atmosphere to be found in fantasy. This is classic quest fantasy at its best, and it reminds me strongly of Dragonlance and adventures around the table with my D&D group. This comes as no surprise, since Shel is no stranger to Dungeons & Dragons, having written Pathfinder adventures. He has also practiced as a psychotherapist, with particular attention to anxiety and panic disorders.
Shel puts this understanding of anxiety and panic to work throughout the pages of Aching God. It isn’t often that a story contains detailed characters with plenty of emotional traumas as well as deep, intriguing worldbuilding but Shel has produced the rare story that does both well. The world of Aching God is deep and detailed. The Djao make for an interesting ancient race, and I hope that additional details will be revealed in subsequent books. The religious system is detailed, more so than many other fantasy novels, which is saying something as religion often plays an important role in fantasy literature. What you won’t find, however, is characters that mindlessly follow the gods. Instead, while there are devout characters, Shel does an outstanding job of giving us a protagonist who—while not particularly devout—doesn’t fall easily into a clear category. The atmosphere that Shel crafts in this book is terrifying, especially in the end game and during flashback sequences. There are plenty of truly disturbing scenes, but these aren’t used simply for shock value. Rather they continually ratchet up the stakes which the character face. It seems that the world is at risk of coming apart at the seams. While the world of Aching God is quite dark I found Auric, the main character, easy to connect with. He has a certain nobility about him, but in a very down-to-earth way. I anticipate he will become a character much beloved by fantasy fans. You might imagine that with deep worldbuilding and fascinating, well developed characters the plot took a back seat. That’s not the case here. The plot and pacing are very well done, moving forward with little downtime and coming to a satisfying conclusion. This book has nearly everything one could possibly want in an epic fantasy.
What weaknesses exist in the book are truly more quibbles than actual weaknesses. While the pacing is very well done, there were moments when it did feel a little like each chapter would have made a very nice D&D session. I didn’t particularly mind this, but every once in a while it felt a little too evenly paced. I was also taken out of the story on one occasion when the characters were discussing the distinct character of the Djao language. I have a master’s degree in dead languages though, soooo…I’m also a fan of magic systems and would love to know a bit more about how magic works in this world. As you can see, these are all minor and don’t truly detract from the enjoyment of the read.
At the end of the day, Aching God is a book that grips you and doesn’t let go. Get yourself a copy as soon as you can and settle in for an exciting quest in a dark and deteriorating world. Shel is one to watch. 4.8/5.