Aching God by Mike Shel
Just to get this out of the way: I loved this book!
Aching God is an exciting and atmospheric fantasy tale with strong tabletop RPG roots—which makes sense given that the author has spent years designing Pathfinder RPG adventures. It’s the tale of Auric Manteo, a retired and traumatized veteran of an adventurer’s guild called the Syraeic League. When an artifact brought out of a distant dungeon turns out to be cursed, Auric is called out of retirement to lead a team back to the inhospitable Barrowlands in order to set things to rights.
While the tale is told through the eyes of Auric, it features an ensemble cast of adventurers who are easy to cheer for and always entertaining. Though the world they move through is dark and disturbing, the heroes are properly heroic, embodying principles of friendship, loyalty, and compassion. Auric is never made out to be an unbeatable swordsman, but he’s the perfect leader to shepherd his young team on their harrowing journey. He’s a good man through and through, which is refreshing in the current climate of grimdark anti-heroes. The book’s secondary characters are enjoyable even when their time on the page is brief. (The author is particularly adept with his insane nobility; the Queen of Hanifax, (long may she reign) is creepy and terrifying.)
The world-building is narrow but deep. The plot is straightforward: gather your team, travel to the forbidden temple, go dungeon crawling. It’s a classic quest fantasy. But along the way the author builds up a brilliant setting of religion, politics, and warfare that gives the story meaningful context. And the magic system is right where I like it: the middle ground between a free-for-all and a rigid scholarly system. As such, the sorcerers and healers have abilities that make sense, can occasionally surprise, but never make me roll my eyes at a sudden convenience. As a whole, Aching God has an unabashed D&D vibe without feeling like the author was just reading a transcript of a module.
My favorite part of the book was its atmosphere, the sense of foreboding and growing evil that the reader knows the heroes must eventually confront. We are shown the disastrous results of previous dungeon-crawls through effective flashbacks and retellings, and this only heightens the tension as the party approaches their final task.
The writing itself is strong, tending toward descriptive and at times even flowery language. Inasmuch as the job of an author is to paint pictures in the mind of the reader, Shel does that brilliantly. The scenes inside Djao temples are particularly memorable, but I won’t spoil anything by saying more.
Could I pick some nits with Aching God? I suppose. In hindsight there was an extended action scene on a ship that bulked out an already lengthy (530 page) book, and didn’t feel central to the story—but it was an exciting, well-written action scene, so I didn’t mind it at all while listening. And while the heroes’ success is owed in large part to a single random event, before the book is done, the characters talk specifically about what a lucky break that was. It’s presented in terms that make me think the author is playing a long game, and didn’t bust out a deus-ex-machina out of ill-planned necessity.
Aching God is the first of a planned trilogy, and while it ends satisfactorily on its own, there are plenty of intriguing mysteries left unsolved. Book 2 of the Iconoclasts series, titled Sin Eater, will be a day one purchase for me. Five stars, no question.
Finally: I listened to this book on Audible, and loved the narration by Simon Vance. His voice drips with gravitas, which perfectly suited the story.